Margaret Mary's Meeting Place
I knew from the start that we were in good company. Our visit to Paray-le-Monial, one of nine shrine towns in France, began at 25 Avenue Jean-Paul II.
Like the namesake of the street, our group — some 40 pilgrims mostly from the Diocese of Pittsburgh — had also come to this small town in Burgundy in hopes of drawing closer to the mystery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
It was in Paray-le-Monial in the 17th century that Jesus revealed his heart “burning with love for all men” to a young Visitation nun, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. (The Church celebrates her feast Oct. 16.)
All too often, Our Lord told her, his love had been met with contempt even by those consecrated to him. He asked her to make reparation by receiving holy Communion on the first Friday of every month and by sharing, through an hour of prayer every Thursday evening, in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Holy Hour was born from this. Later Jesus instructed Margaret Mary to help establish a feast day in honor of his Sacred Heart so that all people might know of his overflowing love.
It was from Paray-le-Monial that the message of Our Lord's revelations was first championed beyond the cloister walls by Saint Claude la Colombière (1641-1682), the Jesuit who served as Margaret Mary's spiritual director.
Long before the apparitions, however, Paray-le-Monial was a place of great prayer.
After visiting the Office de Tourisme, we went directly to the reception center of the shrine. We were met there by Céline, a young French guide. She explained that the shrine was not one building but several churches scattered hereabouts. Before setting off on our walking tour, we watched “Message of Paray,” a video that helped put the historical significance of this town in context.
Before Paray-le-Monial, we learned, there was simply Paray, a village located west of what was once the famous and now lost Benedictine abbey of Cluny. It was the Cluny monks who established a monastery in Paray, gave the town its “last name” and, at the end of the 11th century, began construction of the church that would be our first stop. The monks modeled it on a smaller scale after their own great abbey.
Raised to the rank of Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) by Pope Pius IX in 1875, its Roman Cluniac style is reason alone for some visitors to come to Paray-le-Monial.
The church is built in the shape of a cross, with thick plain walls, rounded arches and pointed-barrel vaults that allow for the generous but not soaring height of the nave. As Céline led the way into the basilica, which now serves as the parish church, she pointed out the “triplets” — three rises of steps, three levels in the choir and three tiers of high vertical windows welcoming the “light of God.”
We then headed to Chapelle Claude La Colombière. It houses the relics of the priest whom Jesus described to Margaret Mary as his “faithful servant and perfect friend.” Arriving in Paray-le-Monial when many, including sisters in her very community, accused Margaret Mary of being deluded, Father Colombière recognized the revelations given to the nun as true. His spiritual stamp of approval and own consecration to the Sacred Heart did much to spread the devotion.
In contrast with the understated basilica, the interior of the Colombière Chapel, built in 1930, is colorful. The mosaic front of the altar shows deer drinking from a spring with three streams. For Margaret Mary, the Heart of Jesus was an “inexhaustible spring” with streams of mercy for sinners, charity for those in need, and love and light for the “perfect friends it wants to unite to itself.”
A vision Margaret Mary had two years before her death inspired the fresco above the altar. It portrays Jesus enthroned with his heart ablaze. His mother is to his right and the saints of the Sacred Heart — Margaret Mary and Claude — are before them.
Mary, in a gentle, motherly fashion, is confiding in Margaret Mary what needs to be done. The Visitation Sisters were charged with promoting the Sacred Heart of her son, according to the inscription below the fresco, and the Jesuits were to instruct others in its mystery.
At long last, we arrived at the very heart of this shrine town, Chapelle des Apparitions, attached to the Visitation Sisters’ convent.
As we knelt preparing for Mass on the First Friday of the month, I looked at the altar and to the cloister grille to the right of it. It was behind the grille that Margaret Mary praying before the Blessed Sacrament mystically encountered Christ between December 1673 and June 1675.
Above the altar, artist Luc Barbier has attempted to capture the brilliant intensity of the second “great apparition” in which Jesus showed himself in glory with his “five wounds shining like so many suns.” A glance to the side of the church reveals the above-ground tomb of Margaret Mary at which John Paul II prayed in 1986.
“It is near the Heart of Christ,” he later reflected, “that man's heart is given the capacity of loving.”
One of the three priests accompanying us spoke of this love in his homily. While expressing awe for what occurred in this chapel, he said it was important to remember that Jesus miraculously comes to each of us in the Eucharist every day.
The love that Margaret Mary said Jesus “cannot hold back anymore in himself” continues to bless Paray-le-Monial. More than 100,000 pilgrims journey here each year, the Visitation Sisters remain, new religious communities have formed and the Community of the Emmanuel, an association of priests, deacons, religious and laity, welcomes young people and families to evangelization sessions.
More than 300 years after the apparitions, a new generation hears the beat of Jesus’ heart, calling them to conversion and love.
Kerry A. Crawford writes from Pittsburgh.
Planning Your Visit
The reception center at the basilica is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 6 p.m. Mass times vary by day and season. For more information about pilgrimages to Paray-le-Monial and other shrine towns, visit villes-sanctuaires.com/anglais/paray_pelerinage.htm on the Internet.
Paray-le-Monial is accessible by car and train, and served by Saint-Yan airport. For more, go to villes-sanctuaires.com/anglais/paray_pelerinage.htm on the Internet.
- October 16-22, 2005