By Tony DeGol

For the Very Reverend Joseph Fleming, VF, the Saint John Vianney Relic Pilgrimage was a return to his roots.

Father Fleming’s seminary formation began at Saint Francis College (now Saint Francis University) in Loretto in 1966. His residence at the time was named Saint John Vianney Hall.

“The invitation to come to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for a special Mass was for me a time to recall the many interesting times we had during those first two years of college seminary, which opened the way to my ordination some six years later,” said Father Fleming, Pastor of Saint Catherine of Siena Parish in Mount Union and Saint Mary Parish in Shade Gap and Dean of the Northern Deanery. “It provided an opportunity to mentally re-connect with the past in regard to a vocation, and provided time to consider how far the journey of faith embarked on so long ago has come.”

The pilgrimage on Thursday, January 31 at the Altoona Cathedral drew more than 2,000 faithful. While the opportunity clearly touched all those present, it undoubtedly meant so much to Father Fleming and the many other priests who attended.

Saint John Vianney is the patron saint of priests and certainly a role model to priests as they carry out their pastoral ministry.

He is an example of humility and holiness, explained Peter Sonski, the Knights of Columbus custodian of the relic on the nationwide pilgrimage.

“He was a very simple priest who had a devotion to the people of God,” added Sonski. “He wanted them to grow in holiness and achieve Heaven. People appreciate that simplicity. They appreciate that devotion to helping them to grow in faith, to grow in holiness.”

The outstanding turnout for the Altoona-Johnstown pilgrimage thrilled Father Fleming, who, like many other priests of the diocese, made himself available to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“That time of God’s love, present through the forgiveness of sin, was also quite edifying,” he remarked. “The number of faithful seeking the sacrament was very high, and it gave us priests the opportunity to minister and forgive in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Father George Jakopac, Pastor of Saint John the Evangelist Parish in Bellefonte and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Spring Mills, valued his time at the pilgrimage.

“In our days of skepticism, it’s important to have something to see with our eyes,” he stated. “The fact that people could visibly see the heart muscle – that it is still intact after hundreds of years – that’s an incredible witness to the miracles of God. We need these spiritual events. It boosts our faith and lifts our spirits and reminds us that God is still present in our modern world.”

Among other intentions, the faithful who came to venerate the relic had the opportunity to pray for the sanctification of priests and for more priests in our diocese.

Father Matthew Reese, Pastor of Saint Andrew Parish in Johnstown and Diocesan Director of Vocations, hopes that the pilgrimage does not become just a happy memory, but rather inspiration for the future.

He was struck by the power of people coming together to pray.

“Imagine gathering a community together for one specific intention,” he proposed. “Could we do that in our parishes? Could our parishes gather together specifically to say, ‘Lord, send us more priests?'” 

The heart of Saint John Vianney also teaches us how to love, Father Reese continued, which inspires more people to give their lives to God.

“Let’s carry the fruits of this day into our future,” he encouraged. “Take the benefits that were given to us – all of the graces – and make something of them. That’s when we know that this day was truly worth every moment, every grace, every special gift that God has given to us.”