A few years ago the late Lou Bannan, S.J. was presiding at the noontime Mass on a first Friday of the month at Santa Clara University. In his homily he told us about ferrying a group of older retreatants to the San Jose airport and hearing them rave about a fellow Jesuit who’d wowed them with his wisdom, caring and holiness. There was no temperance to their praise. Lou just hunched over the steering wheel and kept driving until one of the retreatants noticed his silence and confided, We’re sure you’re very holy, too, Father Bannan.
Lou smiled and wryly answered: Oh, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ve made the nine first Fridays.
He was referring to a practice initiated by St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque, a Sister of the Visitation in Paray-le-Monial, France. She reported to her confessor, St. Claude La Colombière, that in a series of apparitions that commenced in December 1673, Jesus had revealed to her his infinite love for humanity and his hurt over so much coldness and ingratitude to him. She said Christ sought to encourage devotion to his Sacred Heart through a number of promises (generally counted as 12), the final one being this: In the excess of the mercy of my heart, I promise you that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance: they shall not die in my displeasure nor without receiving the sacraments; and my heart will be their safe refuge in that last hour.
Conditions were added, probably by church authorities. Confession was required within eight days. Communicants were to have the proper disposition, that is, awareness and reverence. And they were to receive the Eucharist with the conscious intention of making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and in order to warrant the graces of Christ’s promises.
A skewed view of the devotion might imply that it skirts rather closely to Pelagianismthe fifth-century heresy that supposes we can effect our own salvation. But in fact Jesus, not our exertions, is primary in the devotion, and the only guarantee is that we will be predisposed to Christian discipleship through frequent reception of the sacraments.
Skeptics might also argue that Christ’s revelations seem whiny and more like the overwrought imaginings of a peasant nun who was famously unhappy in her convent. She may have invented the conversations just to seem special. But few of Christ’s locutions to mystics over the centuries have actually sounded like the Jesus of the Gospelshe uses their language, not his ownand Father La Colombière was convinced of Sister Marguerite Marie’s veracity, as was Pope Benedict XV, who canonized her.
When I was in my Catholic grade school and high school, it was a given that there would be a First Friday Mass so the students could fulfill Christ’s conditions and find assurance in his promises; and even now, 300 years after the saint’s death, the practice she introduced is still so widely accepted that parishes generally plan for greater Mass attendance on the first Friday of the month.
There seem to be three reasons why. The first, of course, is that it all could be true: that no matter what befalls us, Christ will be available to us in our final hours.
But the second reason seems just as interesting: that Catholics are a Lenten people who recognize the value of piety and strict disciplines. Economists and sociologists have puzzled over a paradox: the religion that seems easiest and exacts the least from its congregations would seem to be most attractive, but the opposite is true, no matter the culture or geography. Those religions that seem superficially hardest are the ones that are gaining in membership, while those that are most lax are declining in numbers.
And the third reason for the continued popularity of the nine first Fridays is that it presents such a vital metaphor for what the Christian project is all about, uniting as it does the Lenten and Good Friday image of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins, and the nine-month, Advent image of pregnancy and expectation. In our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, we worship God made flesh, we remember and celebrate our redemption on the cross, and we look forward to the peaceable kingdom that is still in the process of being born.