Fr Christopher Matthews is sub dean of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady Help of Christians and St Peter of Alcantara, Shrewsbury, and Master of Liturgical Ceremonies of Shrewsbury diocese. Here he explains how you can take part in the the visit of St John Vianney’s relic arriving on our shores today, even if you can’t leave your house:
“Isn’t it all a bit gruesome?” asked one of my parishioners after Sunday Mass, when I mentioned the visit of the heart of St John Vianney. This first visit to Britain of the relic of St John will draw many people, some out of curiosity, others out of devotion, and many to celebrate the sacraments. With the large numbers of people expected to pass by, and pause to pray before the heart, it would be very tempting for those charged with organising the visit to place the relic in a position of prominence and leave the crowds to file past. That, however, would be to miss the point and to do a disservice to the Curé of Ars.
Bishop Mark Davies has recently said he “would regard this visit as a success if only a handful of people are invited to deeper prayer, to a more serious consideration of their vocation and are inspired by the example of one of the greatest saints in our history, who drew so many people to Christ through his own example and ministry”. It is that drawing of people to Christ that is at the centre of this visit. The presence of the heart among us is a great focus for prayer, but should also point us beyond St John, beyond ourselves, and direct us towards Christ. In his later years, the Curé while preaching would point to the tabernacle in the small church of Ars and say “He is here”, visibly directing people to the Lord; this is what St John did during his earthly life and continues to do now.
There is no greater way to meet Christ than in the celebration of Mass, to be nourished from the twin tables of the Word and the Eucharist. That is why the source and summit of each day of the visit is the celebration of Mass, the same Mass that St John celebrated with such reverence and devotion each and every day. “Without the Holy Eucharist there would be no happiness in the world; life would be insupportable. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive our joy and our happiness,” said St John.
It is that deep sense of joy that we hope to thank God for at the opening Mass of the visit. It is an opportunity to celebrate the gift of the sacred priesthood, to give thanks with our diocesan jubilarians, those priests celebrating significant anniversaries of ordination, (who between them have over 300 years of priestly service to celebrate) and to remember the words of the Curé of Ars: “O, how great is the priest! If he realised what he is, he would die.” Those were the words of one who struggled on his own journey to ordination. I know Bishop Davies prays for his priests every day. Perhaps we too should follow his example and pray for our priests.
One of the most important elements of St John’s ministry in the town of Ars was in the confessional. There he would spend up to 16 hours a day listening to not only his own parishioners, but the many pilgrims, who came to him to be reconciled to God. When we began to plan for this visit, we were told that the heart of St John Vianney always sees great numbers returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Throughout the days that the heart is with us, there will be the opportunity to celebrate Reconciliation. Priests will be available for those who wish to be renewed through the grace of this great sacrament.
The second and third days of the visit we are invited to pray for the renewal of our parishes, the priesthood and for vocations. When the young John Vianney was appointed as the Curé of Ars, he set about renewing the parish, preaching the love of God to his parishioners, who were his first responsibility. The renewal of our parishes will bring with it an increase in vocations. After all, it is from our own parish communities that those called by the Lord to religious life and priesthood come. This is a prayer focus that must remain long after the heart of St John has left this country and returned to Ars.
The Friday of the visit is the national day, to which Bishop Davies has invited us all. The relic is being hosted by Archbishop Patrick Kelly at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool. This will be a day to pray for our parish communities, to celebrate Morning Prayer together, to be nourished by the Eucharist at Mass, and to pray Evening Prayer of the Church as the family of God.
The Mass being celebrated on the Saturday in Shrewsbury Cathedral will be the Mass of St John Vianney, using the readings and prayers of his feast day. It is no coincidence that the response to the psalm that day is taken from St Mark’s Gospel: “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News” (Mk 16:15). For that is exactly what St John Vianney spent his life doing: proclaiming the Good News, enabling others to recognise God’s love for them. We are each called to take on this task at our baptism and we are reminded of this in the prayer for his feast day: “That through his intercession and example we may in charity win brothers and sisters for Christ and attain with them eternal glory.”
There are many opportunities to gather together in the presence of the relic of this great saint. All the events are open to the public, but if you are unable to be with us in person then you can follow this historic visit on the Diocese of Shrewsbury website (Dioceseofshrewsbury.org). You will also be able to watch some of the major events as they are streamed live on the internet.
Having the relic of St John’s heart among us is a great opportunity for us to venerate the saint, to ask for his intercession and to be that focus for prayer. The times of veneration will be punctuated with short public prayers, reminding those gathered that it is not St John Vianney we have come to see, but the one to whom he directs us, Jesus Christ, for He is the focus of and at the heart of this visit: “He is here!” Prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments were at the heart of St John’s earthly life; as we are privileged to have the opportunity to be in the presence of the relic of this great saint, it is only right that prayer, the celebration of Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation should be at the heart of this historic visit.
We may never know the full legacy of this visit, but we can pray that it will bring many blessings and be a time of grace for the Church. May St John Vianney, Curé of Ars and patron saint of priests, pray for us all.
This article is reproduced courtesy of The Catholic Herald.
(Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Belley-Ars)