Last week, the relics of St Claude la Colombière and St Margaret Mary Alacoque were welcomed to London. For those of us who attended, it was an invitation to embrace the mystery of Christ’s love for us through our struggles in life, through our doubts, in our brokenness; and to pray that the world is touched by his love and mercy.
The visit of the relics was the focus of the four-day Sacred Heart of Mercy Mission to London, led by a group of missionaries from the Emmanuel Community – a charismatic group of lay people and religious devoted especially to promotion of the Sacred Heart. They worked with the parishes of Farm Street, St Patrick’s, Soho Square and Our Lady of Victories, Kensington. The visit of the relics also took in events and stations at Tyburn Convent, St James’s Palace, St John & St Elizabeth Hospice, the London Oratory School, and Wormwood Scrubs, and were taken to the streets of London in procession.
Why did so many come to see the relics? Because it was through these two saints that the Sacred Heart devotion came into the world.
St Margaret Mary, a 17th-century French nun, was the first to receive visions of the Sacred Heart. After she described these to her spiritual guide, the Jesuit Fr Claude, the devotion to the image of the Heart of Christ, open and burning with love for the world, was born.
St Claude is in fact no stranger to London, although the London he knew was very different to the one he visited last week. Fr Claude lived at a time when Catholics, and especially Jesuits, were under suspicion of plotting against the government and of treason. Claude was resident at St James’s Palace as chaplain to Mary of Modena, then the Duchess of York, and the wife of the future King James II.
Fr Claude already had a reputation for prudence, gifted preaching and the art of spiritual accompaniment, not least through his guiding St Margaret Mary through her receiving the visions of the Sacred Heart at Paray-le-Monial. To understand his promotion of devotion to the Sacred Heart, we need to recall that he was in England at time of great religious persecution.
St Claude was assigned by the Jesuit Superior in France to the Court of St James’s. There he served as chaplain and court preacher to Mary of Modena, a Catholic like her husband the Duke of York. Years later, the Duke became King James II on the death of Charles II in 1685; Mary of Modena became Queen. For their short reign of just 3 years the monarchy was thus restored to Catholic hands. But Claude never saw this. Under suspicion for complicity in the mythical “Popish Plot” (a fabricated conspiracy against the crown), he was arrested, flung into a filthy prison and exiled back to France. He died a few months later at the age of 41.
And yet despite such suffering, St Claude’s life was characterised by a deep trust in Christ who opened his heart to him in love. Writing in his London diary, Claude speaks of his faith in Christ entering right into his experience of these struggles. “You are everywhere in me and I in you; therefore, in whatever situation I may find myself, in whatever peril, whatever enemy may rise up against me, I have my support always with me. This thought alone can, in a moment, scatter all my trials, especially those uprisings of nature which at times I feel so strong, and which in spite of myself make me fear for my perseverance and tremble at the sight of the perfect emptiness in which it has pleased God to place me”.
Like ourselves, St Claude must have thought about the point of his life on this earth and about what kind of God he believed in. A God who allowed suffering and persecution, who denied people their freedom? A taskmaster? Who punishes his people? He must, I think, have wrestled with questions about the meaning of life and of God. He must have thought often about eternal life to which we are all called and had moments of despair, uncertainty, like ourselves. And yet in the end he trusted in the Lord’s open heart, confident in the Lord’s mercy. Like many Christians around the world today persecuted for their faith, he showed great courage born of true faith in a God who gives us hope through the love he lavishes on us in Christ.
Last week, as the Year of Mercy began to conclude, we prayed in the presence of these saintly figures of the past that we might be inspired by their trust that, despite all the struggles of this life, Christ constantly opens his heart to us as the God made human showing us his mercy. We prayed that we might be renewed in our desire to bring the mercy of this God to others. Through the way we love, the way we serve others, we show to the world the God made human in Jesus Christ, his heart open to the world, speaking the mercy of the Father.
Fr Dominic Robinson is Superior of the Mount Street Jesuit Community in central London