Feastday: October 17
In seventeenth-century France the faith of the people had been badly shaken; there was rebellion against the Church and neglect of its teachings; the rise of Protestantism and the spread of the heresy of Jansenism both had a part in the weakening of the structure built up through the ages. But as every threat brings its response, so now there rose up fresh, strong forces to counter these trends. Three famous religious, who are today venerated as saints, were particularly effective: John Eudes and Claude de la Columbiere were French Jesuit priests and writers; Margaret Mary Alacoque was a simple nun of the order of the Visitation. Their special work was to popularize the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. To represent this trio and this movement, we have chosen Margaret Mary Alacoque.
She was born in 1647 at Janots, a small town of Burgundy, the fifth of seven children, of Claude and Philiberte Alacoque. Her father was a prosperous notary; the family owned a country house and farmland, and had some aristocratic connections. Margaret's godmother was a neighbor, the Countess of Corcheval. As a small child Margaret spent a great deal of time with her, but these visits were brought to a sudden end by the death of the countess. The father died of pneumonia when Margaret was about eight, and this was another severe shock to the little girl. Claude had loved his family dearly but had been short-sighted and extravagant. His death put them in hard straits. However, Margaret was sent to school with the Urbanist Sisters at Charolles. She loved the peace and order of the convent life, and the nuns were so impressed by her devotion that she was allowed to make her First Communion at the age of nine. A rheumatic affliction kept her bedridden for four years.
During this time she was brought home, where some of her father's relatives had moved in and taken over the direction of the farm and household. She and her mother were disregarded, and treated almost as servants. This painful situation grew more acute after Margaret's recovery, for the relatives tried to regulate all her comings and goings. Not allowed to attend church as often as she pleased, the young girl was sometimes seen weeping and praying in a corner of the garden. It grieved her deeply that she could not ease things for her mother. Her eldest brother's coming of age saved the day, for the property now reverted to him, and the family again had undisputed possession of their home.
Philiberte expressed a hope that Margaret would marry; the girl considered the step, inflicting severe austerities upon herself during a period of indecision. At the age of twenty, inspired by a vision, she put aside all such thoughts and resolved to enter a convent. While awaiting admission, she tried to help and teach certain neglected children of the village. At twenty-two she made her profession at the convent of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial. The nuns of the Order of the Visitation, founded in the early years of the seventeenth century by St. Francis de Sales, were famed for their humility and selflessness. As a novice Margaret excelled in these virtues. When she made her profession, the name of Mary was added and she was called Margaret Mary. She began a course of mortifications and penances which were to continue, with more or less intensity, as long as she lived. We are told that she was assigned to the infirmary and was not very skillful at her tasks.
Some years passed quietly in the convent, and then Margaret Mary began to have experiences which seemed to be of supernatural origin. The first of these occurred on December 27, 1673, when she was kneeling at the grille in the chapel. She felt suffused by the Divine Presence, and heard the Lord inviting her to take the place which St. John had occupied at the Last Supper. The Lord told her that the love of His heart must spread and manifest itself to men, and He would reveal its graces through her.
This was the beginning of a series of revelations covering a period of eighteen months. When Margaret Mary went to the Superior, Mother de Saumaise, with an account of these mystical experiences, claiming that she, an humble nun, had been chosen as the transmitter of a new devotion to the Sacred Heart, she was reprimanded for her presumption. Seriously overwrought, Margaret Mary suffered a collapse, and became so ill that her life was despaired of. Now the Mother Superior reflected that she might have erred in scorning the nun's story and vowed that if her life were spared, she would take it as a sign that the visions and messages were truly from God. When Margaret Mary recovered, the Superior invited some theologians who happened to be in the town -they included a Jesuit and a Benedictine-to hear the story. These priests listened and judged the young nun to be a victim of delusions. Their examination had been a sheer torture to Margaret Mary. Later a Jesuit, Father Claude de la Columbiere, talked to her and was completely convinced of the genuineness of the revelations. He was to write of the nun and to inaugurate this devotion in England.
For many years the nun suffered from despair, from self-inflicted punishments, and also from the slights and contempt of those around her. In 1681 Father Claude returned to the convent and died there the following year. Margaret Mary was appointed assistant and novice-mistress by a new Mother Superior who was more sympathetic towards her. Opposition ceased-or at least was restrained-after an account of Margaret Mary's visions was read aloud in the refectory from the writings left by Father Claude, who had taken it upon himself to make known to the world the nun's remarkable experiences. That she was finally vindicated was to her a matter of indifference. When she was forty-three, while serving a second term as assistant superior, Margaret Mary fell ill. Sinking rapidly, she received the Last Sacraments, saying, "I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the heart of Jesus."
Although the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was practiced before this time, it now gained a strong new impetus through the work of Father John Eudes and the writings of Father Claude. The Sacred Heart is regarded as "the symbol of that boundless love which moved the Word to take flesh, to institute the Holy Eucharist, to take our sins upon Himself, and, dying on the Cross, to offer Himself as a victim and sacrifice to the eternal Father." The cult first became popular in France, then spread to Poland and other countries, including, at a later period, the United States. The first petition to the Holy See for the institution of the feast was from Queen Mary, consort of James II of England. The month of June is appointed for this devotion, and since 1929 the feast has been one of the highest rank.
