Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
The heart of St. John Berchmans has come from Belgium to spend this week in Louisiana. It’s encased for all to see in a silver and gold reliquary, 18 inches tall. It’s the first time in 395 years the saint’s heart has left Belgium.
This event especially marks the 150th anniversary on Dec. 14 of his apparition in Louisiana to bring a miraculous cure that became the miracle for his canonization.
“This has been so overwhelming,” Father Peter Mangum said during our long conversation. He’s the rector of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, where the event is taking place through Dec. 18. This cathedral is the only cathedral in the world with this young saint as its patron.
“The momentum is growing,” Father Mangum said early Tuesday afternoon. The event had started on Dec. 8 and already “we have given out 10,000 holy cards — one per visitor.”
People filled the cathedral for the arrival of this relic of St. John Berchmans, the patron of youth, altar servers, and students, proving both the timelessness and timeliness of a saint who lived in the early 17th century.
One high school charted eight buses to bring all their students over. Other busses brought groups of people, even from Arkansas, San Antonio and different places in Texas. Many came to the Latin Mass and the opportunity to see and venerate this relic of the 22-year-old St. John Berchmans.
“There is one church in Poland named St. John Berchmans, and the Polish priest made the pilgrimage here,” the rector said.
In one instance, Father Mangum spoke to 450 high schoolers from a Catholic school who came to see the relic. At first they acted or were pretending a bit to not care that much, but then he invited them to come forward to the Communion rail where they have the opportunity to venerate the heart to a saint not much older than they are when he died.
Their reactions were totally different. “Some were staring at the heart, some were pulling scapulars from under their tee-shirts or holding other religious items to touch to the reliquary,” Father Mangum said.
The secular media are being most attentive and exceptionally favorable. Shreveport’s mayor declared St. John Berchmans Day.
All this is happening not in southern Louisiana which is heavily Catholic. “This is north Louisiana, near Arkansas,” Father Mangum explained. “This is the Bible Belt. We are 3.8% Catholics and we are very much missionary territory.”
All the interest in this event is even giving the chance for all those not of the Catholic faith to have their questions about relics answered, even from the early Church Fathers who spoke and taught about relics and their importance.
The Louisiana Miracle
The miracle that led to the canonization of John Berchmans — more on him shortly — happened in 1866 about 200 miles down the road in Grand Coteau. It was at the convent of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
There, a young notice named Mary Wilson, a Catholic convert, was deathly ill. Father Mangum explained she was “emaciated, vomiting blood, couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink.” She suffered excruciating pain. Doctors could do nothing. The sisters in the convent were praying a novena for the intercession of Blessed John Berchmans that she be cured. He had been beatified in 1865.
“On the ninth day of the novena she hadn’t eaten in weeks and doctors said she was at the point of death. Finishing the novena, “the sisters on that ninth day were in the chapel and presuming she would be dead when they left. Mother Superior was expecting her dead,” Father Mangum said, but when they got to her room, she was sitting up in bed.
She told the sisters Bl. John Berchmans “appeared to her, touched her mouth, and she was completely and spontaneously cured. She got out of bed, said she was hungry and wanted to get back to her regular duties. Then she gave a complete description of what took place that day with the apparition and the miracle.”
There was yet a second apparition to her when Bl. John Berchmans appeared shortly after on Jan. 27, 1867. Father Mangum related, “He said you are about to join me in the house for God. Indeed she died suddenly. It was totally unrelated to the disease she had before. The Vatican wanted all this information too.”
The Holy See accepted and approved this for the canonization of John Berchmans which took place on Jan. 15, 1888, making it “the only Vatican appeared apparition to happen in the United States of America,” Father Mangum said.
Identifying John Berchmans
At that time St. John Berchmans also identified himself to Mary Wilson.
He was born in Diest, Belgium in 1599, joined the Jesuits, and died at age 22 in the seminary in Rome on August 13, 1621. He was buried there.
But because the people back in his native Belgium already thought of him as a living saint, the seminary’s rector sent his heart back to Louvain, Belgium.
Father Mangum described how John Berchmans “served Mass multiple times a day. People would go to see him — a walking living saint. He was known for his obedience, chastity, love of Mary and love of the Church.” He noted that it is St. John Berchmans who wrote the Chaplet of the Immaculate Conception.
