There are two books in English that seem to me most essential for understanding the traditions around the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The first is that admirable compendium of the Tradition Heart of the Redeemer by Timothy T. O’ Donnell, which I have already reviewed here.
The second is this: The Life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, translated from the French original of 1874 by Emile Bougaud, then Bishop of Laval.
For make no mistake. Although this book certainly includes the story of the premiere Saint of the Sacred Heart, it is also very much more than that besides. In fact, by my estimate, as much as a third of the book is not strictly concerned with the biography of the blessed saint of Paray-le-Monial at all!
What exactly is this volume then?
Among other things, it is a book that it is impossible to imagine being written by a bishop of today!
For among other things, it is a passionately Catholic and very Nineteenth Century French attempt to not only tell the tale of the Saint, but also to locate her story within the greater sweep of centuries of history – both before and after.
A little matter from the introduction can convey much – not merely of the book’s contents, but also their ardour. Here then is a little précis of what the reader will find sketched in detail, as the book unfolds over nearly four hundred pages:
Centuries rolled by! Suddenly there sweeps over the Church a current icy cold, freezing. Luther appeared, and denied infinite love in its most tender manifestations. Calvin followed, and suppressed the Eucharist.
Jansenius arose, and, though not denying the Holy Eucharist, taught the Faithful to abstain from it with the most profound respect.
Books on, or, as we should say, against, frequent Communion were written, and treasures of learning were called into play, in order to teach the Faithful that Jesus Christ established the Divine Sacrament that they might receive it as seldom as possible.
Faith in infinite love grew weak throughout the world; coldness was everywhere felt …
To reanimate faith and piety, God again chose a woman, a virgin. Evidently, He wished to make none other the extraordinary agent of His love!
With divine art, He prepared the chosen virgin for her mission.
When her heart had become like that of an angel; when one night she was plunged in ecstasy, immovable, recollected, her arms crossed, her face strangely lighted, all aglow with interior fire, a celestial radiance, visible to her alone, arose above the altar.
In it she perceived, as she tremblingly glanced through the grate, the adorable person of our Lord Jesus Christ! When, at last, she ventured to fix upon Him her eyes moist with tears, she saw the Saviour’s breast resplendent, and His Heart sparkling like a sun in the midst of flames.
And hark, a voice addressed her: “Behold the Heart that has so loved men even to consume itself for them.” Several times were these visions repeated, and in them were the adorable designs of God revealed to her.
She saw the wounds of society healed by degrees through contact with this Divine Heart; and the Church, rewarmed, reanimated by the rays of this furnace of love, resume her triumphant, benevolent march through the world. [Emphasis mine].
Nowadays, many a modern – and cynical – reader will likely look at such prose scoffing. The complaint will be issued, it is not ecumenical, it is all too polarised – too black and white with a triumphalist Catholic Church poised against the big, bad world.
In effect, the modern reader may cry out: give me something a little more lukewarm and tepid, please!
I understand such cries. For years, as a more liberal Catholic I chanted them in unison with the so-called “progressive” choir.
O Catholic France!
Then I went to France.
And I changed.
And I commenced work on this website, where I write sometimes in a very personal vein. Even in the middle of a book review.
No exception will be made here. How frequently do we unconsciously suppose that our own century contains a pinnacle of insight. Surely our modern bishops – who would never say such things today – must know better!
But why should a passionate French bishop of the Nineteenth Century not be right sometimes – or at least point us in directions that are right? Why should our own century automatically know better?
Speaking personally, I felt very alarmed indeed by the contemporary bishops of France. I spent much of a day long conference with a certain bishop once – a day that finished with a rock music Mass and the bishop tapping his crozier in time to the beat …
I went home that night marked for life, by what I had seen the whole day long. A dull, uninspired conference devoted to worldly and tedious things, which in the end could only be animated by rock music …
At another French Mass, Pink Floyd contributed the communion antiphon. And all across France, I saw ample testimony to this: Now it is necessary to animate ourselves with things like rock music, for we no longer have nothing else left by which to be animated …
But in writing the story of St Margaret Mary Alacoque and Catholic France in 1874, the good Bishop Bougaud had no need for rock music to bring his soul to life …
This book then serves as a testimony to a kind of Catholicism that becomes more and more buried. And yet it seems to me to at least point us in directions, which were once very LIVING in ways that much of contemporary Catholic expression is not living.
