A Pastoral Letter on St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, to be read in all churches and chapels of the Diocese on the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time 1st July 2012
My dear brothers and sisters,
Many of you will remember those extraordinary scenes three years ago in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester which accompanied the visit of the relics of
St Thérèse of Lisieux. This tangible, human connection with one of the great Saints in the Church’s history, not only created crowds but helped to awaken in many hearts the hope of holiness, of continued conversion and of drawing closer to Christ within the great communion of saints. This is because the relics of the Saints serve to remind us of their earthly journey while at the same time pointing us towards the resurrection and the life of the world to come. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us fifty years ago: “being more closely united with Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness … they do not cease to intercede … for us …” (Lumen Gentium 49).
In the long story of Christian England there was a desire never to lose sight of the Saints in whose company we pray and seek salvation. As the Letter to the Hebrews declares: “with so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin which clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started” (Hebrews 12:1).
The devotion of the English people across a thousand years occasioned a ‘geography of saints’ across the length and breadth of this land: from the relics of St Edward venerated at Westminster to the relics of St Cuthbert at Durham.
On Thursday this week a relic of St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, will be brought to our Diocese and to England for the first time. This visit will be on a smaller scale than that of St Thérèse of Lisieux but it will be an invitation for us to pray in the company of this great Parish Priest.
We might ask why in early twenty first century Britain, are we looking to a parish priest who died more than a century and half ago in rural France? Well the answer is found in the witness of popes across the past century including our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, and his Blessed predecessor John Paul II who have wished to raise up this Saint in the sight of the whole Church.
John Vianney was born into a farming family. He struggled to become a priest amid the turmoil of the French Revolution and he served in the tiny parish of Ars for 41 years until his death in 1859. During those 41 years, Ars not only witnessed a radical conversion: it became a centre of pilgrimage to which hundreds of thousands came to seek that same conversion through the ministry of the Curé of Ars. The earthly labours of St John Vianney are now complete but today we seek his assistance from Heaven in prayer for the renewal of the Priesthood, for the renewal of our parishes and for those new and generous vocations for the future.
In 2009, Pope Benedict, in a letter to priests, invited us to “ask the Lord Jesus for the grace to learn for ourselves something from the pastoral plan of St John Mary Vianney”.
We might think of pastoral planning simply in terms of the re-structuring of parishes and Mass times but St John Vianney points us far beyond these practical measures to the real pastoral goals we must never lose sight of: that is, drawing closer to Christ in our lives, and reaching our final goal, Heaven. The visit of the relic to: Manchester and Wythenshawe on Thursday; to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and Birkenhead on Friday; to Northwich and Shrewsbury Cathedral on Saturday; and finally to Birmingham on Sunday will, I hope, serve to awaken in many a renewed desire for conversion and holiness, inviting us all to learn from this humble priest who was truly after “Christ’s own heart”. I invite you to become part of this pilgrimage, the details can be found in the leaflet at the back of church or on the diocesan website. I invite you to join me in prayer especially for our priests, for the renewal of our parishes and for new vocations.
May St John Vianney pray for us all!
Bishop of Shrewsbury