Whenever I attend Mass on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I am consoled by these words from the Gospel.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11: 29-30)
By them, Jesus not only assures me that a place of rest exists for me here and now, but with very little ado, He tells me how to get there. Since we often complicate things, God scatters holy men, women, and children throughout our history who somehow “get it”; in their daily living, they serve as examples of Christ among us In word and deed. Some of these people we now call saints. When it comes to understanding the heart in the lesson of the Gospel verses above, I have a special saint who brings me closer to the One whose heart beats madly for each one of us.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
My devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus led me to learn more about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. This, in turn, led me to learn about her confessor, a Jesuit priest named Claude de La Colombieie, who was canonized some 300 years after his death, by Pope John Paul II, on May 31, 1992. Was he a remarkable saint like Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, or John Paul the Great? No. Was he a meek and humble saint? Remarkably so. This is not to say meekness and humility are not commonly evident in persons we view as holy, but these virtues were certainly hallmarks of this particular priest. I love him for so beautifully exemplifying these virtues inseparable from the Heart of Jesus through whom he loved everyone and everything. These virtues, together with his quiet, determined struggle against self-perceived vices made him a better agent through whom God could bring souls to Himself. These are the reasons St. Claude attracts and inspires me.
Fr. Claude de La Colombiere
Claude de La Colombiere was born of noble parents in southeastern France at Symphorien d’Ozon, on February 2, 1641. At the age of 17, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Avignon. In 1666, he returned to Lyons as a priest, after completing his theological studies and having taught literature and grammar at the Jesuit College in Avignon for 5 years. From that time until 1674, he was occupied as a teacher at the Jesuit College in Lyons, taking on the duties, also, of preacher and moderator for the Marian Congregations of the area.
Then, in 1674, near the end of his yearly retreat, Fr. La Colombiere, was inspired to make a vow of perfection. By it, he vowed to strictly adhere to the rule and constitutions of his order under penalty of serious sin. It was not an obligatory vow for the Jesuits, but one which was open to him and which he freely made. Not only was this vow to serve him well in his struggle for perfection, but, by the hand of God, it prepared him for the mission, as yet unknown to him, for which he would passionately spend the remaining years of his life.
St. Claude encountered St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Only two months later, in February 1675, Fr. Colombiere was assigned to be the superior at the Jesuit house in the Visitation Monastery at Paray-Le-Monial. It was here that he encountered St. Margaret Mary Alacoque who was filled with confusion about the visions of Jesus she had been receiving. One of her confessors had told her she was being taken in by the devil, and she knew her Mother Superior also cautiously doubted the authenticity of her visions. Jesus had communicated to Sr. Margaret Mary, however, that He was sending her to His “perfect friend” to allay her fears and doubts and to be her guide and help in the mission He entrusted to her. The mission was no less than to spread the message of the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus throughout the world and to establish in the Church a solemn universal feast day in honor of His Sacred Heart on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi.
Shortly after the arrival of Fr. La Colombiere, as he was preaching to the Visitation community, Sr. Margaret Mary “heard these words in [her] heart: He is the one I sent you”. After confessing to the new priest, Margaret Mary wrote the following:
Immediately, without hurting me, he discovered the good and the bad in my heart. It consoled me very much and he exhorted me not to be afraid of God’s ways as long as I remain obedient to my superiors, renewing my offering totally to God, so He can treat me as He pleases. Father Claude showed me to appreciate God’s gifts and to receive them with faith and humility.
God used Fr. Claude to free the heart of St. Margaret Mary from fear. Then, the message of the Sacred Heart’s love for humanity was let loose upon the world just when the errors of Jansenism had spread everywhere., Even though more than a century would pass before the required feast day was proclaimed by the Church, people seemed to thirst for the Devotion from the moment it was introduced to them. The Jansenists brought on a prolonged and fierce persecution on the Sacred Heart devotion; many of its devotees were victimized, some even lost their lives, for their unwavering loyalty and adherence to it.
