Next summer, the incorrupt heart of the Curé d’Ars will be visiting the diocese of Shrewsbury; but why only Shrewsbury?

A Knights of Columbus honour guard processes with a reliquary containing the incorrupt heart of St John Vianney (Photo: CNS)

First of all, for anyone who has missed it: the miraculously incorrupt heart of St John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests – which was carried in procession through St Peter’s Basilica at the opening of the Year for Priests in 2009, which had been declared by Pope Benedict in honour of the 150th anniversary of his death – is to be brought to England for a four-day visit.

That’s the good news. The bad news (for anyone whose diocesan bishop is not Bishop Mark Davies) is that to venerate this very powerful relic of one of the Church’s greatest saints, you will have to go, next summer, to the Diocese of Shrewsbury, since there are at present no plans for the heart of the patron saint of all parish priests, really of all priests, to make a halt anywhere else. It should be added that a visit to Shrewsbury diocese will be very much easier for some than for others, so many of us whose dioceses are more or less en route to Shrewsbury (how will the relic be arriving? Through the tunnel?) will be hoping that our own diocesan bishops will be on the phone to Bishop Davies to try to work out a considerable extension to present plans.

Meanwhile, this is what the Shrewsbury diocese tells us about the thinking underlying the visit, and also about how it came to be arranged:

The three intentions of the four-day visit of the relic of the Cure of Ars in early July 2012 are to provide an occasion of prayer for the renewal of the ministerial priesthood in the diocese, to inspire new and generous vocations, and to spur the renewal of the missions and life of all parishes in the diocese.

The relic will be accompanied by the Rt Rev. Guy Bagnard, Bishop of Belley-Ars, France, and two priests of his diocese, and will be taken to a number of locations to provide opportunities for its veneration by priests and laity and as an invitation to prayer. A programme will be announced at a later date.

The visit is being arranged following a request by the Rt Rev Mark Davies, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, to Bishop Bagnard when they met in September during a visit of the young Shrewsbury clergy to Ars, where three seminarians for the Shrewsbury Diocese are also in training. Bishop Bagnard later wrote to Bishop Davies to confirm that it would be possible to transport the heart of the saint to England.

St Jean Vianney has always seemed to me one of the most powerfully affecting of saints, for though of course the saints are all lovers of God, not all of them in their earthly lives were so visibly so that their love of God was conveyed to so many other ordinary people, and in a way which was exceptionally demanding: this was no vague odour of sanctity which inspired in a gentle but sometimes effective way (nothing wrong with that, of course) a growth towards God: He didn’t just love God, he expected his people to love him too, and smartish.

His aim was simple, but total. It’s an unfashionable notion, perhaps, or was until recently, of a priestly pastoral style (just a thought: is that why he’s only going to Shrewsbury? Hmmm… Surely not). l love the story of his arrival in Ars. As he neared his parish, he asked someone the way. Having been told, he said simply: “You have shown me the way to Ars, I will show you the way to heaven”. There are so many stories about him; often when the Curé was returning to Ars from missionary expeditions, the local mayor, anxious about his safety, would send his son Antoine to accompany him on his journey home. “Even amid the snows and cold of winter,” Antoine long afterwards related, “we rarely took the shortest and best road. M. le Curé had invariably to visit some sick person. Yet the tramp never seemed really long, for the servant of God well knew how to shorten it by relating most interesting episodes from the lives of the saints. If I happened to make some remark about the sharpness of the cold or the ruggedness of the roads, he was always ready with an answer: ‘My friend, the saints have suffered far more; let us offer it all to the good God.’ When he ceased from speaking of holy things we began the Rosary. Even today I still cherish the memory of those holy conversations.” (For more, go here.)

He never let up; it’s hard to imagine him, in modern circumstances, taking the occasional evening off his parish duties to watch television. He is patron saint of all parish priests, really of all priests; and a truly demanding one, that most will find hard to emulate. But it’s not his Stakhanovite spiritual energy that is held up for emulation, but his vision of the priesthood. As Bishop Davies puts it of his incorrupt heart, many in his diocese (and I hope en route to it) will be venerating “this visible reminder of the heart of a simple and extraordinary pastor will encourage us to look to that love and truth found at the heart of the Catholic priesthood, for St John Vianney said simply: ‘The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.’

Bishop Davies adds: “This will be an invitation for everyone to pray for the renewal of the ministerial priesthood in our time, a renewed sense of mission in our parishes and for new and generous vocations for the future.”

Well, truly, a Church whose priesthood were indeed renewed by St John Vianney’s vision of its ministry as being nothing less than “the love of the heart of Jesus” would be invincible – nothing, the very gates of hell, would stand against it; even the materialist and decadent society in which we live would not be entirely unaffected.

I have an idea. The origin of the visit was in a visit Bishop Mark himself paid to Ars, where he has three seminarians: why not (surely there’s still time to arrange it) a halt at each one of the four remaining seminaries in England (as well as a visit to their local cathedrals), so that those preparing for their own priesthood might spend several days in the presence of this most powerful saint? It could hardly do less than irresistibly affect their priestly formation; it could be a major step in the renewal of the whole English Church.