The heart of San Vicente returned to the place where it began to beat more than 435 years ago, to a place that today is called “Berceau” (La Cuna). A citizen of this country with a Cartesian, scientific and rational spirit, might view that event as strange.
What benefit can be derived from the pilgrimage of the heart of a human person who died more than 350 years ago? In fact, a rationalist cannot understand what has happened to so many people during the time of this most unique week in the land of M. Vincent. He would see people walking in front of an “object of precious metal” (that which the Christians call a reliquary), making gestures and therefore, presuming that all of this was some form of superstition. But then that is what happens when we reduce the human being to a group of cells and fluids … we cannot understand that something out of the ordinary is occurring before our very eyes … therefore …
For people who are not familiar with this, devotion to the relics of the saints can appear as something that is outdated and old fashioned … something for the weak minded. If all of this is seen as coded language reserved for initiates, then such a view is a misinterpretation of popular piety and liturgy. But it is the language of symbols and meaning. To understand what is hidden behind this form of communication a simple experiment is enough. With any group of people, greet them with some gesture of the hand … in other words, greet persons 1, 2 and 4 with some hand gesture and do not do the same to persons 3 and 5. You will soon realize that persons 3 and 5 become interested in a gesture that hides meaning from them and yet is meaningful to someone else. Those who are not greeted will feel excluded, and begin to wonder why they were not taken into consideration. We have to admit that such behavior is offensive. A rationalist, however, would simply see that one person did not shake the hand of another, but would not understand the many different reactions. The liturgy, the official celebration of the Church, is something similar to this. Seen from the outside, it cannot be understood. One has to be initiated, or at least be attentive to the reactions that the gestures produce in the people involved. In that way, one begins to see that some important is at stake.
For one week, the heart of St. Vincent was on pilgrimage in the Diocese of Landas. It was not expected that many people would come forward to participate in such an event. Yet during each celebration, some twenty to fifty people gathered together, sang hymns in a very animated manner, were attentive to the scripture readings, and prayed a litany in honor of St. Vincent (a litany that referred this saint’s love of God). The highlight of each of these gatherings was the veneration of the reliquary.
To understand this we might ask: What do we do when we love someone? We want to have a photo of them (just look at the number of photos we keep on our cell phones!). When these beloved people are far away from us, we want to make them present to us and we do so by viewing their photograph. If something is not right, we might find renewed strength by looking at that photo. When we are at a crossroad, we might also recall the counsel of this loved one … such experiences provide us with inspiration to continue our journey through life.
The same thing happens with regard to this devotion to the relics of the saints. Those who, with faith and conviction, engage in this form of popular piety have something has to teach us. There is an intensity that reveals itself on the physical level at the moment a devotee approaches the relic. For a few seconds, there is a moment of deep intimacy, a communion with the one being venerated. It is as though some spiritual energy is moving between the relic and the individual standing in front of the relic. It is a moment in time that is both intimate and communal … all those persons participating in such an event experience a certain joy and a desire to imitate this saintly person through deepening their relationship with God and with their sisters and brothers.
After such a celebration, usually, some informal exchange takes place. It is interesting to see how many of those who have participated in this event cannot find words to describe their experience. There is no doubt that these persons have had an intense encounter in which they experienced on a deep level the outpouring of God’s love in the presence of a saintly person who had a far-reaching impact on history. Such an event opens people to the spiritual world, to that life that continues beyond their present life in this world.
While some participants might behave in a mechanical manner, it is easy to identify those who are sincere and authentic … the emotional experience is the same for almost everyone, for the elderly who can easily recall other traditional practices, for men and women in the prime of their life or children who might be participating in such an event for the first time in their life. One need only see the joy, well-being, spontaneity, smiles, conviviality that are revealed at the conclusion of these traditional practices of the Church to understand that they are not things of the past but respond to a need, a thirst that is difficult to express in our technological, mercantilist and materialistic society. For many, it is a path to liberation in which they can be bold as they express their faith in something transcendent.
There may be some hesitancy in all of this … the veneration of relics perhaps could be compared to the situation of that woman who had been sick for more than eighteen years and who said: if I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured. Jesus then turned to her and said: your faith has saved you; go in peace and be cured of your affliction (Mark 5:25-34),
The practice of this devotion means that we are willing to question our faith, our relationship with the divine, and our belief in the communion of the saints. In his letter Saint James provides us with a criterion to evaluate our faith, namely, our works (James 2:14-18).
In the midst of the world that often is lacking in solidarity toward the more vulnerable members of society, we pray that the veneration of the heart of St. Vincent de Paul might be the occasion to renew the practice of charity toward people who are abandoned and neglected. The veneration of this relic should make us more aware of the gospel message of unconditional love and the message to continue to build up the kingdom of God
At the end of this Jubilee Year, the heart of St. Vincent will have visited forty-five different dioceses in France. This is an extraordinary time of grace and we should all raise our voices in prayerful thanks to God.
Charles T. Plock, CM