The heart of the matter: Saint’s relic draws Brooklyn faithful

In a season of miracles, it’s not every day that one sees a 150-year-old human heart that remains in pristine condition.

But, with the Easter holiday fast approaching, Brooklyn Catholics had that opportunity, thanks to the Knights of Columbus which arranged for the Incorrupt Heart of Saint John Vianney to be displayed in the borough.

On April 10, it made its way to Bay Ridge’s Xaverian High School, 7100 Shore Rd., and to St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 1550 Hendrickson St. in Marine Park.

The miraculous undecomposed heart of the French saint made the stops as part of its U.S. pilgrimage, dubbed “Heart of a Priest,” in reference to Vianney’s physical heart that has resisted decay for more than 150 years. Vianney was famous for his tireless work on behalf of his people, especially in the confessional, and for the holiness of his life.

Father Michael Gelfant, pastor at St. Finbar Roman Catholic Church and associate state chaplain for the Knights of Columbus, told this paper that this was “a great opportunity for the priests and laity to pray with the first class relic of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests,” said Gelfant. “It’s a great reminder that a priest is called to the simple tasks of ministry, namely caring for the souls of people.”

Gelfant coordinated the two-day visit to the Brooklyn Diocese — which also included two stops in Queens — to make sure young people had the chance to view the relic, along with seminarians and the faithful. “I am confident that this was a grace-filled opportunity had by all. And now we enter into the most sacred time of year for Catholics,” added Gelfant.

The term “incorrupt” refers to a human body that has avoided the normal process of decomposition after death. According to a statement from the Diocese, it is a sign, but not proof, of the person’s holiness. Relics are a physical object associated with a saint that may be offered to the faithful for veneration – not worship.

“What a tremendous gift having the relic of the heart of St. John Vianney come to us at Xaverian,” said Deacon Kevin McCormack, principal of Xaverian. “We pray that the great example that the saint had in his life of kindness, of mercy and love will be shared with our school.”

Born in France in 1786, Vianney grew up in a time of open hostility to religion in the wake of the French Revolution when the faith was attacked, churches destroyed and the clergy martyred. Assigned to lead the parish in the small farming community of Ars, Vianney excelled at both prayer and work.

He was famous for hearing confessions for up to 18 hours a day as people from across Europe and beyond came to see him. His fame throughout the Catholic world grew even after his death in 1859 and he continues to inspire a quest for holiness by both priests and the laity.  His incorrupt heart — a major relic — normally resides at the shrine named for him in Ars.

“On behalf of my brother priests serving in the Diocese of Brooklyn, it was a privilege to welcome the Incorrupt Heart of St. John Vianney who is the patron saint of parish priests,” Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio told this paper. “The faithful of our diocese in Brooklyn and Queens responded in good numbers to the opportunities made available to pray and reflect in the presence of the relic heart of St. John Vianney. 

“As the heart relic of St. John Vianney continues to travel throughout our nation,” he added, “may our prayers for an increase of holy vocations to priesthood continue.”

New York is the 29th state in the nation to receive the relic for public veneration. The pilgrimage began in November 2018 and will conclude in May 2019 after 87 stops.

Xaverian President Robert Alesi holds the portrait of St. John Vianney, surrounded by members of the clergy and Xaverian Principal Kevin McCormack on the right.

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