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 a Priest” nationwide relic tour of the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney, Curé of Ars, the patron of priests, fittingly launched at St Mary Church in New Haven, Connecticut, on Nov. 16-18 with a “Triduum of Purification.”
Why this promising start?
“Essentially the Church in recent months in this country is going through difficult times. The sexual abuse crisis, the clergy sexual abuse, is very much in the headlines and on the hearts of many of the Catholic faithful,” Dominican Father John Paul Walker, the pastor of St. Mary’s, explained. “I felt it important that we as a parish gather together in this way for several days of prayer — to pray for the crisis, to pray for our Church, and to pray for God’s blessings for what we’re going through right now, with a different focus on each night.”
Since the Knights of Columbus are sponsoring this six-month national tour of the major relic of St. John Vianney’s incorrupt heart which the Shrine of Ars, France has entrusted to them, it was only fitting for it to begin at St. Mary’s Church, where the Knights were founded by another parish priest, Servant of God Father Michael McGivney.
Father Walker described how the focus of the first night of this triduum was on “those harmed, the victims, the survivors of clergy sex abuse, to pray for their healing.” The second night “to pray for repentance and penance.” Sunday night’s focus was on “purification and holiness and moving forward.”
Each night the church was filled as people came to pray and venerate the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney. Before the three-hour Sunday conclusion began Father Walker said that Friday and Saturday were already “very powerful for people. Those who spoke to me were extremely thankful we were organizing this and genuinely moved by the experience.”
Sunday saw a repeat as people filled the church and came even from beyond the area to take part in this vigil of purification. Faith Garvey came from her upstate parish of St. Augustine 40 miles away in South Glastonbury. “It was such a grace to be here to pray for all our priests, bishops, and cardinals throughout the world,” she said.
Powerful Sunday Night
Throughout nearly three hours of prayer and preaching, double rows of faithful lined the church’s center aisle, waiting their turn to kneel on one of three prie-dieux around the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney encased in a large gold reliquary designed like a church building. The saint’s heart was removed 45 years after he died and remains incorrupt.
Behind the reliquary was a large icon of the saint commissioned earlier this year by the Knights’ Supreme Council especially for this tour.
Whether standing in line or sitting and kneeling in pews, people from the elderly to young children in families prayed the Rosary, a different mystery each hour — Joyful, Luminous, and Glorious. The Father McGivney Council of the Knights from St. Mary’s that dates to the founding of the organization led the Rosary during the second hour. Other prayers such as they Litany of the Holy Spirit filled the evening too.
Each hour was dedicated to a different theme: Conversion and Personal Holiness, Sanctification of Bishops and Priests, and Perseverance and Holiness of Seminarians. The hour began with short readers from John Vianney’s writings, except for one “replacement” with St. John Paul II’s Letter on the Curé of Ars to All Priests of the Church.
Father Patrice Chocholski, rector of the Shrine of Ars and St. Jean Vianney’s successor as Curé d’Ars, gave reflections each hour on different aspects of the saint’s life and his extraordinary charism concerning the sacrament of Confession.
Father Chocholski emphasized how “in his time he tried to become the love of Jesus’ heart” to all the people. This shining example of the patron saint of priests should help inflame all priests to be and bring “the heart of Jesus love to the world.”
He went on to remind again that priests “become his heart in the world.” John Vianney gave the example of what the heart of a priest should be.
Father Chocholski shared the timeless words of St. John Vianney that were meant to build up poor sinners and encourage them on the narrow road that leads to salvation. Who wasn’t uplifted to hear that John Vianney said, “The saints don’t all start well, but they finish well.”
In the saint’s case, “he was aware of walking with Jesus all the time,” Father Chocholski added. That, again, is example for not only priests but for all of us on our personal route of holiness.
The preacher noted also how John Vianney’s whole being was attuned to the mercy of God which came like an overflowing stream. He was the first to experience the Divine Mercy which he then brought to countless others as he heard confessions up to 18 hours a day when people from all over Europe streamed to his confessional in Ars to “experience the love and mercy of God.”
The preacher reminded everyone that this lesson shows “if you have the experience of the Divine Mercy in you, you will bring the healing to others.” Again, a lesson not only for priests but to everyone, so necessary for a time of healing that needs to go on.
Many stories of this patron of priests at work and in life, especially on the mercy of God and the way he brought that mercy to others, also highlighted these reflections. Without mentioning the reason for the triduum, it was an indirect way to think about the scandals which had nothing at all of God’s love and mercy in them.
Looking to the fruits that this opening of the tour and triduum can bring to help both the parish and the Church, Father Walker reflected, “Moments like this triduum are moments of profound graces that come from gathering together and praying. The effect of that grace is going to be something that continues to blossom and grow in the parish and the Church in general in the wider sense in the weeks and months ahead.”
That is a goal of the Knights, too, for this “Heart of a Priest” tour.
“But we — like all Catholics — are painfully aware of the wreckage that ensues when elements of this leadership are abdicated by evil actions whether directly perpetrated or covered up,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson wrote in his letter to all chaplains and Knights when the tour was about to take shape. He quickly gave a response the Knights will give. “The Knights of Columbus — laymen, priests and chaplains together — will have an important role to play in rebuilding the Church. We must commit the Knights of Columbus to work for repentance, reform and rebuilding of the Church.”
Nationwide Tour Ready to Go
Anderson explained in his letter that the Shrine at Ars offered the Knights the possibility of the tour some months before the recent scandals. They naturally agreed. “We now welcome as providential this opportunity to invoke the intercession of the patron of parish priests, whose holiness and integrity is a singular model for clergy,” Anderson wrote.
That message will echo across the country at each stop on the tour that, while opening in November with some stops in December, official begins in January and runs early June 2019. There are prayer cards with prayers for priests and an official foldout too.
The stops set so far are at the Knights of Columbus Museum, also in New Haven, on Nov. 19-21 and 23-25; St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, on Nov. 28; St. Rita Catholic Church in New Orleans, Dec. 1-2; Basilica of St. Michael in Pensacola, Florida, Dec. 3-4; Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Alabama, Dec. 5-6; Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Atlanta, Dec. 7-8; Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, Dec. 9-12; and Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Gales Ferry, Connecticut, Dec. 13. Check for frequent updates, as new stops are added constantly at the Knights website site, KofC.org/Vianney.
Watch closely. May they all be as successful. Attend one of these events to venerate the relic of a great, humble saint, a model of holiness. To pray for holiness for our priest and bishops. To pray for reform. And to pray for personal holiness for yourself, family and loved ones.