St Claude de la Colombière: apostle of the Sacred Heart

The devotion to the Sacred Heart that characterises the month of June is linked above all to the figure of St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), a nun of the order of the Visitation, founded by St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal. It was to this humble nun that Providence entrusted a great supernatural remedy against a new heresy that was born in the seventeenth century.

This new heresy was Jansenism, a religious movement that on the dogmatic level overturned the Catholic doctrine of grace, pushing it towards Calvinism, and on the moral level locked Christian life in a grim and unbearable rigorism. The Jansenists ignored the role of mercy, appealing only to the implacable divine justice. But beyond the theological and moral errors, the worst Jansenist snare lay in its attempt to reform the Church from within and no longer from without, as Protestantism had tried to do. Jansenism intended to remain in the Church without being condemned, and on the contrary, seeking the condemnation of its opponents who, at that time, were above all the Jesuits, the most faithful defenders of Roman orthodoxy.

The plans of divine providence toppled this programme of destruction for the Church. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the instrument of this extraordinary intervention of grace, was born in Burgundy in 1647, and had to overcome her parents’ resistance in order to enter the Visitandines of the convent of Paray-le-Monial at the age of twenty-four. There she was misunderstood by her sisters and misjudged by the superiors until, in 1675, Fr Claude de la Colombière, who was then thirty-four years old but had already distinguished himself for his piety and doctrine, was appointed rector of the Jesuit college of Paray-le-Monial. In agreement with his superior, in addition to the vow of obedience to the pope, Fr de la Colombière had taken the heroic vow of observing all the rules of his order under penalty of sin.

His superiors entrusted him with a task that appeared secondary, because they knew that, at the Monastery of the Visitation, there was a nun who was favoured by revelations from heaven. Sister Margaret Mary, for her part, was waiting for the Lord to fulfil His promise to send her His “faithful servant and perfect friend”, to carry out the mission for which He had destined her: to demonstrate to the world the inscrutable riches of His love.

Once Fr de la Colombière arrived at his new destination, he met Sr Margaret Mary and became her spiritual director, guiding her in her spiritual life and suggesting that she write down everything that was happening in her soul. During the octave of Corpus Christi in 1675, Jesus, showing His Heart to Margaret, said to her, “Behold the Heart which has so loved men and in return receives nothing but ingratitude, contempt, irreverence, sacrilege and coldness in this Sacrament of Love.”

Jansenism was an oppressive and distressing conception of God. The Sacred Heart appeared to St Margaret Mary Alacoque stating instead that one must abandon oneself to His Love, and formulating the great promise of the nine first Fridays of the month: 

“I promise you in the excess of the mercy of my Heart that my almighty Love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the first Friday of the month, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final perseverance; they will not die under my displeasure, nor without receiving the Sacraments, my Heart becoming their assured refuge at that last hour.” 

The Lord then said to the Visitandine nun: 

“Speak to my servant, Father de la Colombière, and tell him on my behalf to do everything possible to propagate this devotion and to give this pleasure to my divine Heart … He must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself and places all his trust in Me alone.”

Margaret communicated her message to the Father and both of them, on 21 June, consecrated themselves to the Heart of Jesus and multiplied their efforts to spread this devotion. Theirs was an indissoluble spiritual friendship with extraordinary fruits.

After a year and a half at Paray-le-Monial, in 1676 Fr de la Colombière was sent to London, as chaplain to the young Duchess of York, Maria Beatrice d’Este, known in England as Mary of Modena because she was daughter of the Duke of Modena, Alfonso d’Este. Mary of Modena had married James Stuart, Duke of York, who, upon the death of his brother Charles II in 1685, would reign under the name of James II until the revolution of 1688, which crushed the possibility of a Catholic restoration of England. James had secretly converted to Catholicism, while his wife suffered harsh opposition due to her Catholic faith.

In fiercely Protestant London, however, there was a Catholic enclave centred on the church of St James, Spanish Place, where, from 1676 to 1679, Fr de la Colombière preached, dedicating himself to the education of English Catholics or ex-Catholics in the true faith. Two centuries later, on 11 October 1865, Rafael Merry del Val, a future cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, would be baptised in this Church.

Suddenly, at the end of 1678, Fr de la Colombière was arrested under the slanderous accusation of being involved in a sham “papal plot”. He was put in King’s Bench Prison, where he remained for three weeks, subjected to severe privations, but by virtue of his position at court and his French citizenship he escaped the death sentence and was expelled from England. He returned to Paray-le-Monial, where he died, aged just 41, on 15 February 1682. From that day, in her personal prayer, Saint Margaret Mary added to the litany of the saints, “Saint Claude, pray for us!”

Claude de la Colombière was beatified in 1929 by Pope Pius XI, and canonised in 1992 by John Paul II. In 2023 the Italian publishing house AdP republished his spiritual diary, which deserves to be read by all who wish to deepen their devotion to the Sacred Heart, but also by anyone who wants to understand how to live in a spirit of complete abandonment to Divine Providence. In the diary, St Claude outlines this programme: “Living day by day. Hoping to die in the occupation that we carry out.” To seek, in a word, perfection in the present moment, not worrying about our tomorrow and blindly entrusting ourselves to God. “My God,” he writes, “I am intimately convinced that the trust I have in You will never be too much, and that what I obtain from You will always be beyond what I have hoped for.”

The spirit of abandonment to Providence and devotion to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary are more necessary than ever for instilling supernatural life and warmth in an age, like our own, in which souls so often seem frozen and devoid of the fire of divine love.