Fr. La Colombiere was at Paray-Le-Monial only one and a half years when he was sent to the Palace of St. James in England to be a preacher to the Duchess of York, Mary of Modena (later, Queen of Great Britain), a devout Catholic. Once in England, Fr. Claude’s continual efforts to draw attention to the message of Jesus, defeat the errors of Jansenism, and bring many of the lost back to the faith, came in the form of sound preaching, well-written pamphlets, and an adeptness for spiritual direction which few holy men have possessed. He was able to guide Sr. Margaret Mary by letter but not without difficulty,
Near the end of 1678, Fr. Claude was falsely accused amidst a web of lies created in the Titus Oates scandal concerning a plot to kill Charles II. Several people, including a number of Jesuit priests, were executed on account of the deception. Fr. Claude was arrested and spent three weeks in one of England’s harsher prisons. He was already very ill because of the country’s climate and his intense zeal for God which permitted him no rest. Because of his favor at the court and his protection as a subject of Louis XIV, Fr. La Colombiere escaped execution and was instead exiled to France in early 1679. However, his health was completely ruined by pulmonary disease. He prayed for patient endurance and for his enemies during these trials, uniting his sufferings to those of Christ on the cross who prayed for and forgave His persecutors.
Fr. Claude de La Colombiere returned to Paray-Le-Monial in the summer of 1681, thinking the climate might help to repair his health. He died suddenly on the first Sunday of Lent, February 15, 1682, just following his 41st birthday, after a massive hemorrhage of his lungs. Sr. Margaret Mary, still present at the monastery, received joyful confidence from Jesus at the death of her holy spiritual director: Fr. Claude was now safely home in the arms of Our Lord. From his spiritual notes, written in Lyons, 1674, we see his acceptance of death:
Our Lord requires a great sacrifice of me, and that is to make up my mind to do nothing if it is His will. I must be ready to die and to sacrifice in death my zeal and the great desire I have to work for the sanctification of souls; or I must be ready to live on in silence, weak and ill, being no more than a burden wherever I find myself. (The Spiritual Direction of Saint Claude de La Colombiere,p. 47.)
Through the letters, journals and sermons of Fr. La Colombiere assembled after his death, we are graced with a window into the special soul of a man wholly, and most humbly, given to God. Nor would he let any soul in his charge fall short of her or his call to holiness by omitting in word or example what one needed to hear. A good example is from a letter from London, 1678:
I see that you have at last found the secret of true peace: not to examine your present state and to abandon the past and future entirely to God’s mercy; to have a great idea of his goodness, which is infinitely greater than you can express, and to believe, in spite of anything that tries to persuade you to the contrary, that you are loved by him in spite of all your miseries. (Ibid., p. 54.)
It was this merciful love alone that he had absolute confidence would ultimately join him, in all his unworthiness to the Heart of the Master whom he loved. “Of all the saints in the calendar of the Church, few can have been less aware of their sanctity than was Colombiere.” (Ibid.)
In his spiritual direction, Fr. Claude was gentle, but to the point, always honest and inspiring his listeners to overcome self-doubt, putting full trust in the mercy and goodness of God. In a letter from Lyons, 1679, about two years before Colombiere’s death he advises:
“I recommend you to go to Holy Communion the day after the octave of Corpus Christi in reparation for all the irreverence shown to Jesus Christ while he has been exposed on all the altars of the Catholic world during this octave. This practice was recommended to me by a person of extraordinary sanctity who assured me that all those who give Our Lord this sign of love will derive great fruit from it. (The Spiritual Direction of Saint Claude de La Colombiere, p. 22.)
St. Claude de La Colombiere
In his homily at the canonization of St. Claude de La Colombiere, Pope John Paul II described our saint as “extraordinarily attracted to everything human, yet so generous with God.” His life was a continual taking on of the yoke of Christ, patiently, persistently learning from Him to be humble and gentle heart for the sake of other souls, for his own sanctification, and for the greater glory of God revealed in the infinite love and mercy of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The required message, by way of two obedient and humble souls, had begun its journey to the hearts of all humankind.
For further reading:
The Spiritual Direction of St. Claude de La Colombiere. Mother M. Philip, I. B. V. M. [Translator], Ignatius Press, 2018.
The Faithful Servant: Spiritual Retreats and Letters of Blessed Claude La Colombiere. La Colombiere, Claude: Young, William J. [Translator]: Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011.
The Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary. Alacoque, Margaret Mary. St. Benedict Press, LLC, 2009.