By Bishop James Conley
In 1818, St. John Marie Vianney received his appointment from his bishop to become the new pastor of the town of Ars, France. His bishop told him little about the town, other than the discouraging revelation that the people of Ars cared little about the practice of the Catholic faith.
It appears that he also didn’t know how to get to Ars. Given that he lived in a time before automobiles, Father John Vianney had to walk a great distance with all of his belongings to his new assignment. And he got lost along the way.
Providentially, a shepherd boy by the name of Antoine Givre caught sight of Vianney. After they greeted one another, Vianney told Antoine that he was on his way to Ars and he was lost. Antoine pointed him in the right direction and walked with him into the small town of about 200 people.
As the story is told, the future saint said to Antoine upon their arrival, “Thank you for showing me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to heaven.”
St. John Vianney transformed that little town through his firm, but gentle love. While he might not have been great with directions, he had a priestly heart that directed souls to their ultimate destination.
St. John Vianney generously handed over his heart to the Lord. Because of this generosity, the work of the Holy Spirit went far beyond the boundaries of the little town of Ars, through the hands of St. John Vianney. The Curé of Ars, as he is commonly referred, would often be in the confessional for over 16 hours a day. People came from all over France and beyond, to confess their sins to God and to receive his mercy, through the pastoral ministry of this saintly priest.
During his lifetime, thousands came from all of France to simply hear the Curé of Ars preach, or to have him hear their confession. The Curé of Ars continues to draw crowds today, as witnessed last week in our own Diocese of Lincoln.
On March 20, the major relic of St. John Vianney’s incorrupt heart was on display for veneration at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln as part of the “Heart of a Priest” pilgrimage sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. I am very grateful to the Knights of Columbus for helping to make this possible.
What a joy it was for me to see people of all ages and vocations coming forward to venerate the relic of the patron saint of parish priests. The man who drew such large crowds to his Christ-like heart during his lifetime, continues to do so today. More than a thousand people came through the doors of the Cathedral that day to venerate the relics of this great saint and ask for his prayers.
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The pilgrimage of the relic of the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney reminded me of the many faithful and zealous priests in our diocese who labor unselfishly and tirelessly for the salvation of souls. I am grateful to God for their priestly vocation and for their courage to say yes to God each day, particularly at this time in the history of the Church.
I know that they have been wounded by the clergy abuse scandal and the mishandling of these scandals on the part of bishops. The ineffective leadership of bishops, including myself, to address adequately this current crisis in the Church has left many faithful priests feeling abandoned, betrayed and heartbroken. And for this I am deeply sorry, and I ask their forgiveness.
I pray every day for those victims of abuses in the Church, but as I prayed before the incorrupt heart of the Curé of Ars, I also lifted up each one of our priests in prayer, asking the Lord to encourage and purify them in the grace and joy of their priesthood, which is a sharing in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I asked the Lord to strengthen them in their resolve to strive for holiness and to continue to preach and teach the full gospel of salvation to the souls entrusted to their care. As I told our seminarians last August before they returned to the seminary at the end of the summer, the Church needs holy and faithful priests now more than ever.