Apostle of the Sacred Heart - St Margaret Mary Alacoque

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the canonisation of St Margaret Mary Alacoque.

I have visited the chapel in the town of Paray-le-Monial where this sister experienced apparitions of the Lord who revealed to her his Sacred Heart. Sitting in the small chapel I have often pondered what occurred there some 350 years ago.

Tonight I would like to share a little about St Margaret Mary herself. Who was this nun whom the Lord chose to visit in such an extraordinary way?

She lived in France in the seventeenth century. From a very early age she was drawn to live her faith. She had a strong desire for prayer and penance. In particular, she had a horror of sin. She was for a time under the care of the Poor Clare nuns and felt a calling to religious life. She made her First Holy Communion at the age of nine and her desire for prayer increased significantly. 

However, she fell seriously ill and her disease was such that for four years she could not walk. After making a promise to Our Lady, she regained her health. She was entrusted to a cousin who treated her badly, even denying her the basic necessities of life.

Margaret Mary came to taste suffering, both physical and now emotional. With a spirit of penitence she accepted her sufferings and learnt to endure hardships with patience. Her soul was being prepared.

She experienced some extraordinary mystical graces during this time. She had developed a very close personal relationship with Jesus, and experienced visions. She described in her memoirs: “The Saviour was always present under the figure of the Crucified or the Ecce Homo, carrying His Cross; this image inspired in me so much compassion and love of suffering”. She spoke of her response: “I felt [a desire] to suffer in order to conform to my suffering Jesus.”  Her soul was being fashioned in a very particular way. 

She would later comment, “God has given me so much love for the Cross that I cannot live a moment without suffering; but suffering in silence, without consolation, relief or compassion; and dying with this Lord of my soul, under the weight of all kinds of insults, humiliations, oblivion and contempt.”

However, despite this intensity in her prayer life, as a young person she was still engaged with life around her. Her contemporaries describe a lively and bright girl, who engaged in entertainment, was attracted by life in society and sought out by young men. She was not without some personal flaws, but her interior life continued to grow stronger.

Her family, seeing her desire for religious life, recommended a convent that a cousin had entered. Her rejection of this idea reveals her heart. She said, “If I joined your convent, I would do it out of love for you; but I want to enter a convent with no relatives or acquaintances in order to be a religious exclusively for God’s sake.”

In fact she had received a direction which was explicit: “I do not want you there, but in Saint Mary’s.” This was the name of the Visitation Convent located in Paray-le-Monial.

This future saint had a strong sense of self-renunciation. She clearly was a soul with whom the Lord could communicate.  

At the age of 25, in 1672, she took solemn profession as a Nun of the Visitation Order. As a religious, Margaret Mary set out to become a saint. A fellow novice said that Sr Margaret Mary was humble, simple, and frank, but above all, kind and patient under sharp criticism and correction.
The Lord called her to a special path to sanctity. She heard these inner words: “I am looking for a victim, wishing to sacrifice herself as a host in immolation for the fulfilment of my designs.”

She responded and experienced a new wave of mystical graces. The Lord then appeared to her with a special message and a task that was to consume her life.
The First Apparition took place on December 27, 1673, the Feast of St John the Evangelist. The Lord appeared to Margaret Mary while she was in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

St Margaret Mary describes the event in these words in her autobiography:

One day … I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, when I felt myself wholly penetrated with that Divine Presence, but to such a degree that I lost all thought of myself and of the place where I was, and abandoned myself to this Divine Spirit, yielding up my heart to the power of His Love. He made me repose for a long time upon His Sacred Breast, where He disclosed to me the marvels of His Love and the inexplicable secrets of His Sacred Heart, which so far He had concealed from me. Then it was that, for the first time, He opened to me His Divine Heart in a manner so real and sensible as to be beyond all doubt, by reason of the effects which this favor produced in me, fearful, as I always am, of deceiving myself in anything that I say of what passes in time.

The young newly professed sister then recounted what heard the Lord say to her:

My Divine Heart is so inflamed with love for men, and for you in particular that, being unable any longer to contain within Itself the flames of Its burning Charity, It must needs spread them abroad by your means, and manifest Itself to them (mankind) in order to enrich them with the precious graces of sanctification and salvation necessary to withdraw them from the abyss of perdition. I have chosen you as an abyss of unworthiness and ignorance for the accomplishment of this great design, in order that everything may be done by Me.

Then she described her mystical experience in these words,

After this He asked me for my heart, which I begged Him to take. He did so and placed it in His own Adorable Heart where He showed it to me as a little atom which was being consumed in this great furnace, and withdrawing it thence as a burning flame in the form of a heart, He restored it to the place whence He had taken it.

Between December 1673 and June 1675 Sr Margaret Mary received four apparitions of the Lord who revealed his Sacred Heart to her. These occurred in the chapel of the convent while she was in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Lord asked her to promote a devotion to his Sacred Heart. She was asked by her own love to make up for the coldness and ingratitude of the world. The Lord asked her to receive Holy Communion frequently, especially on the first Friday of each month. She was asked to make an hour’s vigil of prayer every Thursday night in memory of his agony and isolation in Gethsemane. He also asked that a feast in honour of His Sacred Heart be instituted.

When Sr Margaret Mary went to the Superior, Mother de Saumaise, with an account of these mystical experiences, claiming that she had been chosen as the transmitter of a new devotion to the Sacred Heart, she was reprimanded for her presumption. Seriously overwrought, she suffered a collapse and became ill.

Her Superior wondered whether the visions and messages might truly from God. The Superior invited some theologians who happened to be in the town to hear her story. These priests listened and decided that the young nun was a victim of delusions. Some of her fellow sisters were hostile, and parents of the children she taught called her an imposter.
She was being asked to be a sacrificial victim and she accepted this.

Later, however, a young Jesuit, Fr Claude de la Columbiere, was assigned to Paray-le-Monial. When he preached to the nuns, Sr Margaret Mary knew that he was the one to assist her. After confession Fr Claude became convinced of the authenticity of her visions. His testimony convinced her Superior. Fr Claude not only believed, but dedicated his life to propagate the devotion, always spiritually united to St Margaret Mary and trusting her discernment.

Sr Margaret Mary died at the age of 43, while being anointed. She said: “I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the heart of Jesus.” Her feast day is October 17.
Sr Margaret Mary wrote a short devotional writing entitled, La Devotion au Sacré-Coeur de Jesus (Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus). It was published posthumously in 1698. In it she wrote:

And He [Christ] showed me that it was His great desire of being loved by men and of withdrawing them from the path of ruin that made Him form the design of manifesting His Heart to men, with all the treasures of love, of mercy, of grace, of sanctification and salvation which it contains, in order that those who desire to render Him and procure Him all the honor and love possible, might themselves be abundantly enriched with those divine treasures of which His heart is the source.

The Jesuits in particular promoted the devotion, but it took a long time for it to be accepted. In 1856, Pope Pius IX established the Feast of the Sacred Heart as obligatory for the whole Church, to be celebrated on the Friday after Corpus Christi.

St Margaret Mary was canonised by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, one hundred years ago this year.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
June 19, 2020