Of the several saints who have popularized devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque is the best known. A nun of the Order of the Visitation, it was she to whom the Lord gave the most specific instructions about encouraging reparation to His Sacred Heart for injuries done to His redemptive love.
Margaret Alacque was born at L’Autecoeur, Burgundy, France, to a prominent French official named Claude Alacoque. She was the fifth of his seven children. Her education was limited by circumstances: tutoring by her godmother, and two years in a convent school. But acquaintance with the life of nuns through observing her school teachers, the Poor Clare Franciscans, made a positive impression on her naturally devout personality.
A rheumatic ailment kept her abed between the ages of 11 and 15. Because of her illness she had to return to the family home. Here she and her mother Philiberte had much grief to bear, for after her father’s death one of her sisters and her brother-in-law assumed total command of the household, bore down upon her mother, and were unduly harsh with her, often forbidding her even to go to church.
As might be expected, the householding couple tried to marry Margaret off. Her response was to double her prayers and acts of self-denial. But when she began to gather together the neglected children of the town to instruct them, this charity, too, won scant favor from her family.
At 22, Margaret was finally able to receive the sacrament of confirmation, taking as her additional name, Mary. Free now to choose her own destiny, she entered the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial in 1671. There she would spend the rest of her life.
It is comforting to learn that Sister Margaret Mary was naturally rather quiet, slow and clumsy. Most of us are like that! But there was no doubt about her genuine piety. Christ rewarded her prayerfulness by a series of apparitions and revelations. He told her especially that He was troubled by the coldness and ingratitude of so many of those whom He had lovingly saved by His death. He asked her to help make up for this ingratitude both by her own prayers, good works and sufferings, and by persuading others to follow her example.
First, He commissioned her to spread devotion to his Sacred Heart, which He ordered to be pictured as a flaming heart, wounded and crowned with thorns. Next, He urged her to promote frequent Holy Communion, especially on the first Friday of each month, and a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration on the previous evening. (Frequent communion was rare in her day.) Finally, He asked that she work towards the establishment of a liturgical feastday of the Sacred Heart. He also instructed her to become a sacrificial victim for the shortcomings of the nuns of her own community, and to tell the nuns she had been assigned such a task.
Understandably, the Visitation sisters were not all pleased to learn God’s will in this matter; however, they became more accepting. Indeed, the convent became, and still remains, a center for propagating that public and private devotion to the Sacred Heart that we are still familiar with today.
The special calling of St. Margaret Mary to warn the faithful against coldness and ingratitude towards Jesus makes me wish that she might be living among us today. More Catholics receive frequent Holy Communion now than did in 17th-century France, but one can wonder how well prepared they are to do so, and therefore how respectful they really are towards their Eucharistic King. One can ask, too, how many Catholics make a practice nowadays of paying regular visits to the Blessed Sacrament, or taking part in Eucharistic adoration, and how they dress and behave in church. Do they display due reverence for the Real Presence, or a cavalier neglect?
We adore the “Heart that has so loved men.” May we therefore renew constantly our resolution to atone for the world’s irreverence towards It by our own deep and demonstrated devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament!
–Father Robert F. McNamara