Our Holy Dead

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jun 22, 2009 | Categories: Faith, History

What makes a Catholic, a Catholic?

Some people believe an “authentic” Catholic is one who is totally anti-abortion.

Others believe a Catholic identity is found in our social teaching, with its emphasis on justice for the poor, the marginalized, the earth and all creation.

Various Catholic spiritual practices are experiencing a revival: retreats, saying the rosary, fasting and abstinence, parish fish frys during Lent, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, examination of conscience, following the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and more.

Will venerating the body parts of saints and martyrs make a revival? For centuries a normal part of Catholic life was to revere and make pilgrimages to sacred places holding a skull, vial of blood, finger bones, toe nails or a hank of hair of a long-dead person believe holds a special place in Heaven.

Our holy dead.

This past Sunday was the Feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests.

Pope Benedict XVI has declared a “Year for Priests” beginning with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 19, 2009. The year will conclude in Rome with an international gathering of priests with the Holy Father on June 19, 2010.

The Pope has declared St. John Vianney the Universal Patron of Priests on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death of the Curé d’Ars.

The Holy Father isn’t a stranger to St. John Vianney. The book, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, relates that when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he sequestered himself in his apartment with the heart of Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, patron saint of priests.

Three years ago in 2006 the heart of St. John Vianney traveled from France to Cure of Ars Church in Merrick, NY. More than 5,000 people visited from October 7-9 to pray before his heart, and the pastor expected thousands more before the heart left for a stop in Boston on its way back to France.

The heart and Vianney’s chalice was placed at the front of the altar.   People could walk by the relics and pray, or see it during Mass. heart-2

In life, St. John Vianney was a revered 19th-century French clergyman who was said to be blessed with the ability to read the hearts of worshippers.   He was widely known to Catholics as the Cure (parish priest) of Ars. He won over the hearts of his villagers by visiting with them, teaching them about God and reconciling people to the Lord in the confessional.   It was said he heard confessions 16-18 hours a day.   He died in 1859.

When his body was exhumed in 1904 because of his pending beatification, it was found intact.

Fr. Charles Mangano of Cure of Ars Church said there’s a long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church of venerating relics such as the heart of Vianney. But for the uninitiated, he said, think of Elvis Presley.

“People get on eBay and they’ll try to get belongings or artifacts from like Elvis Presley, like people that they idolized, they admired,” the pastor explained.   “Because having something of that person, you know, makes you feel close to them.”

He said for Catholics, “having a relic in our presence, it inspires us because this relic is from the body of a person whose body and soul was for God.”

Venerating the remains of saints and martyrs goes back to the earliest days of the Catholic church, said the Rev. Jean-Paul Ruiz, a professor of theology at St. John’s University.

“When we venerate the relics of saints, it puts us in touch with those persons who we believe are still alive beyond the death of their bodies.”

Fr. Mangano said he first saw the heart last year while on a retreat to Ars–inspired because he is a pastor of s church that honors Vianney.

“It’s an actual heart, 3-D, not in any kind of gel or formaldehyde,” he said. “It’s brownish color.   When you get really close to it, the center is still pinkish-red. Everything else around it is all like browned with age.”

Some of the people who stood in long lines to see the heart described an overwhelming need to see a real miracle. Others said it was a historic moment. And still others–many seminarians and priests–came to thank the Cure of Ars, patron saint of parish priests, for answering prayers during times they struggled with their vocation or ministry.

“I came here to see a miracle,” said Laura Musto, 46, of St. Mary of the Isle Church in Long Beach, referring to the heart. “And we need miracles in today’s world.”

“I came to see the heart of a saint,” said Maria Gilmore, 82, of Sacred Heart Church in North Merrick. “I thought everyone turned to dust but I guess not.”

“We came here on a mini-pilgrimage to be close to his heart, to have a moment of intimacy with the saint,” said Charlie Gallagher, 23, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington who was joined by two classmates, Ted Hegnsuer and Rick Nichols.

“This relic represents who St. John Vianney was and who we aspire to be.   When I kneel before the heart, I will ask St. John Vianney to replace my heart with his heart so I can emulate him,” Gallagher told The Long Island Catholic, the newspaper of the Rockeville Centre Diocese.

But when I saw the a picture of the heart in a newspaper, it reminded me of a bear’s heart I saw in the refrigerator of an Indian family member in Alaska. Like most of the people in the village they mostly lived off the land in the traditional ways and and killed a bear for food. The heart was there in case anyone was hungry and wanted a snack.The Vianney relic looked just like the cold, cooked heart on white plate.

I didn’t go see the heart, even though I live about 45 minutes away from Merrick.

I was more morbidly curious to see a mummified heart than faith-filled, so out of respect I passed. Maybe if it was another body part, like a finger bone, I could have coped. Or, if I went with other people I knew I could justify the visit like a modern day Canterbury Tales pilgrimage. We could have all shared our stories of faith and doubt and sin en route.

But I didn’t know any Catholic who wouldn’t have given a “Huh?” response at the offer to go see a saint’s heart on the middle of Long Island.