Monday 18 October 2021



To be Consumed by the Fire of God: Sermon for Pentecost XXI

 From the Epistle:  For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high. (Ephesians 6:12)

The Church is only as good as her saints, for they make real the truth of the holiness of the Church.  And at the heart of every one of those men and women we call saints is Hans Urs von Balthasar's statement:  "Love alone is credible." Love alone is credible.  And yet, is this what Catholics associate with saints, do they believe that the saint is the saint because they make love credible?  The post-Vatican II time of the Church has seen a marked de-emphasis on the saints, at least at the level of the hierarchy or at least those in charge of liturgical matters.  In the years following the imposition of the 1970 Roman Missal  by Pope St. Paul VI the liturgical gurus of that time declared that to have too many statues of saints in a parish church confuses the people, and to have a statue of a saint, even the Blessed Virgin Mary, within the sanctuary, would generate the ultimate confusion, for then the people are distracted from what should be their focus:  the priest-presider as the celebrant of the liturgy.  We will demur from speaking about whether the priest should be the focus of the liturgy or whether the people should be the focus of the liturgy or none of the above.  These liturgical experts obviously were not familiar with the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox church, where the presence of the saints is so vividly encountered in the presence of the icons. But the provincialism of liturgical experts is beyond this particular sermon.  

The saints are proofs, obvious proofs, of the reality of sanctifying grace, of transformative grace.  Without St Lucy's eyes on a plate, we would all be Protestants, singing like at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party: "Grace  yesterday, grace tomorrow, but never grace today."  

I was thinking of all of this yesterday when pondering the meaning of the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alocoque.  Her name fascinates me. The sound of Alocoque is amazing.  When one reads the hagiographical account of her life, one encounters those key phrases: born of a noble family, pious as a child, from an early age was drawn to pious exercises of penance, entered the religious life, died, was raised to the honors of the altar by such and such a Pope.  Now these accounts of the lives of saints, especially after the Council of Trent, are not to be discredited.  But we must ask whether, in their good desire to speak of the holiness of the Saint, they neuter the relevance of their sanctity for us today.  

St Mary Margaret Alacoque lived at a particular time in the history of the world, the world impregnated by the God who became flesh in history two thousand years ago.  And so the meaning of her sanctity is not confined to some sort of Platonic eternal sphere of saintliness.  It must be understood in the context of when she lived and who she was.  St. Margaret Mary Alocoque cannot be made into a generic saint, whose statue embodies that pietistical mediocrity that denies the radical Christocentricity that is the essence of the Saint.  

To disregard the context of the time and place in which the saint lived is to deny the reality of the holiness of that saint and any relevance to us today.  What would it have been like to live in 17th century France, when Margaret Alocoque lived? It would have been not a good time for a pious and believing Catholic.  For that century in France was a time of irreligion in the political and cultural sphere and a time of real challenges to the Catholic faith within the Church herself.  It was a time when the religious wars and their aftermath infected all levels of society, when the Catholic faith and regal and local politics were so intertwined that the Catholic faith was threatened by an absorption into political strife.  But it was also a time when within the Church, as a part of the Church's response to the Protestant Reformation, there arose a movement called Jansenism that threatened the very basis of the Catholic teaching about grace and man's freedom.  Jansenism, as a reaction to the scandals besetting the Church from within, as a reaction to the apparent denial of the holiness of the Church by the behavior of clergy, embraced a terrible and un-Catholic view of grace that denied the freedom of the man or woman to accept or reject grace.  The Jansenists were the Catholic counterparts of the Puritans in Protestantism.  And they caused many problems in the Church not because of their rightful criticism of the laxity of the moral standards of Catholics but because of their deep misunderstanding of freedom and grace. 