It was just as Jansenism was causing a "coldness" to enter into Catholic life in France, that the revelations to St Margaret Mary Alacoque, concerning devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were made.
This was a devotion in which the heart symbolised Jesus' perfect love for mankind; it began to grow in importance in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and was later promoted by St Gertrude and St Bonaventure amongst others.
St Gertrude (died 1302) is said to have had a vision of St John the Evangelist on his feast day, where he told her that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was reserved for subsequent ages, when the world would need to be reminded of his infinite love.
This devotion was very much a private affair until about the sixteenth century when it came more into the mainstream of Christian practice, particularly under the influence of writers such as St Francis de Sales and prominent Jesuits such as St Francis Borgia and St Peter Canisius.
It was still essentially a private devotion, though, until St John Eudes worked to establish a feast day, which was first celebrated in 1670. This feast of the Sacred Heart gradually spread to other dioceses in France and eventually coalesced with the devotion that began as a result of the apparitions of Jesus to St Margaret Mary, in the small town of Paray-le-Monial in central France.
Earlier in the seventeenth century France had been consecrated to Mary by Louis XIII, an example followed by a number of other nations including Portugal.
The first apparition took place on 27 December, the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, probably in 1673, while Margaret Mary was a nun in the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial. There is some uncertainty as to the precise dates of the apparitions, but not their content).
She related what happened to Fr. Claude de la Colombiere, who was in charge of the Jesuit house in the town, describing how she had a vision of Jesus during which she was given some idea of the greatness of his love for mankind.
Jesus told her that he wanted her to tell the people of this love, and a similar theme was expressed during the second apparition, early in 1674, when Margaret Mary saw Jesus' Sacred Heart on a throne of flames, transparent as crystal, surrounded by a crown of thorns signifying the sins of mankind, with a cross above it.
Again Jesus told her of his infinite love for mankind and his desire that he should be honoured through the display of this image of his heart, with the promise that all who did so would be specially blessed.
The third apparition probably took place on 2 July 1674, while Margaret Mary was praying before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, that is the host consecrated during Mass which had become the Body of Christ. She saw a vision of Jesus in glory, with his five wounds shining like suns, and he then showed her his heart on fire with love for mankind, a love that unfortunately was often ignored or treated with contempt.
He asked her to make up for this coldness and ingratitude by receiving Holy Communion as often as she was allowed, and particularly on the first Friday of each month. This idea of making reparation for the sins of others is also prominent in the messages given by Mary to the children at Fatima in 1917.
The fourth apparition, which probably took place on 16 June 1675, was the most important. Again it happened as Margaret Mary was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, when he again showed her a representation of his heart, further complaining of the ingratitude and coldness of mankind towards him, and particularly when this was the case with those specially consecrated to him.
To make up for this he asked that the first Friday after the feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for the "Body of Christ"), should be dedicated as a feast in honour of his Sacred Heart, when people should receive Holy Communion in reparation.
The "Great promise" associated with this devotion applied to those who went to Communion on nine consecutive First Fridays: "I promise you, in the excess of the mercy of My Heart, that Its all-powerful love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure nor without receiving the Sacraments, My Divine Heart becoming their assured refuge at that last hour."
These promises have been endorsed by successive Popes, and were explicitly mentioned in the bull of St Margaret Mary's canonisation authorised by Benedict XV. Obviously this last promise in particular is dependent on people adopting an interior attitude of love towards Jesus, and not abusing his goodness.
This promise is really one of the grace of final repentance, that is of dying in a state of grace, and so there is some similarity here to the promise attached to the brown scapular. If somebody dies in this state then although they may have to spend time in purgatory they will eventually get to heaven.
To qualify for this tremendous grace it is necessary to receive Holy Communion validly and worthily, that is not being in a state of mortal sin, on the nine consecutive first Fridays as stated. In addition the communicant must have the intention, at least implicitly, of making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for all the sinfulness and ingratitude of mankind.
This promise is paralleled by the one made to Lucia, that of the Five First Saturdays, following the apparitions at Fatima.
This series of apparitions has been approved by the Church, which has vouched for their authenticity as far as is possible. The writings of Margaret Mary, which included these revelations and her letters, were examined during the process of her beatification, and she would not have been canonised, that is declared a saint, if they were not reliable.
Likewise, the popes have expressed their approval of these apparitions, with their essential content being included in the bull of canonisation by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, while the feast of the Sacred Heart has been established in the Church calendar as requested.
OUR LORD'S PROMISES TO ST. MARGARET MARY
The Great Promise
"I promise you, in the excessive mercy of my heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Friday for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance; they shall not die in my disgrace nor without receiving the sacraments; my divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in that last moment."
1. "I will give them all the graces necessary for their state in life."
2. "I will give peace in their families."
3. "I will console them in all their troubles."
4. "They shall find in My Heart an assured refuge during life and especially at the hour of death."
5. "I will pour abundant blessings on all their undertakings."
6. "Sinners shall find in My Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy."
7. "Tepid souls shall become fervent."
8. "Fervent souls shall speedily rise to great perfection."
9. "I will bless the homes in which the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and honored."
10. "I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts."
11. "Those who propagate this devotion shall have their name written in My Heart, and it shall never be effaced."
12. "The all-powerful love of My Heart will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the First Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure, nor without receiving their Sacraments; My Heart shall be their assured refuge at the last hour."
EWTN: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
RETURN TO THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS RING