By Rev. Joseph J. C. Petrovits, J.C.B., S.T.L.
CHAPTER XI. HISTORICAL BASIS OF THE GREAT PROMISE
According to a letter which, as many contend, was directed by Blessed Margaret Mary to Mother de Saumaise, Our Blessed Lord promised signal spiritual favors to all those who communicate on nine successive First Fridays of the month. This is called the Devotion of the Nine Fridays, and its spiritual reward is generally designated by the name of the Great Promise. The present chapter is devoted to a consideration of the letter above mentioned.
To obviate all possibility of misunderstanding, it is necessary, at the very outset, to emphasize the fact that we do not intend to concern ourselves with the First Friday Devotion, strictly so called. That is a most salutary practice which cannot be encouraged with too much zeal and fervor. The reader's attention will be directed, almost exclusively, to those Holy Communions which, in order that their extraordinary spiritual benefits may accrue to the communicant, must be nine only in number, and must be received on nine consecutive First Fridays of the month.
Before any judgment may be pronounced on this subject, the rules of historical research demand that we first examine the document in which the promise in question was circulated. Our investigation shows that the belief in so extraordinary an efficacy of nine Holy Communions, when received in compliance with the prescribed conditions, is based upon a certain letter, the date of which, as ordinarily assigned, is May, 1688. Referring to the question of its date in one of his articles, Father Hamon says: " This date does not seem certain to me. The Annals of the monastery of Dijon cite a fragment of this letter, and date it as posterior to the time of February, 1689. Last year, at Roanne, I found an ancient manuscript in the Visitation convent of Paray which attributes to the same letter the date of October 13, 1687 or 1689, the last figure being illegible".
This, however, is not the only regrettable defect. The letter is not autographic. At most it may be considered as the transcript of an original no longer extant. It is asserted that the correspondence that took place between Blessed Margaret Mary and Mother de Saumaise was guarded in the convent of Dijon up to the time of the French Revolution, when it disappeared, and has never been recovered. This missing epistle has been the occasion of much contention, and the controversy it created has been expressed in unsparing words by those who argued that the Great Promise was founded on a document the authenticity of which, in their estimation, is very questionable, and the spuriousness of which would be demonstrable in the near future. The Church took no official part in this discussion; she left the matter unsettled, and, as little hope can be entertained for the recovery of the original manuscript, the problem is likely to remain unsolved.
Several plausible arguments have been adduced in favor of the authenticity of the letter, but their insufficiency is evident from the fact that they fail to carry conviction to a considerable number of theologians. Those attacking the authenticity of the letter bring forward numerous objections which, with the proofs and evidences at hand, cannot be satisfactorily answered. Therefore, one is free to take either side of the controversy. But before expressing an opinion it will be well for us to canvass the arguments.
The most important reasons ordinarily advanced in support of the assertion that the letter in question is an authentic copy, in substance corresponding to one actually written by the Beata herself, will now be considered.
Father Hamon, while championing this cause, rendered an inestimable service by making a scientific examination of the writings of Blessed Margaret Mary. He spent much time and energy in an earnest endeavor to clarify mistaken ideas and to remove many untenable notions which the opponents of the Great Promise have entertained. His criticism is impartial, his premises are weighty, and his inferences generally justifiable. He is, without doubt, well qualified to pronounce judgment in this matter.
To justify their supposition that the letter referred to above was actually written by Blessed Margaret Mary, and forwarded to Mother de Saumaise, the defenders of the Great Promise adduced the following reasons.
1. A reference to a letter of such nature is found in the work of Bishop Languet, who published the most important life of Blessed Margaret Mary in 1729. 2 This allusion clearly states the contents of the letter, though not a single one of its words claims to be a quotation. The learned author declares that he had access to all the writings and documents which were apt to shed light on the life of Blessed Margaret Mary. Therefore, a statement proceeding from so well-informed a pen ought to be considered as conclusive. Father Hamon remarks: " We have heard the unjust and audacious criticism to which his work gave rise. It seems quite probable, though I have no unmistakable proofs at hand, that the Jansenists and Catholics opposed to the Devotion to the Sacred Heart, spoke disparagingly of this divine and incredible promise." 8 Moreover, it cannot be maintained without danger of misrepresentation that Bishop Languet received erroneous information, for up to the year 1789 the manuscript of the Beata was accessible to adversaries and defenders of the Great Promise. They could have ascertained and verified with very little effort the exact words of the Authoress at the Archives of the Visitation convent of Dijon. According to Father Vermeersch, it was in this convent that the writings of the Beata were kept in their original form.
2. Again, this promise was known to the Community. Father Hamon has ascertained this fact by the following discovery. In the year 1715, when the canonical procedure preliminary to the Beatification of Blessed Margaret Mary was commenced, Sisters Frangois-Rosalie Verchere and Peronne-Rosalie de Farges, while collecting the writings of their beloved Mother, were surprised at this letter, and, as he expresses it, "some exceptionally privileged souls without further delay wished to avail themselves of the graces promised by the Sacred Heart."
3. It is scarcely possible that the Visitation nuns would have forwarded to Rome, with other writings of Blessed Margaret Mary, a letter the authenticity of which could be seriously questioned. On the other hand, it is certain that when the cause of her beatification was introduced, in the early years of the nineteenth century, a letter of this character was produced by the ecclesiastical officials who were appointed to investigate this cause. It was translated into Italian, and Father Thurston adds that " this certain passage was underlined as demanding further investigation at this or a later stage of inquiry."
4. Father Hamori believes that the Devotion of the Nine Fridays was not only known but practised by some Visitandine Communities as early as 1714. Thus Mother Louise-Henriette de Soudeilles and her subjects began it in January, 1714.
5. The Sacred Congregation, having carefully examined the writings of the Beata, declared that it found nothing in them to warrant a theological censure. 8 Furthermore, a decree dated September 22, 1827, issued on the strength of the evidence collected up to that time, gave all the assurances that the Church is willing to accept her in the ranks of those she beatified. Nor did this letter of Blessed Margaret Mary in any way interfere with her beatification, the decree of which was issued on the 19th day of August in the year 1864.