Not a good time to be a Catholic. But is any time a good time to be a Catholic?  No, there is not. That is the point.  So Margaret Mary Alocoque enters the Visitation Convent in Paray-Monial in 1671.  She is deemed by her sisters as awkward and not obviously cut out for the religious life.  She doesn't fit the image of the 17th century Visitation nun.  And she begins to have visions of our Lord, beginning in 1674, and these vision center on our Lord's heart, and on this Heart as our Lord's infinite love for each man and woman in the world. She kept a notebook that contains the words of our Lord in these visions.  Listen to one of them:

"After this, He asked me for my heart, which I begged Him to take. He did so and placed it in His own Adorable Heart, where He showed it to me like a tiny atom which was being consumed in this great furnace, and withdrawing it thence as a burning flame in the form of a heart, He restored it to the place whence He had taken it…"

"Like a tiny atom"…. That is how we know this is real, for St. Margaret Mary completely understands her role not as a great saint whose statues would grace countless churches, but rather as a mere atom, a speck, to point to the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ, a speck that would be consumed by this fire of love.  Of course, she encountered great opposition and misunderstanding from her Order, especially from her Superior.  And that is the Catholic way:  such special revelations by anyone who has any Catholic sense should be resisted and countered, because they are not part of the deposit of Faith.   Credulity is an enemy of the Catholic faith.  But because her revelations were genuine, the doubt and genuine skepticism of those in charge of such things in the Church were overcome, and it is Margaret Mary Alacoque who becomes the impetus for devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Church.

But once again, this saint cannot and should not be taken out of her historical context and turned into a generic pious saint.  God raised her up at that particular time as an antidote to the two enemies of the Church at that time:  irreligion and Jansenism.  The 17th century in France was a time when the Catholic faith was at the mercy and the manipulation of those in power:  kings, emperors, heads of state. It was the time of the beginning of secularism, when what one believed was linked to who was in charge at that time and when we see the real first beginnings of the doctrine of relativism.  But it was also the time of corruption in the Church. One of the reactions to this corruption within the Church was the appearance of a form of Puritanism that in effect denied the freedom of man to reject grace and thereby to deny the freedom that is from God and which distorted the Catholic faith in such a way that the unity of the triad of truth, beauty and goodness was severed, with disastrous consequences that resonate down to our own time.  

But this is the point:  that God raised St Margaret Mary in her particular time to say something that had to be said and to be that someone who could say what had to be said:  that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting live." In the midst of irreligion, of behaving as if God does not exist, and in the midst of a scourge that combines a liturgical puritanism and a romantic accommodation to a faithless generation within the Catholic Church: this woman proclaims the love of God that burns so strongly that that love is not beyond the grasp of even the most grievous sinner. And in this way the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is truly radical and cannot be put into a pious box or evacuated merely by a Litany.  For the offense to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not only the blasphemy and irreverence of a non-believing world.  The offense to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is also committed by those, who in the name of religion and piety, restrict where the love and grace of God can operate, can heal, can transform.

But how different is 17th century France from 21st century United States, nay rather, from the whole Western world at this time?  Not very.  For we live in a time when the political powers both in this country and in Europe either deny the Christian foundations of modern Western culture or relegate Christian faith to private opinion and thereby make it not a part of the real world of our time. We face both irreligion and dissension within the Church.  That dissension takes the form both of disobedience to the Tradition of the Church and also of retreating into a romantic pietism that cannot meet the challenges of the reality of the world in which we live. Today we need saints who will do what the saints of the past have done: make real the presence of the love of God in Jesus Christ to the whole world.  We need not only someone like St Margaret Mary Alocoque, deeply and humbly within the religious life. We also need saints like St Ignatius of Loyola who took on the irreligion and unbelief and corruption of his world and allowed it to be transformed by the graceful love of Jesus Christ, who understood the central role of education in evangelization, who involved himself in the world as it was and in a heroic way helped lay the foundation of the post-medieval Christian world.

There is a need for silence today, silence that will enable us to listen to the small, whispering voice of God:  a silence that will blanket the chatter of the Church that seems to have forgotten her mission, a silence that will muffle the noise of political debate and the scream of the all-demanding naked self. There is silence in the holiness of sainthood. But there is that silence also in what we do together at this Mass, that silence that is preceded by the great affirmation of praise of the Sanctus, that silence that allows eternity to enter and kiss time, that allows the infinite Love of God to be present here and now on this altar.  May we all be caught up in the flame of that Love and allow that Love to transform us into living flames of that Love.  

The words of St. Margaret Mary Alocoque:

"He asked me for me for my heart, which I prayed him to take; which he did, and placed it in his own adorable heart wherein he showed it to me like a tiny atom being consumed in that blazing furnace; and he drew it forth again like a burning flame in the form of a heart, and set it once more in the place whence he had taken it."

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla