Every Oct. 16 the church celebrates St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). This year’s feast closes a Jubilee Year marking the centenary of her canonization.
Also this month, Pope Francis issued a new encyclical – “Fratelli tutti” – exhorting us to “a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.”
The life of St. Margaret Mary, the “apostle of the Sacred Heart,” discloses the eternal source of that boundless fraternity.
Her story centers around her spiritual experience in the Visitation monastery at Paray-le-Monial, France. There the Lord revealed directly to her the passion of God’s love for all persons. Three apparitions stand out vividly.
The first occurred on Dec. 27, 1673 – the feast of the beloved disciple who reclined his head on the Lord’s chest at the Last Supper. Similarly, she says, “He made me rest for a long time on His divine breast, where He discovered to me the wonders of His love and the inexplicable secrets of His Sacred Heart … in a way so real, so sensible, that it left me no room to doubt.”
In this contemplative encounter, the Lord revealed the depth of his affection, saying: “My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with men that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of its ardent charity.” Then, through a mystical “exchange of hearts,” he empowered her to make known that divine love.
As Wendy Wright explains, she underwent “an experience of radical experiential participation in the Christ event as it is focused on the heart of the crucified and the experience of loving conformity to or union with his suffering life.”
The second apparition came in June of 1674. “He was brilliant with glory; His five wounds shone like five suns. Flames darted forth from all parts of His sacred humanity, but especially from His adorable breast, which resembled a furnace, and which, opening, displayed to me His loving and amiable Heart, the living source of these flames.”
The Lord showed Margaret Mary “the inexplicable wonders of His pure love, and to what an excess He had carried it for the love of men, from whom He had received only ingratitude.” Then he said: “If men rendered Me some return of love, I should esteem little all I have done for them, and should wish, if such could be, to suffer it over again.”
The Lord instructed her to receive holy Communion on the first Friday of every month and to spend an hour in prayer the night before. Later becoming defining elements of the Sacred Heart devotion, these pious exercises would make amends for the lackluster way in which humanity has received the revelation of divine Love.
A year later – on June 16, 1675 – the final encounter happened. This time, the Lord appeared and said: “Behold … this heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love.” He then requested a special feast to celebrate the Sacred Heart, for which He promised: “My Heart shall dilate to pour out abundantly the influences of its love on all that will render it this honor.”
Such supernatural experiences may seem rather odd, even bizarre. But they remain in concert with the theology of the incarnation – God’s taking on flesh and becoming human. St. Margaret Mary’s contemplative visions represent an “embodied mysticism.” She truly experienced the presence of Jesus. She became so vividly conscious of Him, and of participating intimately in the redemption wrought by His Sacred Heart, that she was physically and spiritually transformed by her experience.
Today we may not share such extraordinary encounters, but we can still benefit from the spiritual experience they convey. That experience originates in the bountiful love of God for His people – then, now, and always. We encounter that divine love, which continually flows out of itself for our sake, through worship of the Blessed Sacrament and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
On May 13, 1920, Margaret Mary was canonized “as witness to a spirituality that encompasses every existence and enriches the person penetrated by the grace of God.” In her we find an embodiment of Salesian spirituality, with its understanding that all human life progresses toward the interconnection of human and divine hearts.
That lifelong quest, carried out through fraternity and social friendship, is the subject of the Holy Father’s encyclical. Its impetus comes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. But the grace to fulfill it comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In this extraordinary year, we need that grace more than ever. With St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, we need again to “behold this heart that has so loved the world.”
* * *
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Malvern. This essay is excerpted from his book on Salesian Devotion to the Sacred Heart, forthcoming from Sophia Institute Press.
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