Exactly 300 years ago a devastating pestilence in France ceased following what was likely the first public consecration and worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
This year marks the tercentenary of the consecration of the diocese and city of Marseille to Our Lord’s Sacred Heart and the beginning of the city’s deliverance from the final outbreak of the Bubonic plague in Western Europe.
Through a humble nun’s apparitions of Jesus and her bishop’s obedience to the Lord’s instructions to her, the plague, which killed 100,000 in the city and its surroundings in two years, ended definitively in 1722, after city officials finally agreed to participate in a procession for the newly established Sacred Heart feast day.
The story of a Visitation sister, Venerable Anne-Madeleine Remuzat, and her continuation of work begun in the previous century to promote devotion and reparation to the Sacred Heart, together with Bishop Henri de Belsunce’s zealous care for the Catholics of Marseille during a terrible contagion, is inspiring as Catholics worldwide now implore God to end the current pandemic.
Sister Anne-Madeleine was born in Marseille in 1696. When she was 9, she received her parents’ permission to enter the cloistered Visitation monastery of the Grandes Maries. Not long after, she began experiencing great sufferings that would continue during the rest of her life, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
In a 1713 revelation, Jesus inspired her to continue the work of another French Visitation sister, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who first began promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart after a series of visions in which Christ appeared to her, asking her to foster a devotion to his Most Sacred Heart in reparation for sins and the indifference and abuse committed against the Blessed Sacrament. St. Margaret Mary died in 1690, but Sister Anne-Madeleine continued her work by founding an association dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The goal of the association was first to thank the Lord for his love for us in the Eucharist and then make reparation for the indignities and affronts he suffered during his earthly life and which he still receives in the Eucharist. Association members were to adore the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, according to the Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval
The association received Vatican approval in 1717. The following year, about 60 people who gathered for adoration at a local church saw the face of Christ in the Host for more than half an hour. At that time God revealed to Sister Anne-Madeleine that if the city of Marseille did not repent from its immorality, it would be punished.
Besides a loosening of the morals of its citizens, the heresy of Jansenism had taken root in France. According to its proponents, man’s free will is incapable of any moral goodness. All man’s actions proceed either from earthly desires, stemming from concupiscence, or from heavenly desires, produced by grace. It taught that Christ died only for a small fraction of persons; and, to receive the Eucharist, one had to be in a state of grace, but also have a disposition of pure love of God, without any faults. In 1713 Pope Clement XI condemned the Jansenist errors, but some in France didn’t accept the condemnation.
In May 1720, a ship from the Middle East brought the Bubonic plague, starting the Great Plague of Marseille.
Bubonic plague is one of three types of plague caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis and usually spread by fleas. One to seven days after exposure to the bacteria, flu-like symptoms develop, including fever, chills, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea. Swollen and painful lymph nodes occur in the area closest to where the bacteria entered the skin.
Later that summer, with more and more cases of the plague being reported, a quarantine was established around the city, as the plague devastated the region. Churches were closed. Sister Anne-Madeleine’s monastery was spared, and her community did many acts of charity during that time.
Along with holding open-air services, Bishop de Belsunce went through the streets, accompanied by several priests, where he organized administration of the last rites and gave alms, even as many priests were dying from the plague, according to Visitation Spirit.
At the urging of her superior, Sister Anne-Madeleine asked God to make known how he desired that his Sacred Heart be honored so that the plague in Marseille would end. The Lord told her that he wanted a solemn feast to honor his Sacred Heart, according to the Clairval abbey.
Bishop de Belsunce instituted the feast in the Marseille Diocese and planned to consecrate the diocese and city on Nov. 1, 1720. That day the wind blew so hard it was impossible to hold a procession. But in the evening, all the city’s church bells were rung, and the wind moderated. The bishop was able to perpetually consecrate the diocese and city, and celebrate Mass — likely the first public consecration and public worship of the Sacred Heart.
From that time, the illness gradually abated. But the people did not reform their lives; and, in 1722, the plague reappeared. Bishop de Belsunce ordered processions for Corpus Christi and the new feast of the Sacred Heart, according to the Clairval abbey.
More than 40 years earlier, during the “great apparition” given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Christ requested that the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, a feast of reparation, be established on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi, according to Wikipedia.
The Marseille city aldermen, who hadn’t attended the 1720 consecration and Mass, did participate in the 1722 processions, according to Visitation Spirit. The plague ended completely that September.
According to a review of a biography of Sister Anne-Madeleine, the Marseille magistrates published this declaration in 1722:
“When every human effort had hopelessly failed, prayers and acts of religion had arrested the hand of God. For all had ocular demonstration that the plague not only decreased but had actually ceased from the very day on which Msr. de Belsunce had consecrated Marseilles to the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (G. O’N. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 9, no. 36 (1920): 620-22; www.jstor.org/stable/30092918).
Venerable Anne-Madeleine Remuzat died in 1730. Her cause for canonization is open.
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.