My sister sent a text last week, a link to schedule information about a relic that's coming to the United States in September. I Googled the saint connected with it, and boy, it was a rough story about Maria Goretti. an eleven year-old child who was murdered in 1902. The event that followed her death was even more startling and it brought about transformation and redemption. I know little more than nothing about relics, but I encountered one in 2006 that I will never forget.
My court reporting job ended early, a special perk on a beautiful day. Perhaps the drivers ahead of my vehicle were rubbernecking, but traffic slowed to a crawl. That's when I noticed there was a line wrapping around the Cure of Ars Roman Catholic Church in Merrick, New York. Something unusual had to be happening, because people just kept lining up to be admitted inside. Intrigued, I found a parking spot and jumped on the end of the line, inconspicuously inquiring: So what's the line for?
It was a holy relic, a woman told me, that everybody was waiting to see. The heart of St. John of Vianney had been brought to America by the Bishop of Ars, France. I nodded like, oh yeah, that's what I would have expected this line was for.
Whatever may be said about being Catholic, as big as the church is, one can blend within the flock, or choose to get involved in various ministries and projects. But that's where the blending ends. We stick out everywhere else as the folks that even Christians want to fix or convert. And I suppose the story I'm telling could elicit more of the same. But here goes...
Fr. John Vianney passed away in 1859, and after several decades, his body was exhumed because he was being declared a saint: canonized. His body was found in tact. And now, over one century later, we were entering a church where his heart would be enclosed in a glass case, yet visible. And while it's survival was miraculous, it still seemed a bit... forgive me... creepy.
On a retreat several years ago, a priest who gave the talks said to look around at the depictions of saints hanging on the walls. And I observed what one might expect to see, eyes looking up towards heaven and pinched expressions. He smiled.
They didn't walk around with those looks on their faces, he said. They had extraordinary faith and devotion, but they were flesh and blood human beings. They made mistakes. They sinned. They suffered and struggled. And some of the struggle can't be sent up on a spiritual elevator or bypassed. It has to be walked through, he said. He knew something about that. He was an alcoholic in recovery, who depended on God's help to keep his sobriety.
Because of the number of people in front of us at The Cure of Ars Church, the pew we were led into was now in the balcony, but it was perfect because I had an unobstructed view of the alter. St. John of Vianney's story unfolded quickly once we were all seated in the clean, brightly lit church. But nine years later, I'm not pulling all this up from memory. I did a little research.
John Vianney lacked the academic makings of a priest and found Latin to be a special headache, but he persevered in his vision to become a priest and was eventually ordained. He was then relegated to exercise his gifts in the remotest of locations in France, the small village of Ars.
Humble and deeply devoted to God and his people, Fr. Vianney was given the gift of seeing into souls, a divine insight into the confessor's heart, and people traveled by the thousands and from all around the world to line up for confession, sometimes waiting for days. This included Bishops and dignitaries. He was known to minister the Sacrament of Penance for twelve to eighteen hours a day.
Fr. Vianney knew remarkable details of people's lives without ever being told, yet the confessional was never vacant. That may have been the first miracle right there, through him, people lost the weights they carried, and they reconciled to God. It's said that people returned home filled with joy.
St. Maria Goretti's story doesn't deviate too much from St. John of Vianney's, because, like his story, her's centers on forgiveness and redemption. It can be read here, along with a letter that the converted perpetrator left to the world: Who is St. Maria?
Looking at the clock at this writing, there's just a few minutes to go before the calendar date changes. But for the next few minutes, it's still St. John of Vianney's feast day: August 4th!