By Tony DeGol

The thermometer was in the single digits and road conditions were not stellar, yet Shannon Jones – with four of her children in tow – found it important to travel from State College to the Cathedral in Altoona.

Her heart, one could say, was feeling the pull of another heart.

The Jones family visited the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament for veneration of the incorrupt heart of Saint John Vianney – a first class relic – on Thursday, January 31.

“We thought it would be appropriate to come and pay homage to the sacred heart of (Saint John Vianney) and to pray for our intentions and the intentions of our family,” Jones admitted. “He was an amazing priest – so beloved. I can’t imagine spending a day doing anything more appropriate.”

Well over 2,000 people agreed with Jones and chose to stop by the Cathedral at some point in the day for veneration, one of four Masses, quiet prayer, and/or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The story of Saint John Vianney is inspiring. He was grew up during the French Revolution – a time when the Catholic faith was under attack. As a seminarian, he struggled academically, but was ultimately ordained to the priesthood thanks to his devout prayer life.

As a young priest, he was assigned to a small parish in Ars, France, where religious indifference was the norm. The young Father Vianney spent hours hearing confessions and quickly turned people away from sin and closer to God. He was also committed to helping the less fortunate.

Saint John Vianney is the patron saint of priests.

For Jones, a mother of seven who is affiliated with the Penn State Catholic Community, she hoped her children would take away devotion to the true faith.

“The faith is hard, and Saint John Vianney showed how hard it was,” she said. “He sat in a confessional for hours a day listening to the sins of the penitents. Life is hard. We need confession. We need the faith, and we need to be devoted to not just the simple version, but the difficult stuff.”

She continued: “We need to be pro-life. We need to be against contraception. We need to do all of the things that the Church teaches that are hard to do, that no one wants to say because (Saint John Vianney) would say it. He did do it, and he’s a model for that for the rest of us.”

The incorrupt heart of Saint John Vianney is usually housed at a shrine in Ars. The Knights of Columbus was given custody of the relic for a pilgrimage of around the United States. The tour began this past fall and will conclude in late spring or early summer.

Peter Sonski of the Knights is the custodian of the relic. By the time he reached our diocese, he had already traveled through 19 states.

“It’s been an incredible privilege,” he stressed. “It’s been very edifying to see people come and pray with Saint John Vianney. His spirit is alive today. People know of his life, they know of his ministry, they know of his devotion to the faithful, and they want to pray with him. They want to pray for renewal – renewal for priests and renewal for the Church in general.”

The large and devout crowd in Altoona-Johnstown left an impression on Sonski, yet he is not surprised by the faithful’s desire for a closer relationship with the Lord.

“They want an opportunity to see a reformed Church, a changed Church, and they want an opportunity to change themselves,” he suggested. “They know they have not always lived up to the fullness of what Christ calls them to. Coming here, they not only have the opportunity to ask John Vianney to pray for them, but they can also renew themselves through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

And, indeed, they did. 

In the spirit Saint John Vianney’s yearning to help people experience God’s healing forgiveness, priests were scheduled to hear confessions throughout the day at the Cathedral. Lines were so long at various times that other priests were recruited to assist.

The Vatican granted Bishop Mark L. Bartchak’s request that all who attended the pilgrimage, received Holy Communion, and celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation would receive a plenary indulgence, which removes the temporal punishment for sins.

There were also periods when lines for veneration of the relic stretched from one end of the Cathedral to the other, but no one seemed to mind.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the relic,” reminded Chris Keagy, a member of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Altoona.

“Living in a climate of political turbulence and religious skepticism, it was very important for me to visit the Saint John Vianney Relic Pilgrimage,” noted Diane Campagna of Saint Aloysius Parish in Cresson. “Saint John’s incorruptible heart is a relic associated with the saint. It is a great sign of his holiness. It is meant to draw a person closer to God.”

Dana Tornatore, a member of Saint Joseph Parish in Bellwood, noted how fortunate it was to have the relic in our diocese.

“I couldn’t pass up the chance for this experience,” she commented. “My family and I went to see the Saint John Vianney relic because we had never seen a first class relic and wanted to learn more. It was moving to see all of the people there to venerate Saint John Vianney’s incorrupt heart and partake in the Sacrament of confession.”

Mary Jo Fiore also felt it was important to brave the elements and be present for the unique opportunity.

“It inspires me because, as Catholics, we need to look out for our fellow man,” stated the parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes in Altoona. “He’s just very inspiring. All of the saints, they all have a story, and we can learn from them.”

Nick Gueguen of Saint Bernard Parish in Hastings sought Saint John Vianney’s intercession with the Lord.

“Having only read up on him in recent months and coming to understand how he played a huge role in building the faith of his parish in Ars, when I heard his incorruptible heart was coming to the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, I knew I had to be there.”

Melvin McConnell, district deputy of the area Knights of Columbus, was among the local Knights assisting with ushering and other duties.

“The heart can be used as a sign of hope that we, as Catholics, can continue on our journey towards being closer to Christ and deeper in our faith.”