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A Road Trip with the Heart of St. John Vianney

St-John-Vianney
(Photo by Kathryn Costello)

Evan’s job this year has been to help host a national tour of a remarkable relic: the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney. Here, he shares some of his experiences driving around the country with the heart of this holy man and observing how people respond to it. 

My first full-time job out of college was to travel around the country with another man’s heart in a case in the passenger seat of my car.

Before you conjure up an image of me involved in the mob, let me explain that I work for the Knights of Columbus and part of my job this past year included transporting a sacred relic around the country — the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney.

The Knights of Columbus were invited to conduct a tour of the relic through the United States. Since then, it’s traveled just about anywhere you can imagine — often in the passenger seat of my car, as I have served as one of the principal custodians of the heart. My job was keeping an eye on the heart, which involved long drives between events and even longer hours sitting in church pews.

You notice a few things driving around the country with someone’s heart in your car — especially when that heart beat inside someone who was known for being a holy man; especially when that heart drew hundreds of thousands of people to make a journey to spend some time in prayer before it. Here are a few observations.

I learned a lot about St. John Vianney, who was a priest in France in the 18th century, and why people were so interested in connecting with him. He spent his whole life as a priest in Ars, a small farming village in the middle of nowhere — he was sent there because he was a humble, quiet man and his superiors didn’t have confidence he’d do well with a larger, more “important” congregation.

But he loved the people of his village and decided to lead them by example. He prayed and fasted for them, and visited them when they were sick. John also had keen insight into the human heart — he could offer guidance with only a few words that would change someone’s life. It made him a pro in the confessional booth — in fact, word got out and so many people came to see him for confession that he spent more than 12 hours a day hearing people’s sins.

He died in 1859, and since then his whole body has avoided decay in an extraordinary way, a sign of holiness known as incorruptibility. There is no preserving agent used on the heart, and in a lot of ways, it looks unassuming. It is dark — the color of dried blood — and smaller than expected. Its owner was a Frenchman from the Napoleonic age who often ate only potatoes, and so his heart reflects his small physical size. Rather than sitting in his chest, the heart now sits delicately in satin and is surrounded by a very old gold-and-glass box. If you didn’t know what it was, you might walk past it.

A relic is some object connected to a saint (a part of their body, or something they touched) that we venerate to feel connected to men and women who showed heroic virtue in their lives. We don’t pray to relics, but we recognize that they are holy because they were connected to a holy person. Very connected, in some cases — like the heart that pumped blood through John Vianney’s body.

John’s heart was removed approximately 40 years after his death during the canonization process by which the Church declares someone a saint. In that time, it was a common practice to remove the heart of holy or powerful men and women, like St. Andre Bessette or King Richard the Lion-Heart.

Except for when it is sent out on tour, John’s heart is normally kept in a shrine in Ars. The irony is that during his life, John never traveled farther than 10 miles away. Now, after his death, however, his heart has been to more than half of the states in America. And to think, as my first job out of college, I had a front row seat to that travel!

To say the experience was extraordinary would be an understatement, and not just because of the remarkable preservation of the heart or the sanctity of John Vianney. I witnessed how this small and unassuming heart has the power to create, foster, and unify a community. And through my travels I was able to join in these communities in a profound way, even if just for a couple hours.

I witnessed a moving encounter that happened at a parish in Hacienda Heights, California, named after St. John Vianney. The church was set on fire seven years ago. It is not hard to imagine, especially in light of the recent fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, what it is like to see your church go up in flames. Yet, the parish community wasn’t defeated by its loss.

The parishioners continued to come together weekly for Mass, sometimes even under a tent. The rebuilding process was slow, taking almost a full seven years until the people there once more had a building in which they could pray together. In this first year in their new parish home, they came out in droves to welcome the heart of their patron saint — thousands stood in lines that curved around the parking lot.

I was captivated by how far the parish had come, from smoldering ashes to a full and vibrant community united with its patron.

Another time, I was closing an event in New Hampshire after everyone had departed, and I was getting ready to drive the heart to Massachusetts. Someone stopped me in the parking lot: “Wait! Please! Is that the relic?”

It was a mother with her young daughter running towards me. She explained how she had arrived that morning to see the relic, only to be called away by a family emergency. She had hoped she had arrived in time to venerate it before she left. There, in that parking lot, I removed the reliquary from its protective travel casing and watched as the woman instructed her daughter on how to make the sign of the cross.

Those were some of my favorite moments — watching a mother or father teach their children how to say a prayer or how to make the sign of the cross. It is a beautifully intimate insight into family life, a tangible way the faith is handed on. Because I was often far from my family and friends as I journeyed with this heart, I cherished these moments as a small reminder of my own family life.

Though the stories above might have been my favorite, they certainly aren’t the extent of the impact that John Vianney made during his heart’s eight months in the United States. In total, the relic visited almost 200 different communities — churches, monasteries, homes for the sick, and more. If you enjoyed these stories, you’ll find more documented on social media under #HeartofaPriest

Editor’s note: Evan Holguin is employed by the Knights of Columbus. 

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