Incorrupt relic a sign that God's love 'comes to us through human beings,' Archbishop Vigneron says

DETROIT — The line stretched around both sides of the church, out the doors and through the narthex of St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township as scores of faithful stood for more than an hour to catch a glimpse of the very heart of a very holy priest. 

Throughout the day Saturday and Sunday, people waited their turn to kneel and pray before the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney, a 19th-century French priest who ministered in the small farming community of Ars, where he served as a humble model for the priesthood.

The saint’s heart was available to parishioners at the northern Macomb County parish on March 30 and at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit on March 31 for veneration as part of the national “Heart of a Priest” tour sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.

The Ponce family touches holy cards and objects to the reliquary containing the heart of St. John Vianney at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit on March 31. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“This tour is important because relics remind us that the love of God, our Father, through Jesus, comes to us through human beings,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron told Detroit Catholic following Sunday's Mass at Sacred Heart. “The heart is a symbol of how devout St. John was and how he gave his whole life to sharing the love of Jesus to the people in the little village of Ars.”

Archbishop Vigneron incensed the relics during the annual Rose Mass for health care professionals at the seminary, referencing the revered priest during his homily about what it means to be dedicated to serving others.

See more photos of the relic pilgrimage in Detroit

“St. John’s fidelity to his people, even in those early years of his priesthood when the people didn’t appreciate his efforts, is a reminder that thus it was with Jesus himself — that even to the end, he loved us and prayed for the people who put him to death. As priests, even if we don’t see the fruit of our dedication, God will still bring good fruit from that, because that is the way God works.”

The national tour’s two stops in the Archdiocese of Detroit allowed Catholics from all corners of the region to come and venerate the relic. Many brought holy objects, prayer cards, rosaries and miraculous medals to touch to the reliquary.

Christin Woodsum of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth attended Mass at Sacred Heart with her husband, Jonathan, and seven children to pray for St. John Vianney’s intercession.

The saint's heart, which has resisted corruption for more than 150 years since St. John Vianney's death, is a modern sign that God's love is poured out through human beings, Archbishop Vigneron said. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“One of the interesting things about the Catholic faith is the fact there are miracles associated with the saints, like incorrupt hearts, that people have prayed to and have been healed from,” Woodsum said.

“Once we took a pilgrimage to Johnstown, Pa., to venerate St. Maximilian Kolbe’s beard hairs, and that was a great teaching moment,” Woodsum said. “So whenever there is an opportunity to reinforce our faith, to venerate it, to have the saint be an intercessor for our prayers, we take advantage of it.”

St. John Vianney’s heart usually rests at a shrine named for him at Ars, France, where millions of pilgrims visit annually. The national tour is an opportunity for Catholics to venerate the heart of the patron of parish priests in their own backyard, so to speak.

“It really is an extraordinary blessing and overwhelming to see the response from the community,” said Fr. Tim Mazur, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish. “To see the tremendous number of young people who have come out, it reminds me that our Church is in really good shape.”

Fr. Tim Mazur, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township, holds up the reliquary for public veneration during Mass at the parish on Saturday afternoon. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Fr. Mazur said it was a special blessing for the parish community to host the relic of their patron, which attracted pilgrims from all across the area.

“When you read the stories of St. John Vianney and how people used to travel from all over to see him, it really models what is happening today,” Fr. Mazur said. “To have the patron of our parish here in Shelby Township of all places, it is hard to put it in words. As the patron saint of parish priests, right now we really need his intercession for strength and healing of the priesthood.”

Before Archbishop Vigneron celebrated Mass Sunday morning at Sacred Heart, the seminarians had the chance for a private hour of devotion with the relic. 

“St. John Vianney holds a lot of weight for all us seminarians who are studying for the priesthood,” said John Sira, a second-year seminarian for the Diocese of Saginaw. “A lot of us have a devotion toward him — our theology hall is named after him. And the relic is the heart, so we have the heart of the patron of priests here at the Heart.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron offers Communion during a Rose Mass at Sacred Heart Major Seminary with the relics of St. John Vianney on March 31. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

The veneration of relics doesn’t mean Catholics are worshiping the body parts of saints, Sira explained, but using their earthly remains as signs that God uses ordinary people to carry out His extraordinary will. 

Those people who did God’s will are now in heaven, Sira said, able to intercede to God on the faithful’s behalf.

“Veneration is like lifting up the lives of the saints, praying to them, asking for them to pray for us,” Sira said. “So this veneration is really unique in our faith, because you can ask someone who is in heaven to pray for us.”

“For those living and growing in the faith, especially those in the discernment process, thinking about becoming a priest, we pray to St. John Vianney that we can become holy like him, to be a devoted servant like him. And spending time with his relic, just being in his presence, draws a great power for all of us faithful here on earth.”