Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

This post is brought to you by the letter “V” — as in “veneration.”

Trust me, as someone who has made the journey from being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son to ancient Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I am well aware that talking about prayer and the saints is a theological minefield. Part of the problem is that some Catholics do, from time to time, use language that is a bit, well, sloppy or sentimental when talking about the saints. This then lights fuses for many Protestants who are quick to attack centuries of tradition seen in ancient churches.

Now, mix in a news hook that involves “relics” and you have the potential for mistakes that can cause waves of angry emails to the newsroom.

So here is the Gannett Tennessee wire story that I want to praise. The headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel version: “Why the (literal) heart of Saint Jean Vianney is coming to Knoxville.”

NASHVILLE — Catholics in Tennessee are lining up to see a relic of a nineteenth century French priest.

The heart of Saint Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, is traveling the country and making a one-day stop at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. … On Wednesday, the heart relic was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

After the morning Mass wrapped up, churchgoers stood single file in the center aisle waiting to take in the small, dark object nestled in an ornate, gold case. The relic is considered to be the physical, incorrupted heart of Vianney, who died Aug. 4, 1859.

The faithful took turns quietly kneeling before the relic under the watchful eye of a member of the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal Catholic organization is not only sponsoring the relic's seven-month tour of the U.S., but guarding it while on public display.

Right. The big word is “kneeling.” Here in the Bible Belt that kind of language, and action, can make lots of people sweat.

But the story quickly turns to the Rev. Edward Steiner, pastor of the Nashville cathedral, for an explanation of what is happening and what is NOT happening:

The Catholics who approached the relic are not worshiping it, Steiner said, but venerating it.

"We're giving it honor because of what it represents," Steiner said. "Paying attention to that object, that relic, is to propel us beyond it ... to venerate it is to propel us beyond the object to Christ himself."

This is where reporters usually dig into another subject — prayer.

What are the worshippers saying or thinking while they are on their knees, gazing at a human heart that — according to the natural way of things after death — should have decayed decades ago? (In my own tradition, most people have familiar prayers that they say while facing specific icons of saints, prayers that ask the saints to join with the faithful in prayers to God, to Jesus and the Holy Trinity.)

I have found, when writing about this topic, that actually quoting one or more of these prayers is usually helpful — since they include references to the saint, but also to the God who hears all prayers. It’s OK to quote texts from worship, which tend to add information as well as authenticity.

A few years ago, I went to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and interviewed the Rev. Arne Panula on this topic for a column with this headline: “Praying with (or to?) John Paul II.”

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this — needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.

"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not."

Tiny words that point to a big distinction. It is very common to hear Catholics say that they pray “to” a saint and reporters, as well as Protestants, do not see the larger picture here.

Of course, lots of readers are going to be thinking: Why do they need to talk to a cloud of witnesses (yes, some will just say “dead people”) anyway? Why not just pray to God? Truth is, people in ancient churches have — for 2,000 years — done both, a whole lot. Ancient liturgies are packed with prayers to God, to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit, as well as asking St. Mary and the saints of the ages to join in these prayers.

What’s the point? Be careful out there, reporters.

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