The Shroud of Turin. The chains of St. Peter. The head of St. Catherine of Siena.

These are all famous relics of the Catholic faith most people instantly recognize when they hear the words. However, these are relics that most people may not get to see in their lifetime.

But one relic is coming to Albany that you can get to see up-close and personal.

On Friday, April 26, the Incorrupt Heart of St. Jean Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, will be on view at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany from noon to 7 p.m. The relic is on a national tour and has been entrusted to the Knights of Columbus by the Shrine of Ars, France. The tour began on Nov. 10, 2018 at the St. Mary’s Spiritual Center and Historic Site in Baltimore and ends at the Basilica of St. Peter in Columbia, S.C., on May 27.

“The whole history and traditions with relics is a fascinating one that dates back to early Christianity. There has always been a connection with the saints and the Eucharist and God’s House and venerating (saints) as part of our altars,” said Joseph Cullen, senior communications specialist for the Knights of Columbus. “In this case with Jean Vianney, it is a very clear one. God preserved his heart for a very long time.” 

But who was St. Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars (the parish priest of Ars)? When did he live? Die? And what is it about relics, from a piece of clothing to a body part, that has been intertwined in the Catholic faith from almost the beginning.

ST. JEAN VIANNEY

St. Jean Vianney was born in Dardilly, France, which is near Lyon, on May 8, 1786, during a terrible time for Catholics in France. The French Revolution was in full swing and people of faith were under attack; churches were destroyed. A young Jean had to receive his First Holy Communion in secret. 

But that only steeled his faith and it led him to enter seminary. But he was nearly kicked out, struggling with his studies, in particular Latin, until the vicar general, who was told of his great piety, interceded and Vianney was ordained in 1815.

In 1818, he was assigned to the small, farming town of Ars; with a parish of just 260 people. Even though people had strayed greatly from their faith, Vianney was undaunted. He was known to spend up to 18 hours a day hearing confessions, and built orphanages for homeless children. Pilgrims from across Europe would come and wait hours to see Vianney, who has known for his gift of reading hearts.

“As a priest I would say he is an example of priestly-ness as opposed to clericalism,” added Father Anthony Barratt, pastor in Hudson-Germantown, director of Prayer and Worship for the Diocese and Episcopal Vicar for the Hudson Valley Vicariate. “He was priestly in the very best meaning of that as someone who would serve others.” 

Vianney died on Aug. 4, 1859, at the age of 73. On Oct. 3, 1873, Pope Pius IX proclaimed him Venerable, and on Jan. 8, 1905, Pope Pius X beatified him. St. Jean Vianney was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 31, 1925. In 1929, the Holy Father declared him patron saint of parish priests. His feast day is Aug. 4.

Pope John Paul II visited Ars in 1986 to commemorate the the bicentenary of Vianney’s birth, saying he was a  “rare example of a pastor acutely aware of his responsibilities … and a sign of courage for those who today experience the grace of being called to the priesthood.”

“He is a tremendous example for everybody,” Cullen said. “A man with very few talents who was able to live an extraordinary life of sacrifice. This man had quite a life even without religion. This man had the secret to life. He lived totally for God and others.” 

Cullen added that with the priesthood and the Church struggling to come to grips with the sexual abuse scandal, Vianney is an example to how to live a saintly life.

“The priesthood has been tarnished, no one can deny that,” Cullen said. “St. Jean Vianney is a reminder that this is the height; a reminder of how a priest should live.”

Cullen added when the relic has visited seminaries, there is an instant connection. 

“Seminarians know him very well and he is their model; they don’t dismiss him from another age,” he said. “The duties are the same in your parish; you look after your people and you give them every hour that they need.”

RELICS

The St. Jean Vianney relic is just one of thousands that are central to the story of Catholic Church, including St. Paul’s Chains, St. Thomas’ finger, the body of St. Francis Xavier, Goa, the blood of San Gennaro and Mary’s Holy Belt.

Relics are broken down into three categories. A first-class relic is an item directly associated with Jesus Christ’s life, such as a manager or cross, or the physical remains of a saint, i.e., bone, hair, limb. Vianney would fall into this category. A second-class relic is an item a saint would have owned or used, such as clothing, a crucifix, rosary or book. A third-class relic is touched by a first- or second-class relic, such as a piece of clothing. 

It might seem odd to some to venerate an ear, a heart or a piece of clothing, but Father Barratt says it all makes perfect sense. We do it in our everyday life, he adds; it’s all about connectivity.

“Physical, tangible things are important to us. We keep ‘relics’ of those we love that have passed,” Father Barratt said. “And they have a value way beyond any other value because of that connectivity. There is also a connectivity in terms of the Body of Christ; so these are special members of the Body of Christ as we are. So it’s a symbol of that connection with Christ and us that spans the centuries.” 

For Vianney, it’s the heart.

 “We have that whole image of the heart, it is a very biblical, very scriptural image,” Father Barratt said. “The heart is really what motivates us and drives us. It is not just the organ that pumps blood around the body; it is a symbol in both the Old and New Testament. 

 “A tongue might be kept because someone was a renowned preacher. So there is a symbolism there. As with the heart of Jean Marie Vianney, his amazing heart, his pastoral heart, pastoral zeal and love both for our Lord and for those that he served. There is a symbolism there that is actually quite deep.”

Relics, such as the heart of St. Jean Vianney, are never to be worshipped, but used as a means to get closer to God.

 “We are fascinated by history not just of the dead, but living history. So here you have a connection with a man who in some ways lived in a very different era to ours, yet not really,” Father Barratt said. “Because human question, human problems, human issues are always there. So there is again that connection. And hopefully might be a means to rediscovering or deepening faith in our Lord.”