FARGO — The guest of honor came, but not in whole. Instead, after traveling across the ocean, his heart arrived in Fargo last week, representing the love of a humble priest from Ars, France, who died 160 years ago — and whose holy example, the faithful say, we need more than ever.
“I was overwhelmed; it was just beautiful,” said Sue Judd, wiping away tears, after spending time with St. John Vianney’s heart at St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Fargo. “The fact that it’s his heart, and you can see it, that’s miraculous in itself.”
She was among several hundred who flocked here May 29 to venerate the incorrupt heart, encased in a 17th century golden reliquary vessel, which was processed into the Adoration chapel with assistance from Monsignor Joseph Goering, cathedral pastor.
“He went to poor, rural places; we’re rural here in North Dakota, too,” Goering said of Vianney.
Part of a national tour hosted by the Knights of Columbus, the heart stayed in Fargo through the night and into the morning of May 30 — the 120th anniversary of the cathedral’s dedication — before being transferred to the main sanctuary, where it remained through the noon Mass. The faithful who came touched part of a man born in 1786 who transformed a wayward village during tumultuous times, eventually drawing throngs from elsewhere who divulged their sins to grow closer to Christ.
“It’s common, especially in Italy and France, for different pieces of the body to be separated,” said Mary Hanbury, catechesis director for the Fargo Diocese.
She explained that relic veneration flows from Jewish culture and, in Christianity, from times of persecution when the faith was practiced in the catacombs, as well as intercessory prayers said before the martyrs, buried there, who’d died for Christ. “Eventually, those bones were taken out of the catacombs and put into churches.”
In medieval times, people were accustomed to seeing dead bodies in preparation for burial, Hanbury said. Today, she says people can get "creeped out" by relics because we're more removed from death.
The New Testament references an early form of relics in Matthew 9:18-26 when a woman is healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, and in Acts 19:12 when cloths touched by St. Paul were used to heal the sick and drive out demons.
Offering his own explanation for relic veneration, Goering asked, “Why does a nonbeliever go to Notre Dame? To see beauty, transcendence. We’re drawn naturally, realizing there’s more here than what meets the eye.”
Also, like Jesus, we’re incarnational. “It speaks to our desire to want to be close to holy things by having objects to venerate.”
But, Goering emphasized, it’s Jesus himself behind any associated miracle or answered prayer.
Heather Morgan, Palos Verdes, Calif., said she was amazed at the line of faithful wrapped around a Los Angeles cathedral to glimpse the saint’s heart when it traveled there in February.
“You felt the Lord’s love through all these people, and you felt St. John Vianney’s heart pumping the love of Christ through everybody’s heart,” she said. “It was really beautiful. In this area, you don’t get that a lot.”
Peter Sonski, of New Haven, Conn., a custodian for the relic, said North Dakota marked the 46th of 48 contiguous states to welcome the relic since the tour launched in Baltimore in November. It will have been visited by 250,000 people by the tour’s end next Wednesday, June 12.
“People seem to have been especially pleased for the opportunity to express their hope for renewal in the church.”
Despite the general unfamiliarity of the practice, he said, “Who of us doesn’t go to our parents’ or grandparents’ graves and pay honor to them, and who wouldn’t make a bid on the sweaty, used jersey of our favorite athlete?”
These are similar to relics, he said, and yet, “This is a miracle, the heart of a saint who died 160 years ago, was buried, and whose body was not touched by decay.”
Sonski called relic veneration “kind of a heart-to-heart with heaven,” adding, “It’s the opportunity to seek the intercession of a saint for the church here in the U.S., for priests in Fargo and across the country, and for healing and renewal of the church as a whole.”
In Fargo, visitors were offered a rare chance to venerate the relic and worship Jesus in the Eucharist at an all-night vigil, he said, noting that in smaller areas, “It’s been the faithful remnant that shows up and keeps company” with the relic.
And it’s not just Catholics who come, Sonski said. In Utah, many Mormons stopped through. “Sometimes they come because it has a bit of fascination, and other times, it’s an opportunity to learn and receive some grace," he said.
Sonski added that the heart “is really the very center of the person, of their human, emotional and spiritual life,” while Goering said his prayer before St. John Vianney’s heart was “to have a heart like his that burns for the heart of Jesus.”
Mary Hollinshead, Valley City, N.D., was part of a two-vehicle pilgrimage that included a group of teens from a faith-formation program at St. Catherine’s parish.
“On the way here, we were discussing how this relic represents a man that loved so well that his heart stayed that way,” she said. “To be able to love like that is a breathtaking thing. That’s what we want our kids exposed to.”
Karen Monson said seeing the saint’s heart made her think of eternity.
“If God can keep a body incorrupt all these years, he’s trying to tell us that we, too, can live forever.”
Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.