Bl. Claude La Colombiere: A Priest after Christ's Heart
The Jesuit historian of the house at Paray-le-Monial, France, composed a terse summary for the period about which he was reporting: "Nothing worthy of note." The period in question covered the last days of Claude La Colombiere. (The name is not "de la Colombiere" even though some had used the noble title out of respect.) One wonders how well the historian had known Claude. Did he know him to talk to, or only as a broken man cut down in mid-career, mixed up with a visionary (Sr. Margaret Mary Alacoque) whom other spiritual directors had judged negatively, a short-term preacher at the Court of St. James in London, who was said to be mixed up in a plot against the government, jailed for it and exiled.
Fortunately for us, another Jesuit, Fr. Nicholas La Pesse, examined Claude's writings, especially his Retreat Notes, and realized the spiritual depth of the man. Just three years after his death in 1682, the first volume of his collected works appeared. Reading many of them against our 20th century challenges, Claude the priest has much to say to the priests of today.
Claude was born in a small town named Symphorien-d'Ozon south of Lyons, France.1 At the age of nine he began his schooling and, as Providence would have it, Jesuit priests were his teachers. At seventeen he decided to join them; at first he wondered if he had made a mistake, but he adjusted well. He was described as a friendly person of good character and gracious ways, sensitive to the finer things, well spoken, of sound judgment, and growing in spirituality.
Before ordination he spent several years teaching, as was the custom. Among his students were the sons of King Louis XIV's powerful minister, Colbert. When he returned to his studies and formation, he was troubled with spiritual temptations and problems what he called his "unruly emotions" and discouragement. He realized that everyone has the choice of trying on one's own to be as self-sufficient as possible or turning to God in great trust and confidence. Claude chose the latter course: he not only trusted in God but cultivated under the inspiration of the Spirit absolute confidence in God. In fact, it became an outstanding virtue in his spirituality! (Because Claude's writings are full of thought-provoking "one liners,"2 they will be generously used.) "I have found a treasure. It is an unshakable confidence in God, founded on His infinite mercy and on the experience I have that He never fails us in our needs." Again, "God sought me out when I fled from Him; He will not abandon me now that I seek Him or at least do not flee from Him any more." In Letter 127 he advises: "Cultivate thoughts of confidence as long as it pleases God to give them to you. They honor God far more than contrary thoughts. The more wretched we are, the more God is honored by the confidence we have in Him. It seems to me that if your confidence were as great as it ought to be, you would not worry about what may happen to you. You would place all in God's hands, hoping that when He wants something of you, He will tell you what it is."
Claude valued prayer
His great confidence in God which stood him well while jailed for the faith in London was tied to the practice of the Presence of God and recollection. "God is in the midst of us, or rather we are in the midst of Him. Wherever we are, He sees us and touches us: at prayer, at work, at table, at recreation. We do not think of this! If we did, with what fervor and devotion would we live! Let us often make acts of faith, saying to ourselves: God is looking at me; He is present here." Again, "I have promised with God's grace not to begin any action without remembering that He is a witness to it that He performs it together with me and gives me the means to do it: never to conclude any action without the same thought, offering it to Him as belonging to Him, and in the course of the action, whenever the same thought shall occur, stop for a moment and renew the desire to please Him."
After completing his studies, Claude was ordained in 1669 and assigned as a preacher and professor of rhetoric at Lyons. Again, he distinguished himself and showed great promise for the future. One can gain much from his priestly attitude towards the celebration of Mass and the reception of the Lord in the temple of his person. "God is more honored by a single Mass," he wrote, "than He could be by all the actions of angels and men together, however fervent and heroic they might be. Yet, how few hear Mass with the intention of giving God this sublime honor! How few think with joy on the glory a Mass gives to God. How few rejoice to possess the means of honoring Him as He deserves! . . . If we only knew the treasure we hold in our hands! Happy a thousand times those who know how to profit by the Mass! In this adorable Sacrifice they can find all things: graces, riches spiritual and temporal, favors for body and mind for life and eternity . . . My daily Mass and Communion is my only hope and resource. Jesus Christ can do very little if He cannot uphold me from day to day. He will not fail to reproach me if I begin to relax. Each day He will counsel me and give me new strength. He will instruct, console and encourage me and give me all the graces for which I pray . . . I was greatly touched when considering the thoughts that Jesus Christ has of me when I hold Him in my hands: the dispositions of His Heart, His desires and plans for my soul."
