Today, the 15th of February, is the Feast day of St. Claude La Colombiere.
For Roger and myself, at this website dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it is a particularly important feast. For how much we owe to both St. Margaret Mary and St Claude who brought the revelation of the Sacred Heart to the world.
And how deeply moved we were during our many visits to Paray, where we could pray in both the chapel of St Claude and the chapel of the Apparitions itself …
And today we will tell us something of his story.
Many people have heard of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For it was she who received the visions and revelations of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was she who was instructed by Him to bring these revelations to the world.
Yet being a cloistered nun, whose fellow sisters thought her somewhat mad and therefore took little notice in what she had to say, she was rendered quite powerless to carry out the instructions from her Divine Master.
She was therefore told by her Master of one whom He would send to her – in order that the revelations be disseminated far beyond her small convent in Paray-le-Monial in France.
This ‘one’ was St. Claude la Columbiere, a Jesuit Priest, whom our Lord sent to Paray, to be the Confessor and Spiritual Guide of St. Margaret Mary.
In a lovely book (sadly, long out of print) called These Three Hearts by Margaret Yeo, there is an account of the first encounter between these two saints.
St. Claude had just arrived at Paray-le-Monial. He entered the sanctuary of the chapel in the Visitation convent to celebrate his first Mass there.
St. Margaret Mary was kneeling in her usual place, behind the grille, which separated the sisters from the world. In an unusual way, she was aware of the person ascending the steps of the sanctuary.
Margaret Yeo writes:
Margaret Mary, who so seldom noticed outward things, was conscious of every detail, the fine hands, the musical voice, the smooth flow of words, which half hid, half revealed depths of knowledge and sanctity.
She noticed because when she had first seen the preacher, that inner voice had spoken with uncertain note. ‘This is he whom I have sent to you.
At the same time, as the new priest entered the sanctuary, he attempted to see through the dark grille, to the figures within, hidden beneath their habits, heads lowered in prayer.
Even in such obscurity, one figure was made known to him. Here, Yeo describes this moment:
One face detached itself and became visible as if by an inner light – a tragic face, tear-worn eyes … the whole pale oval only a transparent mask for a burning fire within.
St. Claude was curious to know who this sister was. He asked the Mother Superior, who answered, ‘Sister Margaret-Mary Alacoque’.
‘That is a chosen soul,’ he said.
This first encounter was on the 15th February, 1675, the day of his Feast!
So who was St. Claude la Columbiere?
The young Claude was a quiet, sensitive boy, much liked. Many sensed in him, qualities of self-sacrifice and religiosity, which were noted as possible marks of sanctity.
In his youth, his family lived in Vienne, an old French town – famous for its Roman tradition.
The time that young Claude spent there was deeply formative, it greatly impressed him. For there he was introduced to the Roman traditions of the Catholic Faith. It was also there that he received his first Communion.
Claude had a strong relationship with his mother, whose piety was instrumental in passing on the faith to him.
Their bond was broken when, at the age of nine, he was sent to the Jesuit school in Lyons.
At Lyons, he would enter a new life, guided by the Ratio Studorium, the book of direction for all Jesuit learning, written by St. Ignatius of Loyola himself.
This plan of education was designed to build the character of each student within the framework of the faith. It was formed around regular attendance at Holy Mass, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and devotion to our Blessed Lady.
This education had a profound effect on the formation of the young soul. For he developed a love for the Blessed Sacrament and regular reception of the Holy Eucharist, which would outline much of his spiritual practice and teaching.
He was later to write these words:
Why was the purity of Mary so great, if not because she was to bear the Son of God in her womb?
If she had not been purer than the angels, it would not have been seemly for the Word to dwell in her; he would not have taken such delight in her, nor would he have brought her the precious gifts with which he filled her at the moment of the Incarnation.
In Holy Communion we receive the same Jesus Christ that Mary bore for nine months in her womb.
What is our purity? What care do we take to prepare our soul?
We sometimes commit faults on the eve, on the day, and even in the very act of receiving Communion. Yet Jesus comes to us! How kind he is! … Can God delight to come to me?
Is he not repulsed at the sight of my misery? Yet I go to him without shame, confusion, or contrition.
O my God, I will try so to prepare my heart that you may take pleasure and delight in it, and so that I may not place any obstacle to the immense graces I shall receive if I purify myself and realize that great good I shall lose if I do not do so.
He would also write:
You still doubt as to whether you ought to go to Holy Communion?
