THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
In popular Catholic piety, the month of June is traditionally devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, celebrated this year on June 24. Most Catholics are familiar with the image of the Sacred Heart: a heart topped with a flame and a cross, signifying Jesus’ love and compassion for us, and circled with a crown of thorns, representing His Passion. Many Catholic homes display a picture of Jesus pointing toward his heart, shown exposed in his chest. The practice of displaying such an image arose after a series of apparitions to a 17th century French nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, but the origins of devotion to the Sacred Heart are much older.
Some of the early Church Fathers used the image of the heart of Jesus to symbolize his love for us, especially in his willingness to die to save us, but it wasn’t until the 11th century that a specific devotion to the wounded heart of Jesus began to develop.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the piercing of Christ’s side revealed his goodness and the charity of his heart for us. Practices honoring the Sacred Heart were prevalent in the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries as private devotions, and soon began to spread to other religious orders. Franciscans had developed a special devotion to the Five Holy Wounds of Jesus, and St. Bonaventure wrote in his Mystic Vine, “Who is there who would not love this wounded heart? Who would not love in return Him, who loves so much?” The Sacred Heart also figured in the visions of several female mystics of the time.
By the 16th century, devotions to the Sacred Heart had become more formalized and special exercises and prayers were written. The Jesuits had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart and placed its image on the title pages of their books and on the walls of their churches. As lay people became more familiar with the idea of the Sacred Heart through the influence of the Jesuits, the devotion began to spread outside of the religious orders. St. Francis de Sales promoted this devotion, and his protégé St. Jane Frances de Chantal was influenced by him in her founding of the Visitation nuns. It is from this order that the best-known devotions to the Sacred Heart developed, thanks to visions of Jesus experienced by a Visitation nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
St. Margaret Mary experienced a series of visions of Jesus beginning in 1674 and ending in 1689. These visions have become the most significant source of devotion to the Sacred Heart in modern times. In these visions, Jesus called for special devotion to Him and his heart because of his great love. He requested reception of Holy Communion on the First Friday of every month for nine consecutive months, Eucharistic Adoration during a Holy Hour on Thursdays, and the celebration of a Feast of the Sacred Heart. In return, he made twelve promises to those who observed this devotion. “I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life. I will establish peace in their homes. I will comfort them in all their afflictions. I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death. I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings. Sinners will find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
Lukewarm souls shall become fervent. Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection. I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored. I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts. Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart. I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.”
After initial resistance, the nine First Friday devotions, along with the establishment of the Feast and the Holy Hour, spread throughout the world, aided by promotion by the Jesuits. A formal feast day for the Sacred Heart was recognized in 1765 in France and established as a feast day to be recognized by the whole church in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a long history in the church. It recognizes the humanity of Christ in the image of the human heart, and the depth of his love and compassion for us in his Passion. The promises tied to devotion to his Sacred Heart are very powerful, and the practice of these devotions (the novena of First Fridays, Holy Hours, placement of a picture of the Sacred Heart in the home) are beneficial to any Catholic.
(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)