by LTC Paul N. Belmont, III, USA
In 1786 Jean Vianney was born in a small village of France where he and his family suffered through the very dark years of the French revolution. The Catholic Faith was widely attacked, churches were destroyed, and bishops, priests and religious were martyred. Being a Catholic was, at that moment in France, so dangerous that young Jean received his First Holy Communion in secret.
Through his youth, Jean found an ever-increasing faith, and after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, a young Jean Vianney entered the seminary where he soon discovered that studies, especially Latin, proved very difficult. It was only through the intervention of a vicar who was more concerned with his piety that his rector was persuaded to allow him to be ordained in 1815.
Vianney was sent to the small village of Ars, France, where he was to oversee a parish of merely 260 people. Through care and devotion to people and tireless ministry to the sacraments for his people, most notably an open ear in the confessional, Father Vianney soon came to be widely known as a willing, able and sought after spiritual counselor. People began traveling from all over France and Europe to seek his counsel, and he was known to spend up to 18 hours a day in the confessional.
It was through this example that after passing on August 4, 1859, he quickly moved through the official path to canonization in the Church. But this would not be the end of his ministry. When he died, his heart was removed in recognition of his burning love for God and for humanity. Somehow someway his heart has remained intact, or “incorrupt” as the Catholic Church calls it, for 160 years since his death and 234 years since his heart first beat.
While Catholics do not teach that relics like the incorrupt heart of Saint Jean Vianney are to be worshiped, something reserved to God alone, the practice of veneration of relics as holy objects are allowed as a reminder that this matter was associated with a saint who now lives in the presence of God. An earthly reminder that we might also be capable of the same. Today the Shrine which usually holds Saint Jean Vianney’s incorrupt heart attracts more than 500,000 visitors each year.
In November of 2018, the Knights of Columbus brought the incorrupt heart of Jean Vianney to America to visit cathedrals, churches, chapels, and seminaries into 2019.
I had been vaguely aware of this mission having seen a passing note about it in relation to the SEEK conference in San Antonio, TX. On Monday 1 April, I received two notes about a holy relic coming to West Point. The first was a Facebook post from the West Point Museum about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. It was a nice laugh on April Fools. At a Knights of Columbus lunch later that day, I was told we had an opportunity to bring Saint Jean Vianney’s Heart to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, on 3 April. All that was needed was a table suitable to hold the 12-inch by 6-inch reliquary – a fancy box that protects the relic during observation and adds a certain degree of dignity to the object.
We worked to contact our priest (MAJ) Father Sean Magnusson and (COL) Father Matt Pawlikowski to see if we would be able to display the relic. A short deliberation later, we determined that the caretaker Brother Knight Evan Holguin’s schedule would allow us to display the relic from 1100 hours until 1500 hours which would providentially fall in the middle of daily Mass on 3 April. A bunch of phone calls later all was coordinated on 2 April. We just hoped we had enough of the word out.
It was an interesting process. Evan arrived at the Chapel at 1050 with the heart, slightly relieved he had not had to go through a significant search at the gate of West Point. Saint Jean Vianney’s Heart was stowed in a large pelican case and locked. We brought the case into Most Holy Trinity, where Father Sean awaited, with a suitable table, and Evan began to prepare the relic for display. He unlocked the case and produced from it, of course, another a locked case. From which he produced a third locked case. Saint Jean Vianney was being brought forth like a Russian doll.
I thought to myself, “wow, that we would show such protection for the Sacred Heart of Jesus which Saint Jean Vianney’s Heart would sit, in all practicality, in reverence of.” The table was placed just off of the altar at the front of the congregation, where it would sit as perhaps the starkest reminder I have seen of the Communion of Saints. It also occurred to me that it was both in some small miracle that Jesus has shown such protection for Jean Vianney’s heart, in the fact that there it sat completely intact 160 years after it stopped beating, but also in the care the embodiment of Christ in his human Church now shown to me as Brother Knight Evan Holguin who had been on the road for about two months flying and driving the heart across the United States.
Looking at Saint Jean Vianney’s heart 234 years from its first beat, I surprisingly found that mine skipped one. Even from a simple form of curiosity it was quite incredible. As we had been setting up, a few people had come into Most Holy Trinity to pray. Nine people had gathered in silence between 1100 and 1130. Some departed and some stayed. Fourteen more people wandered into the Church between 1130 and 1145. Suddenly the silence was broken by the bells of the Church ringing at 1145 to signal the call to worship at 1155. It was like being transported back in time. My two-year-old daughter, whom I had left to play in the Mary’s Garden outside the Church, wandered immediately in and declared, “the bells are ringing…Jesus is coming.”
Between the bells and the the opening prayer for Mass, fifty-seven people had gathered to celebrate. Some no doubt came at this opportunity to see the heart of Saint Jean Vianney and some of the “regulars” were surprised to see something slightly different, and perhaps a few more people than they expected.
It struck me that unlike the normal Catholic tradition of “spreading out” or staying near the back, everyone had been drawn in close to the front of the church, no doubt because of Saint Jean Vianney’s Heart. There always seems to be something appropriate for every occasion in the genius of the Catholic Liturgy. But it’s always a minor miracle that readings that carve up the bible into a rigid three year schedule manage to step up to whatever situation they are presented with. From Isiah “…I will appoint you as a covenant to the people.” The Psalm, “the Lord is gracious and merciful.” But most striking was from the Gospel of John “Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live (Jn. 5:25).” There sat Saint Jean Vianney’s Heart, out of his tomb, and physically present as a reminder of his spiritual presence as part of the Communion of Saints.
During the Mass, Saint Jean Vianney’s heart sat juxtaposed behind the celebrants with the congregation. Saint John Vianney, Patron Saint to Parish Priests, sat with the Congregation as Father Matt and Father Sean offered the Mass, and we joined our offerings with theirs, asking Saint Jean Vianney to pray for Father Sean Magnusson, Father Matt Pawlikowski, Father Rob, and Father Gabe, and all parish priests. As Father Matt declared the Antiphon, and despite the extra attention of an extra heart, the Center of the Mass, all focus remained on the Sacrifice of Christ.
Ensure that Catholic members of the military have the presence of a priest and the sacraments wherever they may be stationed in service to our country.
Donate to the Father McGivney Military Chaplaincy Scholarship fund.