I have had the good fortune to be the chaplain of eight overseas pilgrimages, and each one has had special venues of interest along the way. On one such pilgrimage, some decades ago, our group was passing through a town in central France called Paray-le-Monial—a town that probably does not appear on the regular tourist routes. Nevertheless, I think you will find it of interest when I mention the events that are recorded as having occurred in a convent there, in the 17th century. From a religious point of view, they were of profound significance.
At the centre of the town is a small convent containing a chapel that is open to the general public. Fortunately, on our visit I had already been made aware of the extraordinary events that are recorded as having taken place there. They concerned a nun—a member of the Visitation Sisters, an order of contemplative sisters that had been founded by a French bishop, Saint Martin of Tours. Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque had astonished the other members of her community by telling them she had been honoured with visits from Jesus himself. He had come to her several times and revealed a wonderful message that he wanted her to communicate to the world beyond the convent walls.
To appreciate what the Saviour was asking of her, I need to make you aware of the Catholic faith as it was generally being lived by the members of the Church at that time, details of which you might find astonishing.
Despite the fact that Jesus had been sent into the world by his Father to preach a message of good news, a heresy known as Jansenism had somehow managed to convince countless members of the Faithful that they were unworthy of God’s love. Sadly, their lives were characterised by an emphasis on their sinfulness and by an accompanying decline in their reception of the Holy Communion.
According to Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was later canonised, Jesus appealed to her to counteract this attitude and asked her to reveal to ordinary members of the Faithful that he had a personal, unconditioned love for each of them. On one specific visit that Margaret recalled, Jesus showed her his heart and revealed to her the message: ‘Behold this heart that has so loved people, and yet is so little loved in return.’ She claimed that he had visited her on a number of occasions, emphasising his request that she reveal to the world his heartfelt love for everyone.
Yes, he was actually challenging this obscure nun, tucked away in this little-known convent in the French countryside, to convey his message to the world. What he was asking might well have seemed impossible, but not for our loving Saviour. In response, she wisely turned to her spiritual director, a Jesuit priest, Claude de la Colombiere, and with his help and the help of members of his order, she successfully undertook the challenge of bringing to the ordinary members of the Church the truth that Jesus loves everyone—not because they deserve it but because he, their God, chooses to do so. Ultimately, from that humble beginning came the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which swept the Catholic world. It stimulated more frequent reception of Holy Communion as more of the Faithful accepted Jesus’ invitation to respond to his love for them.
It would take too long to detail here the many ways in which devotion to the Sacred Heart has since developed, but I’ll mention two: one was the Consecration of families to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Another was that people were encouraged to go to daily Mass and to receive Holy Communion more regularly than they had been accustomed to.
I was prompted during the month of June to remind you of this revitalisation of the living Faith that Jesus’ visits to this nun initiated among the everyday lives of the Faithful. A tradition has developed for honouring the Sacred Heart of Jesus during this month.
As I have been putting these thoughts together for this edition of ‘Perspective’, I have been reminded of the living devotion to the Sacred Heart that we had growing up, fostered warmly by our parents, and what a significant part it played in my decision to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood.
I have gratefully recalled too that as I made my journey to ordination, my realisation that Jesus has a personal love for me only increased; it is a truth to which I endeavour to respond each day. And, as I write these words, I cherish the hope that you will also come to truly believe that Jesus has a personal love for you, and that with his help you too will endeavour to respond to it.
Fr Gerard Dowling OAM is Spiritual Director of CatholicCare Melbourne and Dean Emeritus. His radio program, The family counsellor, can be heard on Melbourne’s RSN927 every Sunday night from 10pm.