MERRICK, N.Y. — In life, St. John Vianney was a revered 19th-century French clergyman who was said to be blessed with the ability to read the hearts of worshippers. In death, his own heart has become an object of worship.
For reasons unknown, Vianney’s body never decayed after death, and his heart and body have been encased in separate glass reliquaries in France for more than a century.
The heart is being brought to the U.S. for the first time this weekend in what the pastor of the Long Island church hosting the relic calls a "historical moment for our country, our diocese, our church."
The Rev. Charles Mangano of Long Island’s Curé of Ars church said pastors from some of the Roman Catholic parishes around the country that bear Vianney’s name are flying in for the occasion, and thousands of worshippers are also expected.
The heart and Vianney’s chalice will be placed at the front of the altar, where people can alternately walk past the relics and pray, or attend various Masses and other events commemorating the visit. The brownish heart, with just a hint of pink in the middle, sits in a small glass case.
After five days of services beginning tomorrow, the heart will be taken to a parish in Boston before returning to France.
There are about 50 parishes in the United States named for Vianney, but the church in Merrick was the first in the U.S. to be named in his honor, Mangano said. The saint’s heart is being brought to the suburban community by Bishop Guy Bagnard, bishop of Belley, Ars-France, to help the parish celebrate its 80th anniversary.
Vianney was the 19th century Curé (curate, or pastor) of the village of Ars in France, and died there in 1859. When his body was exhumed in 1904 because of his pending beatification, it was found intact. Except for one time in 1925, when the heart was taken to Rome for Vianney’s canonization, it has never left France.
Mangano says there’s a long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church of venerating relics such as the heart of Vianney, the patron saint of priests. But for the uninitiated, he said think of Elvis Presley.
"People get on eBay and they’ll try to get belongings or artifacts from like Elvis Presley, like people that they idolized, they admired," the priest explained. "Because having something of that person, you know, makes you feel close to them."
He said for Catholics, "having a relic in our presence, it inspires us because this relic is from the body of a person whose body and soul was for God."
Actually, in a way, Vianney may have been an "Elvis" of his time. It is said that upwards of 50,000 people a year would travel to Ars to see him. A rail link had to be built from Lyon to Ars just to accommodate the worshippers.
"They had holy cards, pictures of him," Mangano said. "People were calling him a saint when he was alive."
The fact that the heart hasn’t decayed is a mystery of science, or faith, Mangano said.
Venerating the remains of saints and martyrs goes back to the earliest days of the Catholic church, said the Rev. Jean-Paul Ruiz, a professor of theology at St. John’s University.
"When we venerate the relics of saints, it puts us in touch with those persons who we believe are still alive beyond the death of their bodies."
Mangano said he first saw the heart last year while on a retreat to Ars — inspired because he is pastor of a church that honors Vianney.
"It’s an actual heart, 3-D, not in any kind of gel or formaldehyde," he said. "It’s brownish color. When you get really close to it, the center is still pinkish-red. Everything else around it is all like browned with age.
"It’s really extraordinary."
Mangano also noted that it was significant for the relic of the patron saint of priests to be taken to his church, following years of scandal involving priests having sex with children.
"I think God is saying, OK, it’s time to heal the hearts of the people, of the clergy, because everyone’s been hurt by this," he said. "But it’s time for us to forgive and to not lose sight of the sacredness of the priesthood, which I think in all that’s happened, maybe for some people, they’ve lost the sacredness of the priesthood."