The Heart of Saint John Berchmans Comes to the Cathedral

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Unique Relic Comes to Shreveport in Honor of Saint’s 150th Anniversary of Miracle in Louisiana
by Jessica Rinaudo

On December 8, the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans will host a unique and exciting historical and spiritual event when a rare Catholic relic – the literal heart of Saint John Berchmans – makes its way from Belgium to Shreveport. This special event coincides with the 150th anniversary of the apparition and miracle of St. John Berchmans that occurred in Louisiana.

The presence of this relic in our diocese is uniquely special because this is the first time the heart has ever traveled outside of its homeland, modern day Belgium. Accompanied by the pastor of the church where Saint John Berchmans was baptized, the heart will make its way to the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, the only cathedral in the world named for this saint.

Once it arrives, it will stay at the Cathedral from December 8 – 18, except for one day, December 14, when it will travel to Grand Coteau, Louisiana, the site of the apparition and miracle. During the heart’s stay at the Cathedral, there are scheduled times for veneration and for Mass, as well as a series of events and talks related to the saint and relics that are free and open to the public.

Who was Saint John Berchmans?

John Berchmans was born in 1599 in Diest, which is modern day Belgium.  In 1615, at age 16, John enrolled in a newly opened Jesuit college. There he felt called to join the Society of Jesus despite his father’s wishes to the contrary. In 1616, he entered the Jesuit novitiate.

John was known for his kindness and endearing personality and he wished to become an army chaplain after being ordained and in hopes of being martyred on the battlefield.  He was known for valuing little, ordinary things and for his special devotion to Mary. All those who knew him, and even those who only glimpsed him, called him “the Angel” for his purity and ability to chase away sadness.

After making his first vows in Antwerp, he was sent to Rome to study philosophy. He penned the Chaplet of the Immaculate Conception, which is still prayed today.

In 1621, he succumbed to “Roman fever,” and on August 13, 1621, at the age of 22, he died.

Many stories of miracles have arisen since his death, but the one that led to his canonization took place in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.  At the convent of the Sacred Heart, novice Mary Wilson had fallen gravely ill. She and a group of sisters prayed a novena for healing through the intercession of the recently beatified Blessed John Berchmans. On the ninth and final day of the novena, he appeared to her in her sickness and she was immediately and completely healed.

The Heart of Saint John Berchmans

Relics are an integral part of our rich faith tradition. “The veneration of relics is a communion with the heroes of our Christian faith, asking for their powerful intercession,” said Fr. Peter Mangum, Rector of the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. “Many people have reported outstanding blessings and conversions through this ministry, and many have reported healings.”

“The earliest of churches were built over cemeteries because that’s where the body was,” he continued. “These are the people without whom the faith would not be passed down to the next generation. Even to this day, a little tiny relic is placed into each altar where we place the Body and Blood of Christ. We no longer build churches over cemeteries, so in a sense we bring the cemetery, or we bring part of the relic to the church,” he added.

“Relics are important,” Fr. Mangum continued, “and the relics we normally see are just little fragments of clothing, a habit or something of the saint, even a part of the body. And for us in the United States, we may see a fragment of the bone, almost the size of a splinter. In other areas of the world, especially if a saint is from there, you’ll see perhaps an entire bone intact.”

Why his heart was saved after his death is a subject of curiosity for some, but something that is easily explained. Before Berchmans died, he was already well known for his spirituality and sanctity. Fr. Mangum likened him to modern day Mother Teresa. People knew they were seeing a living, walking saint. People would go to Mass to see him serve.

At the time of John’s death, there was a postmortem examination and his heart was noted to be in good condition.

“He died in the city of Rome in 1621. They couldn’t take his body and cross the Alps, and go all the way back to his home in now modern day northern Belgium,” said Fr. Mangum.  “One of the Flemish Jesuit priests was returning to his homeland and that’s when the decision was made to take his heart. And as he went home – a two and a half months’ journey – the priest stayed at Jesuit houses along the way and the other Jesuits venerated Berchmans’ heart, on bended knee.”

