Rayond JONAS, The Tragic Tale of Claire Ferchaud & the Great War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. pp. 217. $21.95 pb. ISBN 0-520-24299-8..
Reviewed by Georgie Ann WEATHERBY, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258-0065

Claire Ferchaud was born in Rinfillieres, France, on May 5, 1896. She came from modest beginnings, but rose to a status likened to Joan of Arc in only 20 years. Her weakness (simplicity) as well as her strength (that of a powerful message) endeared her to the citizens and rulers of France. A divided Europe was in part, by Claire's power, united in Christianity again.

The Ferchauds were long-standing sharecroppers of the land of a Baron. Claire was one of six children—all meant as insurance of plentiful family labor. She tended the sheep and goats, which allowed her ample time to meditate (pg. 17). She was only three when she began recollecting visions. She was strong-willed and suffered corporal punishment at her mother's hands as a result. It was the vision of Jesus rebuffing her for disobedience that transformed her stubborn ways. She learned to see Jesus in others, and if she hurt them, she would actually be hurting him (pp. 17-19), as the "Sacred Heart wounded by the indifference of men" (pg. 25).

The next call from Jesus was for Claire to insert the Sacred Heart symbol on the tricolor French flag. That would elevate France to its rightful spot as leader of all nations (pp. 31-32). Claire's visions of Jesus' gaping wound in his heart became politicized in 1916, when the flag began to represent France's "official atheism" (pg. 46). The adorned flag would signify the return of France to its Christian origins (pg. 64).

Claire, being called upon by the French government to inform them of war-time strategy, was at first ever-ready to lead the troops into battle, in the footsteps of Joan of Arc. But the Mother Mary overruled Jesus there. Instead, the visionary Claire was to go straight to Paris, before the President. She was to show him salvation in the form of the wounded (sacred) heart. The message was that France indeed caused that wound (pg. 48). Then "following victory (in war), France and its allies were to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart in a solemn ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur on Montmartre" (pg. 64).

Claire's 1917 stay at a convent was described as "glacial" (pg. 70). Her way of dealing with this trauma was a positive one. She painted a visual picture of herself as the tiniest violet quietly blossoming at the bottom of a ravine just as beautiful and sweetly smelling as the grand roses lavishing a palace. All were God's creatures, great and small. She continued to identify with her peasant status and to insist that the smallest ones were closer to Jesus, for they truly loved him.

President Poincare was in 1917 (just weeks into the war) petitioned by Catholics to dedicate France to the heart of Christ (pg. 86). In an underground fashion, and without Presidential approval, the Sacred Heart was attached to banners, insignias, scapulars, and tricolor flags (always to be etched on the white band). It became the patron of courage in battle, defender against death, and in rare cases, the leader into a "good," honorable war-time demise.

Even though consecration to the Sacred Heart became forbidden nationally (due to separation of church and state), local municipalities in France, one by one, incorporated the Sacred Heart in a ritualistic way of registering dissent (pp. 101-102).

Military efforts for consecration were cast in a conspiratorial light— signatures gathered were said to "really" show the highest ranks of the clergy how many could be counted upon for an organized religious movement (pg. 119).

All the while, Claire was inching closer to the edge of questionable behavior. She began, as a method of control, to threaten (via visions) a topple of national officials for treason if they did not comply with her wishes to modify the French flag (pg. 126). This led to a secular sweep on the part of the government. Tricolor flags with the heart symbol were fined—while lay people (including children) produced more and more of them, and displayed them proudly, in a recalcitrant fashion.

Claire began an unofficial religious community and by 1918, there were eight "sisters," known as National Atoners (pp. 128-129), Through her ardent, well known outside supporters representing the Catholic Church, Claire became bigger than life. Her actual existence was surpassed by her virtual reign. But she was eventually, in a revisionist manner, labeled pathological and hysterical by many, including those close to the Vatican. She wallowed in suffering (including hunger) which, she maintained, brought her closer to Jesus (pg. 150).

As the war ended in 1918, while the Sacred Heart had been consecrated privately by many, including masses of troops, it was not publicly adopted. This lessened the interest further in Claire's mission and visionary message.

In 1972, Claire died at age 75. Had her life been eclipsed in youth (like Joan of Arc and Therese Martin, "The Little Flower"), she may have been someday viewed as a true saint. Fading away into the background via longevity gave her no hope of such future ascent, however.

This is a book of interest to historians, theologians, and sociologists of religion alike. Though the story of Claire Ferchaud is told passionately, it is balanced and objective in its tone. The personal and somewhat surprising ending especially punctuates this.


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