19 July 2012

The physical presence of faith

Some years ago in a church in northern France, a friend of mine had to smother her laughter on noticing a statue of a fine-featured elderly man with a high forehead and a mane of white hair. It had never occurred to her before that St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, had borne an uncanny resemblance to William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who.

Having had this pointed out to me, I’ve found it next to impossible to look at pictures of the patron saint of parish priests without thinking of Gallifrey’s finest son, such that when I heard that my bishop had arranged for the heart of St John Vianney to be brought to England, my initial response was to quip “Well, one of his hearts, anyway. His other one shall presumably remain at Ars.”

Any such irreverent thoughts were banished last Thursday evening, when I joined hundreds of other Catholics at the Church of St Anthony in Wythenshawe, by Manchester airport, to pray by the heart of that nineteenth-century saint whose very existence was, in the words of Pope Benedict, “a living catechesis”, and whose priestly ministry was geared to showing that the dry rationalism so prevalent in his day was ultimately incapable of satisfying our deepest human needs.

Since then thousands more Catholics have venerated the saint’s relic at several other churches in Shrewsbury diocese, as well as in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King and at Oscott College in Birmingham.

Profoundly counter-cultural nowadays, despite the tens of thousands who queued in 2009 to pray alongside relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the veneration of relics is an ancient Christian practice that has long seemed jarring to English sensibilities. Ever since the destruction of the shrines of such saints as Augustine of Canterbury and Thomas Becket during the Reformation, it’s been common in England to think of the cult of the saints – especially as manifested in so concrete a way – as something as neither Biblical nor English.

That it should ever have been seen as either idolatrous or alien seems deeply ironic.

The veneration of saints’ relics dates to the dawn of Christianity. Acts 9:11-12 describes how devout Corinthian Christians would take scraps of fabric that Paul had touched and carry them to the sick, healing them. The second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp relates how the followers of John’s martyred disciple gathered up his charred bones and treasured them, using them to call to mind his heroic example, and Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, records how even before John wrote his gospel, Rome’s Christians gathered to worship at the tombs of St Peter and St Paul.

Pilgrim Routes
The early Christians were surely inspired to do this by stories of people being healed after merely touching the fringe of Jesus’ robe, and by the story at 2 Kings 13:20-21 of how a dead man had been restored to life after his corpse had touched the bones of the prophet Elisha. More profoundly, they realised through becoming flesh, God had specially sanctified the world; it made sense that he should work through the ordinary things of the world he had made and blessed.

For a thousand years, this gritty understanding of a sacramental world would mould the English landcape. Arguably the greatest single work of English literature purports to be a collection of tales told by pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and such place-names as St Albans and Bury St Edmunds testify to England’s first martyr and the king who was long honoured as her patron saint. As Shrewsbury’s Bishop Mark Davies has pointed out, explaining why he sought to bring St John Vianney’s heart to England, England has a distinct “spiritual geography”, criss-crossed with pilgrim routes and dotted with shrines and relics.

Since the Reformation such sacred places have multiplied, of course, in association with such martyrs as St John Fisher, the only one of Henry VIII’s bishops who refused to accept his breach with Rome, and St Margaret Clitheroe, crushed to death beneath a door laden with rocks for refusing to plead when charged with having concealed a priest.

“Without the priest,” as St John Vianney said, “we could not access the passion and death of our Lord… of what use would be a house filled with gold, if there were no one to open its door?… leave a parish for twenty years without a priest and people will end up worshipping beasts.”

The latest of our forerunners to have been recognised as among the cloud of witnesses cheering us on is the blessed John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict in September 2010. While it may still be too early to say whether Pope Benedict’s visit has had a transformative effect on English Catholicism, it’s difficult to deny that things have changed over the last two years.

Papal visit
At a Mass in Manchester shortly after the Papal visit, held to celebrate the reception of one of Newman’s few relics, it was observed that English Catholicism had dropped the ball after Pope John Paul II’s 1982 visit, but that there was no excuse for doing so this time. Unlike our predecessors in the 1980s, we have a clear Catechism, the new Code of Canon Law, the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, and a host of books, pamphlets, and online resources to help us.

One of the most striking changes during Benedict’s papacy has been a serious rise in the number of men studying for the priesthood in England and Wales. 20 priests were ordained in 2011, but 38 are on course to be ordained next year, while the Archdiocese of Southwark, for example, which had 10 seminarians in 2005 currently has 26. The establishment of discernment groups across the country has been a clear factor in this phenomenon, which has coincided with co-a ordinated campaign of prayer for vocations. In April the National Office for Vocations announced an ambitious three-year vocations drive inspired by the question Pope Benedict asked a gathering of some 4,000 children and teenagers from across Britain in September 2010: “what sort of person would you like to be?”

The centrepiece of the current English vocation project is Invocation, the national vocations festival held at Oscott College in Birmingham. About 250 young people attended Invocation 2011, with roughly 400 attending this year’s festival.

Fittingly, the visit of the relic of St John Vianney was timed to coincide with Invocation 2012, and so on Saturday night and Sunday morning hundreds of young English people were given the unique opportunity to pray in the physical presence of one who defined the priesthood as “the love of the heart of Jesus.”

It shall be interesting to see how many take up the challenge to love as he did.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 12 July 2012.

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