Today we welcome the relic of a saint to Shrewsbury. All those who know something of the story of this historic town will appreciate the echoes of history in that statement. It was to this town of Shrewsbury eight centuries ago that the relics of another saint, Winefride of Holywell, were brought to inspire prayer and pilgrimage. This event is recorded in the beautiful stained glass windows of St Winefride’s Chapel beside me and, of course, famously or perhaps infamously re-told in the Cadfael novels. St Winefride a young woman who heroically bore the marks of violence for her faithfulness inspired a renewed faithfulness and quiet heroism in a countless number of pilgrims who passed through these streets of Shrewsbury.
Many associate medieval pilgrimages merely with their economic benefits in bringing a flow of trade and visitors. Yet this represents a one-dimensional vision of the past. The reality was, I am sure, much deeper, much richer. The relics of the saints and their pilgrimages contributed to the spiritual development of the people of this region and far beyond. As recent historians observe everyday life was intertwined with the communion of the saints, in their feast days and in their prayerful concern for the practicalities of everything from childbirth to manual labour. The pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints, which brought so many pilgrims to Shrewsbury, allowed a release from everyday tasks. People could step back from everyday preoccupations and see the priorities of life anew in the light of eternity.
The pilgrimage which similarly led many hundreds of thousands to Ars, a tiny village of no more than 230 inhabitants, took place during St John Vianney’s own life-time. Many like those pilgrims of centuries past sought a new beginning in their Christian lives by the help of his priestly ministry. Today this pilgrimage, we might say, is reversed: the relic of the heart of the Curé of Ars comes to us. His is a heart which points us to where our own hearts must surely be placed. Physical healings were recorded at Ars but the real miracle was the conversion of hearts not only in that once indifferent parish but in those vast crowds for whom Christ the Lord felt such compassion in Gospel (Mt.9:35-10:1). Christ’s compassion was thus extended to many in the heart of a priest who gave himself tirelessly for their salvation. Fr. Vianney eventually had to start his day at one o’clock in the morning when his lantern would promptly appear as he made his way to the church. Meanwhile, the crowds “harassed and dejected” were even at that hour ready and waiting to hear words of hope or kindly warning, and words of absolution and healing that only a priest can bring.
It is the Saints who enable us always to regain our bearings in this way, to see where the priorities of our own time should be placed. It is always with a certain wonder that I always glimpse from an aircraft the lights of our cities as one comes into land. The saints are just like that: those countless points of light seen from an aircraft window allowing us to glimpse the goal and destination towards which we are journeying. They reflect for us the one light of Jesus Christ in so many human lives, times and circumstances. In this way they not only show us the goal but more, how to reach it. The Curé of Ars would himself reflect that not all the saints started well. But they all finished well, and however we may have started we must finish well – we must all of us in the end finish as saints.
In a meeting marked today by a monument in the fields outside the village St. John Vianney asked a shepherd boy the way to the Ars. He famously told him: “My young friend, you have shown me the way to Ars. I shall show you the way to Heaven.” From the first moment of his arrival in the parish his clear, supernatural aim was to help the people of Ars attain Heaven, which as the Catechism says, is “the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme and definitive happiness” (CCC 1024) “to be with Christ forever” (CCC 1025). To understand this hope is to understand both St. John Vianney’s and, indeed, the whole Church’s mission. “How beautiful, how great” the Curé would say, “to know, to love, to serve God. We have nothing but that to do in this world. Anything we do apart from that is a waste of time.” Like the sentry the Lord wished to appoint in his prophets (Ezk.3:16), St. John Vianney would unhesitatingly warn of sin. Yet his formula for holiness was a remarkably simple and practical one: “do only what you can offer to God.”
In this the Curé of Ars would “tax his ingenuity” as Blessed John Paul II put it (Letter to Priests 1986). He would tax his ingenuity to respond to his parishioner’s spiritual, moral and social needs. This was truly a “new evangelisation” in Ars where every method would be employed. His parish became what Leon Christiani calls a scene of battle, but one in which always at the centre of this struggle were the means of grace. “The happiness of Heaven,” the Curé insisted “was easy to acquire; the good God has furnished us with so many means” (Little Catechism “On Paradise”). “It is in the Church,” the Second Vatican Council reminded us “that the fullness of the means of salvation” has been deposited. It is in her that “by the grace of God we acquire holiness” (CCC 824).
Pope Benedict has observed how in all his pastoral activity the Curé of Ars created a “virtuous circle” from the Altar to the Confessional, “he sought in every way, by his preaching and powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence” (Letter to Priests 2008). In this was to be found the path to holiness, the way to Heaven, and he wanted the people of Ars to share it. His was a truly and uncompromisingly pastoral approach. He knew exactly where his people were and where they had long drifted, and he knew clearly where he must now lead them! He would one day happily refer to the parish cemetery as a sacred reliquary: the place where the earthly remains of the saints of his parish now rest.
I wonder whether this perspective of eternity, the hope of Heaven, the goal of holiness, which the Second Vatican Council reminded us is “a universal call,” is quite so clear in our pastoral planning as it was in the mind and heart of this pastor truly after the Heart of Jesus? “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation” the Second Vatican Council declared “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state – though each in his own way – are called by the Lord to the perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” (LG 11:3). We have no other goal on this earth as Pope Benedict the children of Great Britain. “There is something I very much want to say to you. I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century” the Holy Father said in the Big Assembly. “What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness” (St. Mary’s University College 17th September 2010). May St. John Vianney, a Saint for priests, a Saint for parishes, a Saint for the new evangelisation of our land, speak to our hearts and show us, with all the saints, “the way to Heaven.” Amen.