Do you not see that these troubles which precede your Communion come from the evil spirit who abhors them and that the moments of peace which follow them come from the Spirit of God who loves them.
I am surprised that you can hesitate about it; it is as clear as daylight; without this help you would be lost. Far from dissuading you from going to Communion, I would advise you to increase the number of times you go.
Having completed his rigorous Jesuit training, he taught for three years, preaching much on these themes of frequent Communion and love for the Blessed Sacrament.
He was then sent to Paray-le-Monial.
And at Paray-le-Monial, he met not only the person of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, but through her, his true life’s mission.
For our Lord had called him to be the instrument by which the devotion to His Most Sacred Heart would reach the world at large.
There, at Paray-le-Monial, he was installed as St. Margaret Mary’s Confessor and Spiritual Guide. Recognising her sanctity, he felt propelled to crack the nut, to open the floodgates to that which had been hidden – the Revelations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Poor St. Margaret Mary had been humiliated and dismissed by her superiors who could not understand the experiences she reported to them. She was therefore scorned and even disliked by some of her fellow sisters.
It was St. Claude, who recognising the authenticity of her experiences, demanded that she write each and every one down, in full detail. Under obedience, she did.
He also recognised his own responsibility regarding the new devotion. Later on he wrote these words about this:
I have understood that God wants me to serve him by procuring the accomplishment of his desires concerning the devotion that he revealed to a person to whom he communicates himself very intimately and for which he has willed to use my weakness.
He therefore undertook a programme of attempting to spread the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in whatever way he saw fit.
First of all, he convinced the Mother Superior of the authenticity of St. Margaret Mary’s experiences. He preached about frequent Communion, particularly of receiving on the first Friday. (For more on the First Friday devotion, see here.)
Then, on the 21st of June, 1675, which was the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi (the very day our Lord had requested to become the Feast of the Sacred Heart) St. Claude la Columbiere and St. Margaret Mary made a solemn consecration of themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Sadly, his time in Paray-le-Monial was cut short, for his superiors wanted him elsewhere.
In fact, he was sent to England, to be chaplain to her Royal Highness, Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York.
So off he went to a life in the English court.
There, he found a very different people to his beloved French – a people who were aggressively anti-catholic. (I have written more of St. Claude La Colombiere’s experience in England here.)
He greatly suffered – the food, the climate, the people – becoming quite ill. Yet he still used every opportunity to preach and teach about the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But he had to be cautious, for openly teaching the Catholic faith was outlawed in England.
And poor Claude, too passionate in his preaching, was arrested for it and thrown into prison. This further weakened his health.
And ill in health, he remained. And the English, not knowing what to do with this ailing French priest, sent him home to France.
And there, Our Lord allowed him to return to his beloved Paray-le-Monial.
He met again with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. But not often – for he was too weak. In fact, he became so feeble that he was unable to leave his room.
As he lay there, he spent time deeply reflecting upon his life. He saw how he had served his Master, by spreading devotion to His Most Sacred Heart.
Of this, Margaret Yeo writes:
The secret of devotion to the Sacred Heart, which he himself [St. Claude la Columbiere] had received from her [St. Margaret Mary], he had preached in the palaces and slums of London, to the Jesuit scholastics and lay pupils at the Grand College, Lyons, to the nuns at the Visitation there.
Through letters to his sister, Mere de Saumaise and others, he had propagated the devotion in the Visitation convents of Dijon, Moulins, and Charolles, whence it was soon to spread to those of Monsen-Hainault, Aix-en-Provence, Bordeaux, Marseilles, and others.
Sister Alacoque was to have every opportunity of fostering the devotion in the Paray convent, for, conscious at last of her sanctity, her sisters were to elect her Assistant to the new superior. All of this he had done or been a part in.
And there, in his room, in Paray-le-Monial, he died on the 15th February, 1682.
And there today he lies, in the Jesuit chapel built in his honour.
As I said, Roger and I have spent many many hours of prayer there, next to his holy remains. For there is an incredible silence to be discovered beside these relics of St. Claude – as Roger writes about here).
And above his relics hangs a large and beautiful painting.
It shows St. Margaret Mary kneeling to receive Holy Communion.
As St. Claude raises the Host before her, saying ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ , she experiences a vision.
She sees the furnace of charity Itself – the Heart of flesh of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – burning with ardour. And within its flames are depicted to small hearts, which remain united within.
As she sees this vision, our Lord speaks these words to her:
‘Thus, My pure love unites forever these three hearts.’