Busy as Bl. Claude was in his many activities "two or three things more to do than one can accomplish," he realized the necessity of prayer in the life of everyone, but especially the priest. "It (prayer) is the only means of purifying us, of uniting us to God and of allowing God to unite Himself to us and of being glorified in us." "We must pray to obtain the apostolic virtues; pray that we use them to help others; and pray also that we may not lose them while serving others . . . How can we help our neighbors? By prayer and good works. Preaching is useless without grace and grace is only obtained by prayer. If conversions are few, it is because few pray. Prayer for souls is so pleasing to God that it is as though we ask a mother to forgive her son."
In his letters we find his spiritual direction on prayer. "Go to God simply, with great confidence that His goodness will guide you. Let yourself go confidently as your heart draws you and fear nothing but pride and self-love . . . In general, the mere practice of the Presence of God is an excellent prayer, and if you can occupy yourself with it without strain, you need think of nothing else: not that you must avoid making acts when drawn to do so, but do not worry about them unless for some reason you feel constrained to make them . . . If you are moved by sentiments of admiration, desire, shame, sorrow, submission, contempt of the world and love of God, you can do without books . . . Do not be either astonished or discouraged at difficulties you find in prayer. Only be constant and submissive and God will bless you." All of this, obviously, is as good advice today as when given in the 17th century!
A delicate assignment was given
Just weeks after finishing his tertianship in 1675, contrary to expectations founded on his success as preacher and teacher, Claude was assigned to head the small Jesuit house at Paray-le-Monial. The previous Superior informed the Provincial that a good spiritual director was needed for a certain Visitation Nun whom other priests had judged against when she reported her visions of Christ. The Provincial had known Claude for four years at Lyons and he judged that Claude's inner depths gained through good direction and his sound judgment were just what Providence was directing. Unknown to him, Christ Himself had told the sister in question, Sr. Margaret Mary Alacoque, "I will send you My faithful servant and perfect friend who will teach you to know Me and abandon yourself to Me."
Sr. Margaret Mary was reticent when she first met Fr. Claude. He gained her confidence and she revealed everything that the Lord had said and done. After mature deliberation, Claude judged her visions genuine. He encouraged her to follow Christ's lead, in spite of suspicion and misunderstanding concerning her in her own community. Sr. Margaret saw two other hearts lost in the depths of Christ's Sacred Heart which was like a burning furnace. "It is thus that My pure love unites these three hearts forever," Christ said.
At this very time, in 1675, the great apparition occurred. Christ asked for a Feast of the Sacred Heart in the octave of Corpus Christi, for an act and Communion of reparation on that day. Again, Claude perceived the true situation and encouraged Sr. Margaret Mary. For Claude, Christ had a message: "Turn to my servant and tell him for Me to do all he can to establish this devotion and to give this pleasure to My Heart. Tell him not to be discouraged by the difficulties he will meet with, for they will not be lacking. But he must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself and places all his trust in Me alone." Some of the difficulties came from those who had judged Sr. Margaret Mary negatively; now they thought that she convinced Claude against his better judgment which only proved that he did not have as good a judgment as had been thought! Claude, for his part, encouraged Sr. Margaret to make the act of reparation for which Christ asked. He consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart in a beautiful prayer which has survived. Claude had known of the Heart of Jesus before this time, as we can see from Retreat Notes of 1674 at Lyons: now he was ready to carry out Christ's request in earnest!
Then, only eighteen months after having arrived in Paray-le-Monial, Claude was given a delicate assignment in London. His reputation for prudence, his preaching skills and his spiritual depth figured in no small way in the transfer. His task was to be chaplain and court preacher to the Duke of York's Italian wife, Mary Beatrice of Modena. After James had converted to the ancient faith, his marriage to a Catholic bride was hardly what the pro-protestant forces in England expected of a man who was next in the line of succession to the throne. Both to solidify their religious gains, to protect their temporal possessions acquired from the Church through confiscation, and as a reaction to some of the deeds of Mary, Queen of Scots, there were many who were constantly looking for an opportunity to work against the ancient Church for any cause. It was into this delicate situation that Claude arrived in October of 1678. In a country where "no popery" was to the definite advantage of the opposition, Claude had to walk a narrow line. (Vol. 9 of the New Catholic Encyclopedia has much interesting material under "Martyrs of England and Wales" before and during this period.)
