“I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the Heart of Jesus.” These were among the last words of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), a French nun whose holy life and special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus we celebrate today on her feast.
Margaret was born into a large Catholic family, the fifth of seven children. As described in her biography, she exhibited a devotion to Christ from an early age, especially to the Blessed Sacrament. “O my only Love,” she prayed, “how indebted I am to Thee for having prevented me from my tenderest youth, for having made Thyself Master of my heart!” When she was bedridden by a mysterious illness at the age of fifteen, Margaret prayed to the Blessed Mother, promising in front of her whole family that if she was healed she would take religious vows. She was instantly cured.
Indeed, Margaret entered the Order of the Visitation at Paray-le-Monial at age twenty-three. It was here that the Lord Jesus appeared to her on three separate occasions to impart to her the mission of spreading devotion to his Sacred Heart. Although initially filled with fears of her own unworthiness for such a task, Margaret received consolation in his words: “Fear nothing; I shall be thy strength.”
It was on the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, that Margaret received the first apparition: “Once, being before the Blessed Sacrament and having a little more leisure than usual, I felt wholly filled with this Divine Presence. . . . 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.” Jesus showed her his flaming heart and told her that he could no longer contain his burning love. He wanted to pour it out on all mankind, and she was to spread this message to the world.
In the second apparition, Jesus instructed Margaret to devote the first Friday of every month to his Sacred Heart and to pray for an hour between 11 p.m. and midnight every Thursday. These two practices—the First Friday Devotion and the Holy Hour—have since become widely popular among Catholics.
Finally, the third apparition occurred during the octave of the feast of Corpus Christi. Jesus asked her to establish a feast dedicated to his Sacred Heart on the first Friday after the octave: “And I promise that My Heart shall dilate to pour out abundantly the influences of its love on all that will render it this honor.”
Margaret’s superiors were initially skeptical of her revelations, but when she again fell mysteriously ill and the doctor could find no remedy, her mother superior suggested that Margaret pray to God for healing. If the prayer was granted, it would be a sign of the truthfulness of her claims. Margaret did as she was told, and, again, she was immediately healed.
Margaret labored to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart as she had been asked. “It seems to me that I can breathe only to increase devotion to the Heart of Jesus,” she wrote. “I should die content could I procure it any honor. . . . Provided I love Jesus and that He reigns, it is enough for me.” She and some fellow Visitation sisters produced and distributed an image of the Sacred Heart and various small prayer books containing devotions they had written. Their success “was considerable,” her biographer explains. “The demand for them everywhere increased.” The sisters received permission from their bishop to celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart locally, and the devotion began to spread rapidly throughout France.
Margaret’s death in 1690 accelerated the spread of the devotion even outside France, as books were published on her life—including her accounts of the visions—and many miracles began to be attributed to her intercession. When the Great Plague of Marseille (1720–1722), the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Western Europe, took an estimated 100,000 lives, the bishop of the city publicly consecrated it to the Sacred Heart, and townspeople attributed the plague’s abatement to the act. (Today, there stands in Marseille a Basilica of the Sacred Heart.) The devotion was also heralded as a powerful response to the rising tide of Jansenism in Europe. Indeed, the Jansenists, who rejected God’s universal love for mankind, were the strongest opponents of the movement.
In 1765, the devotion to the Sacred Heart was officially approved by Rome, and, in 1856, the feast of the Sacred Heart was made a universal solemnity by Pope Pius IX. By 1899, Pope Leo XIII composed an Act of Consecration that dedicated the entire human race to the Sacred Heart. In his 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII wrote, “It is altogether impossible to enumerate the heavenly gifts which devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has poured out on the souls of the faithful, purifying them, offering them heavenly strength, rousing them to the attainment of all virtues.” More recently, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “I wish to express my approval and encouragement to all who in any way continue to foster, study and promote devotion to the Heart of Christ,” identifying the Heart of Jesus as “the heart of the Church.”
And so today, over three hundred years after her death, we remember St. Margaret Mary by the title promised to her by Jesus: “Hence thou shalt be called the well-beloved disciple of My Sacred Heart.” Her story continues to demonstrate how God uses the humblest instruments for the greatest purposes.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, pray for us.