Despite a decline in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in recent generations, many Catholics are still familiar with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, whom Jesus showed his heart to express the infinite nature of his love for us.
Fewer Catholics, however, are aware of the role of St. Claude Colombière in the development of devotion to the Sacred Heart. He was the Jesuit priest God chose to make St. Margaret Mary’s private revelations known to the world.
Throughout history, the Lord has paired up men and women in holy friendship to communicate something to the Church: think of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Damien of Molokai and St. Marianne Cope.
Similarly, the cooperation of this lesser-known pair reflects the subtle creativity of the Holy Spirit.
St. Margaret Mary was born in the Burgundy region of France in 1647 and lost her father at age 8. She was sent to a school run by the Poor Clares, where she suffered from bad health. At 15, she developed a deep devotion to the Eucharist, and from the age of 20, she was graced with mystical visions of Jesus.
After rejecting an arranged marriage, she entered the Sisters of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial at 24. On Dec. 27, 1673, she began to experience private revelations of the Lord’s Sacred Heart. She became convinced that she was to be the messenger of devotion to the Sacred Heart, expressed in the Nine First Fridays, the Holy Hour of Adoration, and a special feast on the calendar.
Her visions caused some controversy in her community. In fact, the superior of the convent was very skeptical, and the saint suffered for it.
A few blocks away from the convent, itself practically in the shadow of the enormous basilica constructed by the monks of Cluny, was a Jesuit school in Paray-le-Monial. In 1675, Father Claude Colombière was made superior of the Jesuit community fresh from his solemn vows.
In contrast to St. Margaret Mary, his family was well-to-do, yet fervent. Two of his brothers became priests and one sister a nun. He was a brilliant student in the Jesuit school of Lyons and entered the order at 17. After philosophy, he was sent to Paris to study theology.
There he was exposed to some of the brightest and the best intellectuals and was chosen to be the tutor of the sons of Colbert, Louis XIV’s all-powerful minister of finance and a man of great culture. There is some indication that Colbert was not entirely pleased with Father Colombière after allegedly finding a copy of some satirical verses in the priest’s desk. Perhaps that explains why the priest was sent to the backwaters of Burgundy after his tertianship as a Jesuit.
Some biographers claim that he was sent to Paray-le-Monial because of the visions of St. Margaret Mary at the Visitation convent. Perhaps only God’s providence can explain why a brilliant and dedicated priest was needed to help a much misunderstood and holy nun. God, after all, writes straight with crooked lines.
Jesus had told St. Margaret Mary that he would send her a priest who would help her spread devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout the world. From the first time that she saw him, she felt that the promise Jesus had made to her was fulfilled. In addition to his role at the school and as the superior of Paray-le-Monial, he was a confessor to the Visitation Sisters. A conspiracy of saints was begun.
However, after only 18 months, Father Colombière was sent to London to be the chaplain of the Duchess of York, Maria Modena, the Italian princess who was married to the future James II, England’s last Catholic sovereign. He was not allowed public ministry, but he managed to reconcile some former Catholics and even to convert some Anglicans in secret. While in England, he suffered bad health but managed to keep up a correspondence with St. Margaret Mary.
In another dramatic brush with history, Father Colombière was accused of being part of a plot to kill the King of England. Several Jesuit priests would be executed as a result of what one historian calls an anti-Catholic hysteria provoked by an extraordinary liar and quondam Catholic, Titus Oakes. Father Colombière, betrayed as working for conversions by a false disciple, was sent to jail for five weeks. Only intervention by King Louis XIV’s ambassador saved the priest, who was sent back to France in severely broken health in 1679.
He was assigned to Lyons, but it soon became apparent he would never recover. For the last months of his life, he returned to Paray-le-Monial, where he died in 1682. St. Margaret Mary died eight years later.
Father Colombière worked his side of their partnership for the Sacred Heart posthumously.
Some of his confreres published a volume of his spiritual writings, including very personal reflections. His private notes from his annual retreat in 1677 contained an account of St. Margaret Mary’s visions and of the prophecy of his role in making them known.
He himself embraced this devotion so intensively that in his prayer he imagined a kind of mystical heart transplant, centuries before such operations were thought of:
“Oh my God, you will have to give me another heart, a tender heart, a sensitive heart, a heart which is neither of marble nor bronze: you must give us your very own heart. Come, adorable heart of Jesus Christ, come and place yourself in the middle of my chest, and kindle within it a love which is able to respond, if possible, to the obligations weighing on me to love God… Obtain for me that I may live in Jesus alone, that I live for him alone, so that I may live with him in heaven for all eternity.”
The prophet Ezekiel spoke of an exchanging of hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36: 26). Perhaps this month, which the Church dedicates to the Sacred Heart, we can revisit an old devotion and sign up for a transplant.