A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that she was taking her kids to the cathedral here in New Hampshire.
“We’re going to see the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney,” she explained.
They were going to venerate a heart. An actual human heart. It was the heart of St. John Vianney, priest and saint. The very heart that beat in his chest while he lived in France until his death in 1859 at the age of 73.
What on earth?
Well, perhaps you heard of the St. John Vianney Relic Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. The miraculously incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney toured the country, with stops at parishes and shrines, allowing the faithful to see it, venerate it, and be inspired toward greater love for God.
I love that Catholics do “weird” things like this. For me, one of the greatest joys of being Catholic is knowing that our faith fully embraces our physical existence as well as our spiritual existence. We don’t just live in a spiritual world, but a physical one, too. Physical experiences are part of how we can know God and grow in our faith. We worship God with our whole hearts and minds and our bodies, too. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch are important parts of how we understand the world around us and grow in relationship with God.
It is meaningful that St. John Vianney’s heart is incorrupt. A person’s heart is often thought to symbolize the very center of their inner selves, the core of who they are, what they think, and how they feel, but most especially how they love. We need look no further than images of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, pierced and on fire with love for each of us, to know that this is true.
During his time on earth, St. John Vianney loved God and others deeply. In the tiny village of Ars, France, where he served as parish priest, Vianney preached, counseled, and heard confessions. His preaching gained him notoriety and his reputation grew. People traveled from distant places to hear him preach and lined up for hours to confess their sins. During the last decade of his life, he often spent as many as 18 hours a day hearing confessions.
Throughout his life, St. John Vianney focused on prayer and was especially devoted to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist which he saw as a physical and outward sign of God’s deep and personal love for us. He once said, “There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton shared this kind of reverence and appreciation for the Eucharist, even before her conversion to Catholicism. Once, when she was in Italy visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace, at the moment of consecration, she experienced the rudeness of a young man’s interruption.
“There this poor young Englishman at the very moment the priest was doing the most sacred action they [Roman Catholics] call the elevation … just at that moment this wild young man said loudly in my ear, ‘This is what they call their Real Presence.’”
Elizabeth, though still not yet Catholic herself, was deeply upset by the young man’s behavior.
Her “very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration, for all around was dead silence and many were prostrated.”
So we see that even as an Episcopalian, St. Elizabeth Ann had a deep respect for the Eucharist. Her reverence and awe only grew when she later converted to the Catholic faith and received her First Holy Communion.
Throughout the remainder of her lifetime, her devotion to the Eucharist continued to foster her love for Jesus. Even when she lay on her deathbed years later, very ill and suffering, she refused the comfort of a small drink so that she might not break her fast and have to postpone receiving the Eucharist. The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was too precious a gift to delay.
Just as Jesus was truly present in the lives of St. John Vianney and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, He is truly present in our lives today. We are not alone. Jesus is here. We can see Him, receive Him, and hold Him in our hearts. Thanks be to God for the gift of the Eucharist!
August 4th is the feast day of St. John Vianney.
DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and author of several books for women, including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
This reflection was originally published in 2020. To read all reflections, click here.