To celebrate our Parish Feast Day, Father Hanly’s homily this week is on St Margaret Mary.
I have a slight bias for St Margaret Mary, because my big sister is named after St Margaret Mary and she was born on the Feast of the Annunciation, when Mary was told that she was to be the mother of the Saviour.
And then my grandmother, who I never met, because they lived in Ireland and in those days I was in New York and she passed away before I got the chance to visit my relatives in Ireland, but I have great fond memories and thoughts.
The one thing I remember of both of them, and I’m sure my sister would be a little bit embarrassed…
I would listen to my father speak of his mother and the feeling you got was this was a great woman. And the feeling you had was this is one who really served.
She came into the world at difficult times, and her life with her husband was full of a lot of pain and anguish, because the times were just before the First World War and it was a terrible time for everyone. But she had a gentleness and a kindness that she passed on to my father.
So whenever I think of my father, I think of his mother and how much he learnt from her. The first time I saw my father weep was when he got the letter that his lovely Margaret, his mother, had passed away.
I won’t talk too much about my sister, except to say I’ve always admired her for being the kind of person that she is. She is a giver, basically, and she gives and looks out for, not only her own family, but all the families in the neighbourhood.
I bring these things up, because the important thing to remember, as we go into this life of St Margaret, is that the heart of it is love. It really is. The heart of it is love.
She was born in France at the time of the Enlightenment, which everybody praises today, but which was a terrible time, because all of Europe, because of the Reformation, had been split in two and in pieces. And there was fighting over religion, and fighting over history, and fighting over this, and it was very, very difficult times for anyone.
And here is Margaret’s mother and father. Her father had a nice job. He was working for the government. And they were well taken care of, to a certain degree, except that he up and died. He up and died when she was four years old.
And when he up and died, everything was lost. They had nothing else except the house they lived in. And the trouble was that the relatives took over the house, away from the widow. And from that time on, they made things very difficult for little Margaret and her mother.
Her mother, though, had four sons. Off they went. She was trying to put them through school. And they helped. They took care of them. But Margaret and her mother were on very, very difficult times.
To add to this, when Margaret was eight years old, she got severely sick. And one of the nice things about being severely sick is that, in this little girl’s mind, she felt that Mary her mother was close to her.
And she had heard the little prayers of her grandma. The grandma was a very, very close kind of person on her mother’s side and she used to teach her how to pray. That’s where she first learned how to pray.
Anyhow, she was destined, because, during the time of her sickness, she was near death, and she said this prayer. She said that, “If you deliver me, Lord, I will give my life to you.” And then she took it literally because, within a week or so, she became well again and she went off to the Convent.
By now she was in her late teens and early twenties. She went to, I’m sorry, boarding school first and in the school she got sick again. And this time they sent her home. They thought that maybe convent life was too difficult for her, so she went home.
But what you see is a pattern of all her brothers were older than her, and what the pattern is is of a girl all alone in a terrible time, living in poverty, basically, and being abused by her own father’s mother and sisters.
Anyhow, she had set her heart on becoming a nun and she did become a nun. She went into the Visitation order and she gave herself to work there. They were discouraged at first. They didn’t want to take her. They felt she was too weak, or she was not the right kind, or whatever. But, anyhow, she went in and she managed to absorb enough so that she was – in those days, the nuns were all cloistered so they had little jobs – she was given the job, she was finally made a sister and she was given the job of working at the infirmary.
This is just the outside of what’s going on. Inside, though, she is something very special and she has this relationship with Jesus and with Mary. And it’s, at times, a little bit frightening, because she feels so much a part of Jesus and his love and his caring and his friendship, and she feels that somehow Jesus and she are one. And then, as she gets older, in the time that she gets older, it’s about this relationship, because she’s in love and she knows and feels that he is in love with her.
And that is the key to understand St Margaret. She loves Jesus and Jesus loves her. And nothing else matters, nothing, not the Superior….
Does that mean she was a naughty nun? No. She followed everything that the Rule told her to follow. But, deep in her heart, the thing that drove her, and drove back her tears and her sorrow, because her life had been so difficult, and her mother’s pain and her father’s death and all of these things, the thing that gave her solace and peace was Jesus was saying to her, “Someday, you are going to be the one to be bearing a great gift.”
And, of course, that gift will be she will begin to understand that what Jesus wants her to do is to dedicate her life to an understanding that God was not far away, that God was not something cruel or judgmental where she had to worry and fear Him, that Jesus had told her that she is loved and will always be loved, and cared for and will always be cared for.