“Literally, the day he died they made their own makeshift post mortem exam and took his organs out more for the desire of relics than anything else. They couldn’t transport his body from Rome to Flanders then, but one of the priests going in that direction took the heart.”
It didn’t please everyone, though. Father Mangum added this detail: “To this day we have the letter of the Father General of the Jesuit order about how upset he was to take John Berchmans heart ‘without my permission and its being venerated. We don’t want to upset the Holy See. We don’t want to anticipate the canonization of this young brother.’” At the stops at the order’s houses on the way back to Belgium, the Jesuits there on bended knee venerated the heart of their confrere.
150th Anniversary Day
The infirmary where the miracle took place was eventually converted into the Shrine of St. John Berchmans. And for the exact anniversary, Father Mangum brought the heart of the saint there to Grand Coteau for the Mass of celebration.
All the student body of the Schools of the Sacred Heart at Grand Coteau — the Academy of the Sacred Heart for girls and Berchmans Academy of the Sacred Heart for boys — founded in 1821 were to be there along with possibly an overwhelming number of the faithful joining in.
Father Mangum brought out another Jesuit connection because there’s a Jesuit community in Grand Coteau. “In 1902 our parish (of St. John Berchmans) was founded, and the bishop asked of the Jesuits of the Grand Coteau to be the founders of the parish. That’s how we in Shreveport got the name St John Berchmans.” When the diocese was established, the church was named the cathedral.
Not only will St. John Berchmans heart be displayed for veneration, but other rarities connected to his canonization and to the miracle be shown.
Among them, “We have the chasuble Pope Leo XIII wore when he canonized St. John Berchmans, and the Roman Missal he used itself. There was only one made for the entire canonization ceremony,” Father Mangum pointed out.
Father Mangum wore the beautiful white and gold Roman chasuble for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and also processing the relic and he will use the missal for one of the Latin Masses during the event.
“It’s the first time since 1888 these two items were used,” he said. The chasuble is from Belgium, inscribed inside by the makers. The Vatican gave the chasuble to the church where St. John Berchmans was baptized and where they keep it in a little museum. Father Mangum has been there twice. The missal Leo XIII used is kept in a church in Chicago.
There are original documents related to the canonization, and a display of antique holy cards and medals — all of St. John Berchmans.
“I wanted people to see there are a variety of languages and different time periods [honoring the saint],” the rector said. “The oldest is from 1745 when he was declared venerable.”
And on Dec. 16-18, joining the event will be 167 relics of other saints that Father Carlos Martins of the Treasures of the Church is bringing.
“It’s going to augment the celebration,” Father Mangum emphasized. People will learn about the theology of relics. There will even be a comic strip artist with a personal devotion to St John Berchmans who work is all about St. John Berchmans life, virtues, death and miracles — many there are — in this different form of evangelization for youth.
All about Heart
“Everything came together so beautifully,” observed Father Mangum, beginning even on his second trip to Belgium on pilgrimage to where the saint’s heart has been kept. When asked, the Jesuit custodian decided to allow the saint’s heart to travel to Louisiana for this milestone anniversary of the canonization miracle.
Not only are people coming in droves to venerate the heart of St. John Berchmans, but to top it off the cathedral received a letter from Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State on behalf of Pope Francis, that the Holy Father prays “by the intercession and example of Saint John, the hearts of many will be converted to a deeper love of the Lord Jesus and a fervent desire to conform their lives to his holy will.”
And because St. John Berchmans was studying for the priesthood and is patron of youth, Father Mangum said the pope also prayed “that the youth who venerate his heart will open their hearts, listen to God’s voice and courageously respond.” Francis added his apostolic blessing to all coming there.
From the Vatican, Cardinal Edward O’Brien, Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, is coming to celebrate the closing Mass on Sunday. Since St. John Berchmans is also patron of altar servers, Father Mangum said that nearly 150 responses have already come in from all the altar servers in the diocese invited to be there.
He finds much more to tell at the heart of this exhibit.
“I been talking so much about Scripture,” he said. “There’s at least a thousand references to the heart — how it’s the seat of the soul, how we encounter God and his laws written upon our hearts.”
Then he repeats one St. John Berchmans favorite quotes — Whenever I think of Jesus and his Mother, it so sets my heart on fire.
“I like that,” said Father Mangum, “because of his love for Jesus and Mary. And also because it refers to his heart — and we have his heart.”