Claude de La Colombière (1641-82) was a Jesuit who fostered the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a counter to the rigorous teaching of the Jansenists. He also had the misfortune to be in London at the time of the alleged Popish Plot.
The third of five children, Claude de La Colombière was born at St Symphorien d’Ozon, south of Lyon, into a family with some claim to nobility. One of his brothers became a monk; another vicar-general to the Bishop of Quebec. His sister joined the Visitandines. By way of compensation, his elder brother Humbert, described as a monk who remained in the world, embraced the Law and fathered 13 children.
Claude attended the Jesuit College in Lyon before serving his noviciate at Avignon, winning golden opinions as a preacher. There followed four years at the Society of Jesus’s establishment for l’élite d’une élite in the Latin Quarter of Paris. He was ordained in 1669.
But while the world heaped praise and flattery upon La Colombière, he himself saw chiefly his own imperfections, and the threat of eternal damnation which lies upon those who fall foul of the mercy of God.
Fearful, he tightened his spiritual bonds to such a degree that some critics have discerned “un ascète au miroir”, who thought of holiness “comme un série de performances”.
Such constraint, if it ever existed, dropped away after 1675, when La Colombière was appointed Father Superior at the convent in Paray-le-Monial, southern Burgundy. Here he encountered Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, whose visions of the Sacred Heart had aroused considerable scepticism among her fellow Sisters.
La Colombière, however, thought quite otherwise, seeing her experiences as the seal of God’s infinite love, mercy and forgiveness. His support for Marguerite was crucial in the development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. The Father Superior’s reputation, however, also shone at court. In 1676 La Colombière was sent to London by Louis XIV as preacher to Mary of Modena, wife of the Duke of York, later James II.
For three years he lived in St James’s Palace. It was in England, nevertheless, that he rid himself of his worldly ambitions. While the cold weather affected his health, he greatly admired the faithfulness of the English Catholics under the crazed persecution led by Titus Oates.
In 1679 La Colombière himself was incarcerated for three weeks in the King’s Bench prison in Southwark, and then banished. Charles II, so dependent on subsidies from Louis XIV, for once stood up for an innocent Catholic.
La Colombière lived another three years in France, writing of his “exile” from England. In 2007 his bones returned briefly to London, travelling to and fro under the Channel in the boots of extremely Catholic cars.