One of the most popular devotions within the Church is devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The geographic and historic center of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is in Paray-le-Monial, a small village in Burgundy, where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) lived. She was a Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared. The message Jesus gave this French religious, whose first vision was on Dec. 27, 1673, was an image of God that was in great contrast to the Jansenist tendency of that century. In December 1673, during Christ’s first apparition to St. Mary Margaret, he gave her this message, as she later recounted: “My Sacred Heart is so intense in its love for men, and for you in particular, that not being able to contain within it the flames of its ardent charity, they must be transmitted through all means.”
Jesus showed Himself to Sr. Margaret Mary in a way that she could understand – with a human heart aflame with love. He told her that He would be present in a special way to those devoted to His Sacred Heart and that His presence would lead to peace in families, the conversion of sinners, blessings in abundance and perseverance when death was near.
To know God’s love in Jesus and to share it with others is the central message of the gospels. There has been no change in this message for two thousand years. Ways of explaining our faith may change, forms of prayer may be altered, certain devotions may come in and out of style, but at the core is the loving heart of Jesus, which remains constant and true.
The message of the Sacred Heart is one of God’s deep and intimate love for us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is an integral part of our Catholic heritage because it helps us to live the basic Christian message of faith and love.
The symbol of the heart
A symbol is a real sign, whereas a metaphor is only a verbal sign; a symbol is a thing that signifies another thing, but a metaphor is a word used to indicate something different from its proper meaning. A visible heart is necessary for an image of the Sacred Heart, but this visible heart must be a symbolic heart. We know that the symbolism of the heart is a symbolism founded upon reality and that it constitutes the special object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
The heart is, above all, the emblem of love, and by this characteristic, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is naturally defined. However, being directed to the loving Heart of Jesus, it naturally encounters whatever in Jesus is connected with this love. A first extension of the devotion is from the loving Heart to the intimate knowledge of Jesus, to His sentiments and virtues, to His whole emotional and moral life; from the loving Heart to all the manifestations of Its love.
When we designate Jesus as the Sacred Heart, we mean Jesus manifesting His Heart, Jesus all loving and amiable. Jesus entire is thus recapitulated in the Sacred Heart as all is recapitulated in Jesus.
It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side, the wounded Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love. It was in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries that the devotion arose, although it is impossible to say positively what were its first texts or were its first votaries. To St. Gertrude, St. Mechtilde, and the author of the “Vitis mystica” it was already well known.
From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the devotion was propagated but it did not seem to have developed in itself. It was everywhere practised by privileged souls, and the lives of the saints and annals of different religious congregations, of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., furnish many examples of it. It was nevertheless a private, individual devotion of the mystical order.
It appears that in the sixteenth century, the devotion took a major step forward step and passed from the domain of mysticism into that of Christian asceticism. We learn from the writings of two masters of the spiritual life, the Lanspergius (d. 1539) of the Carthusians of Cologne, and Louis of Blois (Blosius; 1566), a Benedictine and Abbot of Liessies in Hainaut. To these may be added Blessed John of Avila (d. 1569) and St. Francis de Sales, the latter of the seventeenth century.
It was to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a humble Visitandine of the monastery at Paray-le Monial, that Christ chose to reveal the desires of His Heart and to confide the task of imparting new life to the devotion. There is nothing to indicate that this contemplative religious had known the devotion prior to the revelations, or at least that she had paid any attention to it.
A few days after the “great apparition”, of June, 1675, Margaret Mary made all known to Father de la Colombière, and the latter, recognizing the action of the spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart, directed the holy Visitandine to write an account of the apparition, and made use of every available opportunity discreetly to circulate this account through France and England.
At his death on February 15, 1682, there was found in his journal of spiritual retreats a copy in his own handwriting of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary, together with a few reflections on the usefulness of the devotion. The little text was widely read, even at Paray, although not without being the cause of “dreadful confusion” to Margaret Mary, who, nevertheless, resolved to make the best of it and profited by the book for the spreading of her cherished devotion.
