In conversation with the Bishop of Belley-Ars last September I asked if it would ever be possible for the relic of the heart of the Curé of Ars to come to Britain. I was conscious that this relic of St John Vianney had recently been brought to Rome for the close of the Year for Priests at Pope Benedict’s request. I was also conscious of the recent visit to our country of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux and the prayer, the renewed desire for holiness and the many Confessions this visit had inspired.
Moreover, I was aware that for most of our Christian history the relics of the saints have created a kind of “spiritual geography” across this land from St Edward’s relics at Westminster to the relics of St Cuthbert at Durham. Great centres of prayer and pilgrimage were inspired by the relics of these saints, which had served the same purpose as those relics carried by the first missionaries to the English people. They awakened the hope of holiness and provided a visible, tangible reminder of the communion of saints.
If anyone thought this was simply part of our past then the remarkable scenes three years ago during the visit of St Thérèse’s relics pointed to the continuing need to be inspired by the saints in early 21st-century Britain. It should not, of course, surprise us that, just as the relics of the saints were part of the “first evangelisation” of these islands, so they might also have a role to play in their “new evangelisation”. It is in the saints that we always see the Church at her most authentic and it is within the communion of saints that we are always called to live the Christian life.
To my surprise, the Bishop of Belley-Ars immediately agreed. The bishop wanted to bring this relic of St John Vianney to the Diocese of Shrewsbury personally. My invitation had been to the Shrewsbury diocese, but I quickly became aware of a wider, national interest and thanks to the support of the Archbishops of Liverpool and Birmingham this four-day visit has become a national invitation to prayer.
Why, you might ask, should we turn for inspiration to a French saint of the 19th century? Surely, the life and times of the Curé of Ars are very far removed from our own. Yet if St Thérèse is recognised as “the best-loved” of modern saints, then we cannot fail to see in this humble parish priest – who has been raised up repeatedly in the sight of the Church by popes across the course of the past century – not only a saint for priests but a saint for us all.
I am asked what inspired this visit. Where did the idea come from? My answer has always been the same: it is Pope Benedict and his blessed predecessor Pope John Paul II who inspired me. They showed me we have much to learn in modern Britain from this “saint for priests” and this “saint for the renewal of parishes”. The body of St John Vianney is venerated in the parish church of Ars, which was the scene of his priestly ministry, but it is the heart of this saint which goes out from Ars on pilgrimage. This relic of a human heart takes us beyond physical anatomy to what lies at the very heart of this man who always spoke of his “poor self” yet recognised the greatness of his calling.
Among the first British visitors to meet the Curé of Ars was the plain-speaking Bishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne. He met him during the summer of 1854 and his impressions of St John Vianney point us remarkably to the heart of this saint: “He spoke of God so good, so amiable, so loving and his hands, his shoulders, his very person seemed to gather on his heart,” Bishop Ullathorne wrote, “It was impossible not to feel God alone was there … Then there was a word about being in the Heart of Jesus, and in that word one felt he was THERE.”
So amid all the differences of time and place one of the first bishops of the newly restored English and Welsh Hierarchy points us to what is perennial about the saint of Ars: that the heart of this priest was always in the Heart of Jesus. I imagine it would have astonished St John Vianney that the simple phrase with which he often spoke of the Catholic priesthood would one day find its way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus” (CCC 1589). It was our Holy Father Pope Benedict who remarked when venerating the relic of the heart of St John Vianney that here was a heart truly consumed by the love of God.
During four days from Thursday July 5 to Sunday July 8 this pilgrimage will invite many to reflect anew on what must always be at the heart of the Catholic priesthood, the heart of our parishes and the heart of all our vocations. It is my hope that the pilgrimage of this relic of the Curé of Ars will awaken in many hearts that same call to repentance and the universal call to holiness which he brought to so many during his lifetime. The “miracles” we can expect during these few days in England will be those same “miracles of grace” witnessed long ago in Ars when it must have seemed the whole world had found its way to that tiny place on earth. Manchester, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Northwich, Shrewsbury and Birmingham will be places where the influence of St John Vianney will be known by the visit of his relic during this first, historic visit to our country.
A threefold prayer will accompany these days: prayer and intercession for priests and the renewal of the Catholic priesthood; for the renewal of the life of our parishes; and for new and generous vocations to the priesthood. I am sure St John Vianney would not only approve of these intentions but will unite himself with us in this prayer. As Blessed John Paul II reflected: “Prayer was the soul of his life: silent and contemplative prayer, generally in his church at the foot of the tabernacle. Through Christ, his soul opened to the three divine Persons, to whom he would entrust ‘his poor soul’ in his last testament.” In such prayer we will be invited to join St John Vianney during these four days in July.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is Bishop of Shrewsbury