High Altar Relief
Our patron St. John Berchmans was born in Diest, Belgium, March 13, 1599, and baptized in the Church of St. Sulpice the following day. With his beatification in 1865, a beautiful shrine was built in his home parish, with stained glass related to the life and death of the saint a reliquary with a large, visible relic of St. John, and a high altar relief of the scene of his Last Holy Communion.
On Sunday, August 17, our new high altar relief, which is based on the one in St. Sulpice, will be unveiled and blessed. For this great occasion, we are happy to welcome the pastor of the Church of St. Sulpice, our patron’s home parish! “Fr. Felix” will be accompanied by a seminarian of their diocese who is from the same town as our patron.
On August 13, the anniversary of the death of St. John Berchmans and the old feast day of the saint, they will go to the Shrine of St. John Berchmans in Grand Coteau, site of one of the miracles accepted by the Vatican for his canonization. Their ‘pilgrimage’ to Grand Coteau and to our Cathedral has been a source of great joy for the community in Diest and for their diocese. They count it a blessing that their pastor will visit that holy site, which they have all heard about but never seen, and will visit the only Cathedral that has him as a patron.
The scene of the Last Holy Communion of St. John Berchmans was sculpted in marble from Macedonia (north of Greece), in a studio outside of Rome. It depicts our saint as he is about to receive his Last Holy Communion, which was well documented right after his death, in anticipation of canonization proceedings as he had lived such a holy life.
First of all, even before his reception of First Holy Communion, our patron manifested a piety which far exceeded the ordinary. He reverently served at Holy Mass early each morning, sometimes two Masses in a row. In all that St. John did, he sought perfection, and he never encountered anything but the highest favor for his services, wherever he was placed. Such was the humility and profound charity and interior peace which caused the young saint to advance without ceasing on the road to heaven. Throughout his three years a Jesuit novice in Rome, he gave unceasing proofs of his already perfected sanctity; nothing he did was left to chance, but entrusted to the intercession of his Heavenly Mother, to whom his devotion continued to increase day by day.
This zealous servant of Mary, always ardent in honoring the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, was not content with believing it from the bottom of his heart, but wanted to write a work fit for publication, that everyone should know of this mystery; he promised to defend the truth of it by all the means in his power. He composed a Chaplet in honor of the Immaculate Conception. It was in the following terms that he made this promise, which was found in his own hand-writing amongst his papers after his death: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, in the presence of your dear Son, whom I believe to be truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, I promise to Him and to you that I will ever believe and defend, to the end of my life, the truth of your Immaculate Conception. … Nothing can be more consoling during life, than to pass a great part of it with our Lord residing in the Blessed Sacrament; and nothing can be more consoling in death, than to have truly loved our crucified God.” Profound was his love of our Lord in the Eucharist.
The story of his last days is touching indeed; in a residence of several hundred priests and students, there was none who did not follow with anxiety and compassion the progress of his illness, after he had been overcome by a fever. It became clear that he would not recover. When the infirmarian told his patient that he would probably receive Holy Communion the next morning — an exception to the rule prescribing it for Sundays only, in those times — John said: “In Viaticum?” and received a sad affirmative answer. He himself was transported with joy and embraced the Brother; the latter broke into tears. A priest who knew the young saint well went to him the next morning and asked him if there was anything troubling or saddening him, and St. John replied: “Absolutely nothing.”
From the writings of Fr. Cepari, who gave St. John his last communion (the scene of the high altar relief):
A mattress was then laid on the floor, and he was stretched upon it, in the habit he loved so well. The room began rapidly to fill, and none could restrain their tears when they saw the wasted frame of him they loved so well on that lowly bed, and heard the burning words of love which, as if unconscious of their presence, he addressed, now to Jesus, and now to Mary. Towards half-past four, a number of the community and all the juniors issued from the church, walking two and two, reverently and sadly. Father Rector closed the procession with the adorable Body of our Lord. As they entered, and the blessing of the room and the Confiteor was gone through, Berchmans lay motionless, absorbed in prayer; but the moment the Father drew near to place the Sacred Host on his tongue, then, he bounded up and threw himself on his knees, but his love was greater than his strength, and he would have fallen had not two who were at his side supported him under each arm. And kneeling thus, in face of his Sacramental Lord, he broke forth into a magnificent Latin act of faith, unstudied and unprepared, his voice vibrating with love, which gave it a power and clearness far beyond its natural strength. “I declare that there is here really present the Son of God the Father Almighty, and of the most Blessed Mary, ever a Virgin. I confess that I wish to live and die a true son of our holy Mother the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church. I affirm that I wish to live and die a true son of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I wish to live and to die a son of the Society.” … As soon as John had received his Lord, he bowed down his head, placed his arms cross wise on his breast, and remained completely taken up with the fervent reception he offered his Heavenly Guest. Nearby were his little crucifix and his rule-book, with the rosary twined round them.
These unexpected words, spoken with such deep devotion, moved all present to tears. Then he received Holy Eucharist as Viaticum, the food for the journey from this life to the next, and the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, Extreme Unction.
Their angelic, ever joyous and affectionate young novice was called to leave them; no clearer tribute than their tears could have been offered to the reality of his sanctity, his participation in the effusive goodness of the divine nature.
Devotion to his memory spread rapidly in Belgium; already in 1624 twelve engraving establishments of Anvers had published his portrait. He was beatified in 1865 and, after a miraculous cure of a sister in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, was attributed to him, he was canonized 1888. Our parish was established 14 years later, in 1902.