He approved Margaret Mary
Claude had written much on priestly zeal for souls in his Retreat Notes at Lyons. He had lived it wherever he went, but it would soon be put to the test. "It is true that one must be holy in order to make others holy," he had written, "and my many faults show me how far I am from sanctity. Make me holy, O my God, and do not spare me in the making, for I want to become a saint whatever it costs." In London in 1677, he renewed his confidence in God and went bravely forward. "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."
Foreigners were to be the only guests at the chapel, but the quality of Claude's preaching attracted English listeners too. He systematically explained the ancient faith, without failing to correct the faults of the court. He spoke of devotion to the Sacred Heart too. In fact, he planted the seed so well in Mary Beatrice that she became the first royal person to petition the pope for the Feast of the Sacred Heart requested by Christ. Claude also wrote letters back to France for the same cause. His Retreat Notes in London have much beautiful material on the Sacred Heart. As Providence would have it, he copied Sr. Margaret Mary's account of the great apparition into his London Retreat Notes of 1677 and added his approval of her. After his death, when these notes were read from the printed edition at the Visitation house in Paray-le-Monial, the sisters changed their attitude toward Sr. Margaret Mary. She herself promoted the devotion at first on the basis of his saintly reputation. (These notes are now in the Ursuline Motherhouse in Quebec; Claude's Sulpician brother brought them to Canada!)
One of a number of people whom Claude converted in his priestly zeal turned traitor. In the conspiracy called the Titus Oates Plot in 1678 pure fabrication of the enemies of the Church, Claude was accused of complicity. He was jailed, but the charge could not be proven. Although he had previously shown signs of the beginnings of consumption, his imprisonment in terrible conditions definitely broke his health. Innocent though he was, this confessor of the faith was banished from England and arrived back in France in January of 1679.
Bl. Claude continues to inspire
Claude was sent to Lyons as spiritual director. Although always in poor health, he inspired young Jesuits in the spiritual life and in devotion to the Heart of the Master. (His mission was carried on especially by one of them, Joseph Galliffet.) Continuing to deteriorate in health, Claude was sent to Paray-le-Monial as spiritual director. He reconfirmed Sr. Margaret Mary in her work and, then, quietly died in the year 1682. His writings, once published, assisted in the spread of the devotion. Claude certainly was a priest after the Heart of Christ. Modern priests can still benefit from his spiritual direction and be the same kind of priest. Perhaps they will assist those who earnestly pray and work for Claude's canonization. (He was beatified in 1929 and many hope that he will be canonized on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of his death: 1682-1982.) The approved prayer for this intention follows.
O JESUS, Who granted to St. Margaret Mary the enlightened guidance of Blessed Claude la Colombiere to help her understand and make known the deepest mysteries of Your infinite love for us, deign to raise him to the highest honors of the altar in order that, through his intercession, more souls may come to a deeper knowledge and a more fervent love of Your Sacred Heart.
O Jesus, glorify Your Heart by granting us also this favor (mention your request) which we ask through the intercession of Your faithful servant and perfect friend, Blessed Claude.
OUR FATHER, HAIL MARY, GLORY BE.
Blessed Claude la Colombiere, pray for us.
- BIOGRAPHY: Guitton, Georges, Perfect Friend: The Life of Claude la Colombiere, (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1955); Yeo, Margaret, These Three Hearts, (Milwaukee: Bruce. 1940); (pamphlet) Kern, Walter, "Claude la Colombiere: Friend and Servant of Christ," (Watertown, NY 13601: Archconfraternity of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 1981).
- WRITINGS: Philip, Mother M., The Spiritual Direction of Blessed Claude de la Colombiere, (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1934); Young, William, Faithful Servant: Spiritual Retreat and Letters of Bl. Claude la Colombiere, (Rockford, IL: Tan Books); A Jesuit at the English Court, (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).
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