As I indicate, at least thirty per cent of the book is about much more than St. Margaret Mary. With passionate dedication, Bishop Bougaud spends a good long time setting the stage for the revelations in Paray.
He surveys the centuries of saints before St Margaret Mary Alacoque, who had revelations of the Sacred Heart. He dwells on St Francis de Sales and St Jane Chantal, who founded the Visitation spirituality of the nun who saw the Sacred Heart.
And he speaks forthrightly of what he frankly considers to be appalling: the Protestant and French Republican forces seeking to extinguish Catholicism …
In this context, the 1874 date of the book is not insignificant. At this time Catholic France felt particularly triumphant.
In recent elections at that time, the Catholic segment of the populace had been decisive. The vote had been to restore the monarchy. And in this rural and peasant France had been crucial. Parisians looked on in horror. In the end, other factors would prevent the return of the king.
But it would have been a particularly poignant moment for Catholics like Bougaud, who evidently felt that many horrors of secular Republicanism might finally be at an end.
Indeed Bougaud clearly feels he is participating in a French Catholic Renaissance, directly linked to the Sacred Heart:
The great proof of Margaret’s sanctity lay … in the Church of France itself, rewarmed, revivified through her by rays from the Sacred Heart. Thus are her prophecies realized; thus is the ice of these latter times melted. It is the Heart of Jesus triumphing over all obstacles, reigning in spite of Satan and his agents. It is the marvellous renaissance of faith, of piety, of the purest love of God, of the most enthusiastic devotedness to the Church in France of Louis XV, [i.e. that before the Revolution] of Voltaire, of Robespierre, and of Marat.
Yes, Catholic France, born again in the nineteenth century, has expanded under the beams of the Sacred Heart. All that was good in her she has resuscitated and developed, she has displayed in flowers more beautiful than ever, in fruits more sweet and luscious. Behold, for instance, her missionaries, her apostles! At what epoch have they been more numerous, more poor, more pure, more fruitful than in the nineteenth century?
We travel very fast today. We have invented steam, railroads, the telegraph; but there is one that travels more quickly still, and that one is the apostle. … When they touch upon those countries at which the Englishman himself, the commercial Englishman, pauses for want of courage to carry further his traffic, there is found one that does not stop, one that presses on, one that ever advances: it is the French missionary, reanimated, rewarmed in the nineteenth century by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
I do not know how long the Bishop was to live beyond 1874. If he survived long after, he may well have died broken-hearted. Republican France came back with a vengeance, expropriating churches, closing the monasteries, expelling the Jesuits altogether and making sure that children received a strictly secular conditioning.
In any event, much of interest can be gleaned from these words of the period. This was the time of the triumph of the British Empire across the globe – upon which “the sun never set”.
It was thought – not without reason – that England owed her success to commercial and capitalist prowess. Later the rise of the American empire would be associated with the same spirit.
Like many French Catholics, Bougaud rejoices that across the globe there is spreading a different spirit animated by the Sacred Heart.
Of course, the story of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque is also told in comprehensive depth in Bougaud’s book. The bishop actually takes the autobiography of Saint and quotes it verbatim in long passages. He then amplifies her autobiography with historical details that do much to illumine the Saint’s own recollections.
Indeed because he uses so very much of the somewhat scant autobiography of the Saint, many a reader may wish to skip that slim volume altogether and read it here instead with Bougaud’s commentary. Indeed if had to choose between the two – I would recommend Bougaud. Most of the autobiography is in fact present and I think the Saint’s story comes to life more lucidly and vividly with the added explanation of much that is less than obvious in her autobiography.
I will not say much more of the actual life story of the Saint, except to note that the Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary has already been reviewed here at this site. Perusal of that review may suggest much of what I pass over here.
Foreword for Monarchy by Roger Buck
I would like now to return in the midst of this review to a very personal and indeed idiosyncratic vein.
In France, I changed. The liberal Catholic that I had been finally died. I stood in a Catholic wasteland, with an almost dead church animated by the strains of Pink Floyd …
I stood in the triumph of a secular, capitalist France that would have chilled the soul of Bishop Bougaud to the marrow …
I stood in Paray-le-Monial. Or should I say that I kneeled …
I kneeled in Paray-le-Monial and had experience there that would change me forever. For today one can still feel the Heart of Jesus there. It is the most astonishing place I have found in this world.