The death of Margaret Mary on October 17, 1690, did not dampen the ardour of those interested in the devotion. In spite of all sorts of obstacles, and of the slowness of the Holy See, which in 1693 imparted indulgences to the Confraternities of the Sacred Heart and, in 1697, granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to all, with special Mass and prayers, the devotion spread particularly in religious communities.
The Marseilles plague, 1720, furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the South followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion became a popular one.
Oftentimes, especially since about 1850, groups, congregations, and States have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart, and, in 1875, this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world. Finally, on June 11, 1899, by order of Leo XIII, and with the formula prescribed by him, all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest in recent decades. This decline of devotion is all the more striking because of its pre-eminence in the first half of the 20th century, when so many Catholic families had a picture of Jesus and his Sacred Heart displayed in their homes, and when Thursday night holy hours and first Fridays proliferated in parishes.
Like many forms of heart disease, such atrophy could have been prevented through a healthy diet—in this case, Scripture and tradition. The heart is a powerful metaphor in the Bible, what Karl Rahner, S.J., has called a “primordial word.” It signifies the wellspring of life, the totality of one’s being. The prophet Ezekiel, for instance, records God’s promise to change Israel’s “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” while John’s Gospel gives the heart its most profound scriptural expression: Jesus’ heart is the source of living water, of rest for the Beloved Disciple, of the church and its sacraments, of doubting Thomas’s faith.
I believe that the deepest meaning of the devotion, however, is glimpsed in a poet who does not even mention it: Dante Alighieri. At the dark bottom of Hell, Satan is frozen in ice up to his chest, crying tears and drooling bloody foam, his six wings bellowing cold wind upward. Wedged into the inverted apex of the underworld, he is locked in his own resentment, impotent and utterly alone. Hell, the Inferno makes clear, is not fire, but ice: cold, crabbed isolation. Paradise is pure communion, illuminated and warmed by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
In today’s love-starving world, how we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ in His unspeakable love for us. If there is one adjective that describes the modern world, this world is a loveless world. This world is a selfish world. This world is so preoccupied with space and time that it gives almost no thought to eternity and the everlasting joys that await those who have served God faithfully here on earth.
How do we serve God faithfully? We serve Him only as faithfully as we serve Him lovingly, by giving ourselves to the needs of everyone whom God puts into our lives. No one reaches heaven automatically. Heaven must be dearly paid for. The price of reaching heaven is the practice of selfless love here on earth.
That is what devotion to the Sacred Heart is all about. It is the practice of selfless love toward selfish people. It is giving ourselves to persons that do not give themselves to us. In all of our lives, God has allowed selfish persons who may be physically close to us, but spiritually are strangers and even enemies. That is why God allows unkind, unjust, even cruel people into our lives. By loving them, we show something of the kind of love that God expects of His followers.
The Heart of the Priesthood
“If you are afraid of love, don’t ever become a priest, and don’t ever celebrate mass. The mass will cause a torrent of interior suffering to pour down upon your soul, with one purpose only– to break you in half, so that all the people of the world can enter into your heart.” – Thomas Merton
“If you are afraid of people, don’t celebrate mass! Because when you start to say mass, the Spirit of God will awaken in you like a giant and break through the locks of your private sanctuary and invite all of the people of the world into your heart.” – Thomas Merton
“If you celebrate mass, condemn your heart to the torment of love that is so vast and so insatiable that you will not resist in bearing it alone. That love is the love of the Heart of Jesus that burns inside your miserable heart, and allows the immense weight of his mercy for all the sins of the world to fall upon you! Do you know what that love will do if you allow it to work in your soul, if you don’t resist it? It will devour you. It will kill you. It will break your heart.” – Thomas Merton
Fr Thomas Rosica is the CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light media, and English-language assistant to the Holy See press office.