Friday, October 13, 2006

Heart in the Heart of Boston

In the A.A. Milne poem, "King John was not a good man. He had his little ways. And sometimes no one spoke to him for days and days and days."

You would not confuse him with the late, venerated St. John Vianney, whose peripatetic heart (in a gilded box) is touring New York and Boston as we write. The 19th Century French priest supposedly could heal the sick, but he was far better known for his two hours of sleep a night and up to 18 hours a day hearing confessions.

While Buddhists are as big on relics as Roman Catholics, the news is about the eviscerated heart of this R.C. saint, which is presently in Boston. The French Basilica at Ars lent the organ.

As strange as this parading of the heart of a man who died 137 years ago seems to many, it has its uses, according to a report in the Globe. He was named patron saint of parish priests, which is the core (if you pardon) of the matter. Local clerics are hoping for some inspiration here. As the report puts it:
The Rev. Daniel Hennessey, vocations director of the Archdiocese of Boston, said that people who gather to venerate the heart -- which they will do by genuflecting and kneeling in prayer in the presence of the relic -- also "will ask St. John Vianney to intercede with God for the Archdiocese of Boston, [so] that the Lord might send to us more men who are called to be ordained priests."
If you find this all too bizarre, you might consider the view that objects take on the thoughts and feelings related to those attached to them. One Catholic site has a pretty fair recap of the ideas (about three-quarters the way down, Relics and the Incorruptibles), including:
It's funny to me how a culture that is filled with autograph hounds and those who clamor to be around those glittered with "star dust" can consider the Catholic veneration of relics as a joke. A lovely dish is just a lovely dish, but one owned by your great-grandmother is a treasure. Some stranger's pocketwatch is just a timepiece, but one given to you by your grandfather is something you'd literally mourn losing. We pay $20,000 for a $200 jacket worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, faint at Beatles concerts, engage in riotous behavior to get our hands on one of Elvis's scarves, but when a relic of St. Catherine is mentioned, people snicker.

As you can see, however, from the verses above, veneration of relics is strictly scriptural, and the earliest Christians saw things in the same way as the ancient Israelites and those in the New Testament accounts. St. Augustine wrote in City of God:

If a father's coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one's parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man's very nature.

To top it off, St. John Vianney was among the few dozen incorruptibles. That is, when they dug up his body 60 some years after death before he was made a saint, mirabile dictu! It was discolored and withered, but not rotted.

While this is not proof of holiness, it's not a bad hint, according to the church. As was the practice, they also took out some body parts to pass around for veneration, as well as displaying the body.

You can find a fascinating treatment of the whole subject in Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Saintly Relics, by Anneli S. Rufus, Marlowe & Company (1999). She trotted around Europe visiting prime specimens. St. John's fate of being partially gutted and then displayed in separate body and heart glass cases appears ghoulish to many, but it has been not at all rare.

To non-Catholics and non-Buddhists, this practice of relic display and veneration can seem odd at best. Yet in this particular case (if you pardon), who's to say that some young men might not be inspired to devote their lives to the church while kneeling beneath the heart of the incorruptible.

You may do so only Friday, the 13th, at St. Mary's in Waltham, and Saturday, the 14th, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Check the service hours here.

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1 comment:

Steven Keirstead said...

Napolean Bonaparte's corpse apparently didn't rot either. Apparently, he was overfond of medicines containing mercury, arsenic and antimony, common in the 18th and 19th century. These can retard the rotting of corpses, even non-saints.

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