St. Claude and a True Heart

This time of year stores are festooned with red and pink and hearts of every kind on displays and cards and boxes of candy for one’s sweetheart. We are preparing to celebrate romance: Valentine’s Day. And of course there is nothing wrong with romantic love.

 
Less commercial and more meaningful is the feast that follows Valentine’s Day, that of French Jesuit St. Claude Colombiere (1641-1682), known especially for being the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart. Thus the celebration of romantic love, which can wax and wane, is followed by the celebration of a man who has helped us to know the Heart of Love itself. The Church honors St. Claude Colombiere on February 15, though his feast is not in most liturgical calendars.

Scholars disagree about why the rapidly rising Fr. Colombiere was appointed rector of a small, remote Jesuit community in Paray-le-Monial where he would also serve as confessor to a community of Visitation nuns. The Vatican website says: “Not a few people wondered at this assignment of a talented young Jesuit to such an out-of the-way place as Paray. The explanation seems to be in the superiors' knowledge that there was in Paray an unpretentious religious of the Monastery of the Visitation, Margaret Mary Alacoque, to whom the Lord was revealing the treasures of his Heart, but who was overcome by anguish and uncertainty. She was waiting for the Lord to fulfill his promise and send her "my faithful servant and perfect friend" to help her realize the mission for which he had destined her: that of revealing to the world the unfathomable riches of his love.”
 
I don’t find this explanation satisfactory. I believe St. Margaret Mary’s visions were at this time unknown outside her monastery. I prefer to think that Providence worked in a more amazing way, confirming the saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” St. Claude’s story helps me surrender to God’s holy Providence when things seem to be going against me. Let’s look at that story more closely.
Earlier, during his theological studies as a seminarian in Paris, Claude had been chosen, at the request of Jean Baptiste Colbert, the powerful finance minister of France, to be the private tutor of his two teenage sons. Apparently, Colbert had heard that Claude was a gifted Jesuit whose sermons showed his potential for becoming a great orator. And so Claude was missioned to this sensitive position in the court of King Louis XIV.
All went well with the appointment until Colbert walked into the room where Claude tutored his sons. There, on a piece of paper amid the open books, was an epigram: “Colbert has gotten out of the mud /And fears to fall back with a thud.”  Colbert, furious, fired Claude on the spot, though the origin of the epigram was never determined. This account and translation comes from Ruth Lavigne’s The Life of Saint Claude De La Colombiere: Spiritual Director of St. Margaret Mary.
After this, it seems no accident that Claude was never really in the French spotlight again. He was chosen for another sensitive mission, spiritual director for the French Catholic Duchess of York in Protestant England, but he never became the great preacher in the French Church that many thought he would become. Instead, he accepted the humble assignment as spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary. In that role, he affirmed that her visions were authentic. We cannot know the heart of a man, but it appears from his writings that, while he was tempted by pride and vain glory when preaching in front of large crowds, his work in Paray-le-Monial held no such temptation.
God took Claude’s failure and disgrace and turned it into a greater good. I doubt whether Claude would have been sent to Paray-le-Monial if the incident with Colbert had not occurred. I believe this is an instance where God’s will was done in ways that were not evident to anyone at the time, not even to Claude.
I hope to find out more about this story this summer. I’ll be going to France as chaplain on a Sacred Heart pilgrimage. We will be at Paray-le-Monial for the Feast of the Sacred Heart on June 27. For more information about this pilgrimage see Mater Dei Tours.