Since that time the heart, under attentive and proper care, has remained relatively incorrupt and now resides in a beautiful reliquary that has remained in Belgium.

The Saint’s Heart in Shreveport
This extraordinary event is garnering a lot of excitement and anticipation. The Cathedral has been contacted by Jesuit groups across the south, and has already scheduled groups to see the planned exhibit on Saint John Berchmans, which will be displayed in the parish hall, as well as have the opportunity to venerate the heart.

The exhibit will include documents from the original canonization process. They haven’t been opened since the late 1800’s, but will be brought to the Diocese of Shreveport by the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ chief archivist, Emilie Leumas.

There will also be extra parish Masses in the evenings and on Saturday morning in addition to their regularly scheduled ones, during which the heart will be present and parishioners and pilgrims alike will have the opportunity to come forward, as individuals or as a family, to venerate the heart and honor the saint, praising the holiness of God.

Of particular note, Edwin Cardinal O’Brien, an American who lives at the Vatican, will be on hand for a public talk and Mass. Fr. Carlos Martins, of Treasures of the Church, will bring relics of many other saints and will speak of the importance of relics. Comic strip artist Andrew Thomas, who has drawn the life story of St. John Berchmans, will offer a public talk and will also speak with the nearly 700 students of Loyola and St. John Berchmans Cathedral School.

“Thomas will evangelize the youth by means of art,” said Fr. Mangum. “They’re looking at this scene, they’re hearing about his life.  He’s going to teach and encourage the people to follow the example and the virtues of this young saint.”

St. John Berchmans was once a well-known and beloved saint – one of only 21 that Pope Leo XIII canonized during his long papacy. But with time and the canonization of more saints, the knowledge of John and his sanctity has faded. Fr. Mangum hopes that bringing this relic to the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans will shine light on him once again.

“My hope is that people will come to know, yet again, about him … appreciate him, his life, his times and have a greater personal devotion and want to follow his example of obedience, chastity, his love of Mary and the Blessed Sacrament, doing all things, even the smallest of things, very, very well. If you’re asked to do something, then do it and put your whole heart into it,” said Fr. Mangum.

The schedule of events, including Masses, speakers and veneration times, is available at www.sjbdevotion.org. Individuals are welcome to all events, but groups should call the Cathedral’s office at 318-221-5296 before coming.

 

Calendar of Events:

The heart will be present at all scheduled parish Masses, as
well as additional evening and weekend Masses. For a full
schedule of Masses, Chaplets of the Immaculate Conception, veneration times and speaking events, visit
www.sjbdevotion.org/calendar-of-events

Thursday, December 8
Immaculate Conception

  • Heart Arrives
  • Parish Masses with Heart present at 12:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (with Bishop Duca).

Sunday, December 11
Gaudete Sunday

  • Dr. Cheryl White, “Theology of Relics,” 9:15 a.m. & 6:30 p.m.
  • Procession with Heart after 11:00 a.m. Mass
  • Traditional Latin Mass, 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday, December 14
150th Anniversary of Apparition and Miracle

  • Heart in Grand Coteau, LA

Thursday, December 15

  • Heart Returns to Shreveport
  • Mass with Bishop Duca, 5:00 p.m.
  • Andrew Thomas, “New Evangelization Using Comics to Spread the Gospel Messages to Our Youth,” 6:30 p.m.

Friday, December 16

  • Fr. Carlos Martins, “Exposition of Sacred Relics,” 6:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 17

  • Fr. Carlos Martins, “Exposition of Sacred Relics,” 9:00 a.m.
  • Emilie Leumas, “Presentation and Exhibition of Archival Material from SJB Canonization Proceedings,” 10:00 a.m.
  • Fr. Peter Mangum, “The Heart of St. John Berchmans,” 11:00 a.m.

Sunday, December 18
Fourth Sunday of Advent

  • Heart’s Last Day at Cathedral Mass, 8:00 a.m.
  • Mass with Edwin Cardinal O’Brien, 11:00 a.m.
  • Final Veneration until 2:30 p.m.

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