St Claude de la Colombiere SJ - local and universal
There are more illustrious Jesuit saints than Claude de la Colombiere SJ, the gentle Frenchman who was the spiritual director and “perfect friend” of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, but Claude’s legacy is as valuable as any of theirs. Like Margaret Mary, he is forever associated with the devotion to the Heart of Christ while it is less well-known that, for several years, he lived and ministered in London at the royal Court of St. James in Westminster; and the suffering he endured there, in a context of anti-Catholic aggression, was so terrible that it almost certainly was the cause of his early death. This Jesuit apostle of the Heart of Christ got horribly caught up in the Popish Plot when he was trying to minister and reconcile in his typical tender way.
Born in southern France in 1641, Claude enrolled at the Jesuit school in Lyons and on reaching 17 he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Avignon. Ordained priest in 1669, he returned to Lyons to serve both in the College and in the Jesuit church. Yet, as one of his biographers has put it, “unknown to Fr. De la Colombiere, God was preparing him for a singular mission”. After his Tertianship (a final year of prayerful discernment, which all Jesuits do, known in our tradition as the “school of the heart”), Claude was missioned to be the Superior of a small Jesuit community in Paray-le-Monial, Burgundy. It was here that his “singular mission” would begin to unfold.
Nearby, in that small and pretty southern town, there was and is to this day a convent of the Visitation Sisters, Les Visitandines. Margaret Mary was one of that community. She had been undergoing some strange and unsettling spiritual experiences. Even though their content should have been consoling, her community and her superior had concluded that she was delusional. She felt sure that the Lord was promising her a “faithful servant and perfect friend” who would both understand and guide her. In February 1675 that friend arrived, the skilled and kind spiritual companion, Fr Claude. Together, in Ignatian spiritual conversation, they were able to explore and discern the revelations that Margaret Mary had been receiving concerning the devotion to Christ’s Heart. From these days we can trace the beginning of the liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, on June 21st; and, over the next couple of centuries, the particular mission given to the Jesuits to foster devotion to the Heart of Christ, not least through the Apostleship of Prayer.
Fr Claude’s assignment to Paray-le-Monial proved to be brief. Jesuits everywhere attempt to hold themselves in readiness to respond to new missioning, to be sent to new frontiers even when their current work appears successful; they are meant to be on the move. Claude found himself sent to England, to London where, seventy years after the Gunpowder Plot, there was still hostility to Catholics. Claude was sent to be Chaplain to the Duke and Duchess of York, both Catholics. The Duke was the younger brother and heir-presumptive of the reigning King Charles II; the Duchess, Mary of Modena, was a devout Catholic. As King James II & VIIth, he would become the last Catholic monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland until deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Charles II had granted the couple special permission to maintain a chapel in St. James’s Palace. English Jesuits were still, in those days, in considerable disarray and English Catholic priests would not have been permitted to occupy such a prominent posting. Fr Claude was given a modest apartment in the Palace and moved in on October 13th, 1676.
Fr Claude found it difficult from the beginning. That first London winter seems to have been severe. Perhaps imprudently, he would not hear of any extra heating in his sparse apartment. He admits to finding London cuisine inedible. Physical hardship was not the worst of his unhappiness. The morals of the Restoration era (broadly 1660 – 1710) were lax and louche, as the contemporary literary evidence shows. Claude was distressed by what he saw but he refused to harangue; instead, he returned again and again, in his preaching, to the Eucharistic love of Christ’s heart. Another biographer notes that “he breathed good will” and that there was “nothing of Savonarola about de la Colombiere”. Fr Claude’s spiritual diary of that time records an increasing devotion to St Francis de Sales; in Claude’s preaching we find a similar emphasis on the tenderness of God’s mercy, and an amazement at the contrast between God’s unlimited love and the boundless ingratitude that people show in return. This would surely have recalled, for Claude, those spiritual conversations and discernments in the Pray-le-Monial days.
Trouble lay ahead. Seventeenth-century London was an ambiguous place and not safe for Catholics, especially Jesuits. An entirely fictitious conspiracy, dreamt up by one Titus Oates, gripped both the English and Scottish kingdoms between 1678 and 1681. Catholics, it alleged, were plotting against the life of Charles II. The Jesuits in England were to carry out the “Popish Plot” (there had been a popular, hysterical assumption that the Great Fire of London in 1666 had been ignited by the Jesuits). Oates claimed to have attended a meeting, in a pub on The Strand, which discussed the Jesuits’ tactics. Caught up in this wave of frenzy, Claude was denounced by someone whom he thought he could trust. Imprisoned in November 1678 in an unheated filthy dungeon, he suffered a rapid deterioration in his health. Claude was charged with traitorous speech against the King and parliament. He was deported back to France and, seriously ill, slowly made his way back to Paray. There, his health broken and after one final meeting with St Margaret Mary, he died, 41 years old, on February 15th 1682.
St Claude, then, was an apostle of the Heart of Christ, one who ministered in a part of London that now falls within a Jesuit-run parish – Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception, in the Diocese of Westminster. He could be said to be our local saint! He contrasts our hardness of heart with the tenderness of Christ’s heart. For St Claude, Christ overcomes our ingratitude by giving us His own Heart. He teaches us now that we can respond to that love of the Heart of Christ by offering our own hearts, each day, as he learned to do. This daily offering, of one’s own heart to the Heart of Christ, which has already been offered to us, has become a staple of the Apostleship of Prayer, linked to the Eucharist and to the monthly intentions of the Holy Father.
St Claude, saint of Paray-le-Monial and of London, apostle of Christ’s Heart, pray for us.
David Stewart SJ