And then she began to pray deeply, so that her whole life became work and prayer, and prayer and work, until the time came when they were sent a young priest, a young Jesuit, to be their spiritual director. And after talking to her for a very short time, he began to realise that this lady was very special and that he could tell her, because it was under the vow of you’re not allowed to speak about confessional matters.
And she poured out her soul to him and said that night and day she would talk and walk and pray and learn more and more about Jesus, until Jesus said to her that she must now tell her Superior that she was to take her little life in her hands and bring to the world the full meaning of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Now, in the past, there was a lot of talk about the Sacred Heart, and this and that. Not so much, though, not so much. But what Jesus was asking her to do was to tell her Superior, who didn’t particularly like her, thought she was a little strange, because at times she had fits, and at times she was not well, and at times she had a strange look in her eye, but never disobedient, and always humble and always ready to help.
But the priest was a very wise man and he said to her Superior, “This girl is blessed by God and so you must allow her to do the things that she’s asking of you.” And, from that time on, she began to speak for Jesus. She would say, “Jesus would like this and Jesus would like that.” And, of course, they thought, “Well, she might be a little strange.” But she wasn’t, she was dead on.
Now, all of a sudden, the other Superior gave way to a new Superior. And the new Superior began to love her deeply and understand her. But the other sisters were jealous, because she was getting special treatment, or for one reason or another, and they thought that she was a little crazy. In fact, they used to think she had the devil and was possessed and they threw water on her – holy water – sprinkled holy water on her to drive out the devil. But she never objected, never fought, never angry, nothing. And then, finally, the next sister came and became Superior and she loved her and she took good care of her.
And what was happening?
What was happening was the devotion to the Sacred Heart that you all know, because we have it here all the time, the first thing she said was that what Jesus wants us to do is, in Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, on the Thursday, that we should all kneel and we should all pray.
Pray for what?
Pray that the love of Jesus begins to take hold of our convent, our village, our town and the whole world.
And so it began. What we consider very, very common now, the Holy Hour, was through her. The Holy Hour became an institution throughout most of Europe, and other places, as well as here.
And then the next thing she asked was that we would pray for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Now here is the key to the whole thing. Jesus says to her, he says to Margaret, “I give my life, I give everything to them. And they don’t care, they walk away. They bless themselves, but their heart is not in it. There is no heart here. And where there is no heart, there is no love. And where there is no love, it makes me weep and it makes me sad.”
And then this is the first time that we understand something that is very, very important, and we have always understood forever after, and that is it is not so much we need God, but God needs us. And He has made us free. And He loves us.
And what He asks in return is the love that He gives to us.
And what kind of love does He give to us?
He comes. He becomes man.
And why does He become man and what is Jesus?
Jesus is God walking through this world, just as we walk through it. It is God Himself yearning to experience what we experience, to feel our tears, to feel our frustrations, to feel and live out the many, many pains of our arduous life, so that we will be able to understand that God not only has created us and made us, but now, because of the loveliness of Jesus coming as a human being, He also feels our pain and rejoices in our greatness.
This idea was always in the church from the time the baby was born and the baby was totally dependent on human beings. The baby in Bethlehem, who was indeed God Himself, and grew as we grow, and took on the mission that He was set.
And his mission was to bring what?
It was to bring the healing of God.
It was to bring the understanding that God was full of compassion and we, too, must be full of compassion; that God was full of love and we, too, must be full of love; that God cared that we, too, might know that we care.
And that we would share with God the lovely gifts that He wants to give us: to give us all we need to go through life with faith, with hope, with trust, and to understand how blessed we were, and to understand that His presence would never leave us, that His presence was always with us and, if it seemed to disappear, it’s because we are hiding from Him and He is not hiding from us.
And this little nun, having finally convinced people around her that the message, the only message that Jesus was bringing us, that God was bringing us, was God loves you. He loves you with an unbelievable love. And He asks for nothing. And He feels. And He weeps when you weep, and He laughs when you laugh, and He walks when you walk.
And He is truly, not way up in the heavens, but walking in step with you along your way. Because that is what He came to bring. He came to bring life, and even through death — He will share that terrible agony with each and every one of us — and bring us into eternal life.
And this is the little girl from Bordeaux who everybody laughed at and everybody felt was rather stupid, hard to get along with, difficult to understand.
But, because she took God seriously, the world has been enriched by one of the most beautiful devotions that the church has ever had — and that is honouring the Sacred Heart.