By Rev. Joseph J. C. Petrovits, J.C.B., S.T.L.
Father Vermeersch treats with the same severity those souls whose presumption arose before they engaged in the devotion. But after they have once performed it with the necessary disposition and good intention, they may entertain a moral certitude as to their salvation. God by this special grace will safeguard them from falling into presumption, he maintains, or, at least, from persevering in it. In his opinion the consequent mode of life, be it what it may, has no bearing on the question. The chances of the most inveterate sinners are not less than those of mediocre sinners: the merited grace will give an equal assurance of salvation to both.
The same author maintains that this interpretation does not contradict the Canon of the Council of Trent which anathematizes those who declare with absolute and infallible certitude that they will have the gift of final perseverance, unless such a knowledge has been communicated to them through a special revelation. The promise is first of all only a private revelation, Father Vermeersch remarks, nor can it be said to give us more than moral certainty. The very actuality of the revelation made to Blessed Margaret Mary, the exactness of the terms in which she couched the promise, the verification of the conditions and disposition required on our part, all these can be known only with that moral certainty which still leaves room for error, in order to stimulate us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
This will suffice regarding the interpretation of the first reward of which the Great Promise gives assurance, viz., the grace of final perseverance. The second spiritual favor promised to those who practise the Devotion of the Nine Fridays presents no such difficulties.
Here we find that all the versions extend the same hope, viz., that of receiving the last sacraments before dying. The variations found in the different versions are quite irrelevant The text preferred by Father Vermeersch has les sacrements. The Visitandines give preference to leurs sacrements. 28 In the formula of Bishop Languet we find les sacrements de VEglise. According to the interpretation of the defenders of the Great Promise this expression is not to be taken in the sense which it obviously conveys. In this respect Father Vermeersch seems to be guilty of an inconsistency, for his contention is that the text of the Twelfth Promise is to be interpreted literally, but he fails to conform to this decision when explaining this second reward. He comes to the conclusion that the sudden death of so many holy priests and religious without the sacraments of the dying, instead of militating against the promise, rather suggests its explanation. Many of these Priests and religious who thus pass away have undoubtedly made the Nine Fridays. How then can this fact be reconciled with the Great Promise? And his answer is that, while as to the first reward Our Lord gives an absolute assurance, He does not intend to give the same guarantee as to the second. As to the sacraments, therefore, the promise is conditional, inasmuch as Christ will furnish an occasion of receiving them, but only in case one is in need of them in order to place himself in the grace of God. The grace of final repentance is indispensable to salvation, but the last sacraments are only relatively necessary. A person, therefore, who enjoys the state of grace at the hour of death, is not to expect also the sacraments of the dying on the ground that he made the Nine Fridays, though Christ frequently gives more than He promises. The mention of the sacraments is, therefore, to be considered as an accessory; the principal purpose of the promise is life eternal, which can be obtained without receiving the benefit of the second part of the promise, not, however, without the first part. This explanation is based on theological principles, not on the literal interpretation of the text.
Father Bachelet calls attention to the fact that there are two ways of receiving the sacraments, viz., in reality, when they are within our reach, and by desire, in the contrary case. Furthermore, he remarks that if the actual reception of the sacraments were guaranteed by the Twelfth Promise, a sense conveyed by the literal interpretation of the same, it would be equivalent to an infallible assurance against sudden death. He is not inclined to admit such an absurdity. His claim therefore is that Christ will animate the soul with sentiments promoting justification, in case the actual reception of the sacraments is not possible. These sentiments are contrition and charity. From these statements it is manifest that the interpreters lay little stress on, and attribute only slight significance to, the sacraments in connection with the Great Promise.
These interpretations are far from appealing to all. Many entirely refuse to give assent to them, and Father McNabb especially declares his dissatisfaction. The correspondence which, in form of a controversy, took place in 1903 in the London Tablet, reveals the convictions of twenty-four different persons who engaged therein. The thirty-six letters published in that periodical were written by priests, laymen, and converts. Some of these defend the promise, others reject it, while a third class tries to suggest a reasonable explanation of it. Great benefit can be drawn from the perusal of this correspondence, because all who participated in the debate expressed their convictions unhesitatingly. Both the defenders of the promise and its opponents emphasized the fact that* they were actuated by the purest of motives, desirous of doing service to the Church, whose highest interest and welfare they had at heart.
It is not our intention to enter into a detailed account of this exchange of letters. Suffice it to say that the defenders of the Great Promise considered the Devotion of the Nine Fridays as a great treasure constituting one of the most valuable and attractive features of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart. The opponents, on the other hand, pointed to the Twelfth Promise as a derogatory and disfiguring characteristic of the same devotion, if accepted in the light of the interpretation generally attributed to it by the widely diffused devotional books, manuals, pamphlets, and leaflets disseminated among the different nations of the world. While some contented themselves with applying to this interpretation such an adjective as dangerous, Father McNabb qualifies it as scandalous.
That the text of the Great Promise in its present wording is liable to a misleading interpretation is admitted even by some of its defenders. Boudinhon maintains that the reason why many priests abstain from speaking about the Devotion of the Nine Fridays is because they fear that their hearers will conceive an illusion as to the certainty or degree of its efficaciousness. Father Bachelet, dwelling on the fact that the promise was not published till 1867, suggests two suppositions with which to explain this postponement of circulation, viz., they might have judged it difficult of interpretation and they might have also considered it dangerous. It is easy to see how the interpretation of the reception of the sacraments and the grace of final repentance could have taken a form which by .its very nature would be calculated to encourage presumption. We must never lose sight of the fact that the language of a theologian who weighs his statements with logical precision and gravity, is different from that employed by the devotional writer whose only aim is to excite fervor and piety.