Now Paray-le-Monial had not only been the cité where the Sacred Heart was revealed to St. Margaret Mary.
As the centuries passed, it became something like the capital city of Catholic France, resisting the rise of the Republic. In fact, Bishop Bougaud speaks of his own moving experiences in Paray.
At one point he recounts a great pilgrimage to Paray, that happened in the aftermath of a war with Prussia. This had devastated France and in fact done much to stimulate the call for the return of the king and a France dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
Throughout much of the century France had been more or less evenly divided between the secular and Catholic camps. Now the balance was tipped.
And Bishop Bougaud testifies to what he witnessed one summer month at Paray …
The month of June, 1873, witnessed a fact which, whether we consider the time in which it occurred or the manner in which it was accomplished, the gigantic proportions with which it was clothed bear all the appearance of a miracle.
Shortly after the close of the war … toward the autumn of ’71 and during the year of ’72, we felt an unusual breath pass over France. The celebrated sanctuaries were more frequented; pilgrimages began …
In 1873, Catholic France was agitated by an impulse it had not felt for over six centuries. National pilgrimages began to Lourdes, Salette, Chartres, Fourvieres, Pontmain, Puy, and France threw herself into them suppliantly. On one day Lourdes saw one hundred thousand kneeling men gathered round her shrine. …
Among them all, that of Paray holds a rank apart. It was estimated that one day would suffice for all the others; but that of Paray required a month. One felt that all France was coming. …
But it was not only its duration and the number that composed the pilgrimage that gave to it its miraculous character; it was the manner in which it was performed that rendered it truly surprising. The same was remarked everywhere …
The pilgrims set out in procession from some church and went to the railway station. There they … placed on their breast the picture of the Heart of Jesus, and, at the first sound of the whistle, began their chants.
Almost every age, to express its sentiments or give soul to the emotions it has aroused, produces a popular chant or song …
No one has written it, but every one sings it. It springs from the soul of the people. In the same manner came forth the hymn that then resounded for the first time, ardent and sad, supplicating and tender, bathing in tears the sorrows of the Church of France, and uttering at each refrain a cry of hope and a cry for pardon.
Very different from the savage clamours of the revolutionists, it appealed to the tenderness of Heaven and not to the anger of earth; instead of exciting souls to hatred, it appeased them by repentance. …
At every step we made, the true character of the pilgrimage was proclaimed. We had under our eyes France mutilated and bleeding. We could not pray for self; we prayed for her. We forgot our own miseries. We cried: ” Save, save France, through Thy Sacred Heart!” …
Yes, the finger of God is here! Who can deny it? The Heart of Jesus is regenerating us. Since our fearful disasters … a new France has arisen. She it was that unfurled at Paray the standard of the Sacred Heart … she who during two months pressed around the foot of the altar upon which Jesus had said: “Behold the Heart that has so loved men.”
O Bishop Bougaud, I fear you lived to see all your dreams crushed …
And yet how at Paray-le-Monial I could feel all you dreamed of still present …
An alternative world to the dry, arid secular French wasteland beyond …
In prayer at Paray, it seemed to me that Providence had led me there to see this alternative world vision to the secular and materialistic world vision that carries on throughout the rest of France today …
But let us return to Bishop Bougaud’s book itself. In summing up, it might be observed that for souls such as myself, there are nearly four hundred pages of riches here. There is St Margaret Mary in her own words at considerable length. There is the story of her visions of His Sacred Heart. And there is the story of the Cult of the Sacred Heart as it flowed out across not only France but all the Catholic world.
In all of this there is a testimony to some of the central themes of this website. This is a website that as I indicate has been born out of personal experience in France and in Paray-le-Monial.
Many pieces at this site bear witness to this, though in a fragmentary way. In the next year I will be self-publishing a book Cor Jesu Sacratissimum, which I hope will articulate much of the underlying backdrop in a less fragmented, more comprehensive fashion.
In the meantime, any who feel as I do that the Tridentine spirituality of the Sacred Heart born in Paray has something vital for restoring and reviving the Tradition may find much more scattered through this site. For this the labels, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Catholic France and Sacred Heart may be useful.
Foreword for Monarchy by Roger Buck
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