Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jun 09, 2015

There are only eighteen (18) total solemnities throughout the Liturgical Year, but in May and June there are no fewer than seven solemnities: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and the Sacred Heart are all celebrated in less than five weeks, with two more solemnities in late June—the Birth of John the Baptist and Saints Peter and Paul. Early summer has the greatest concetration of the highest feasts of the Liturgical Calendar.

This Friday, the third Friday after Pentecost is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although the revelations to St. Margaret Mary of Alacoque in the 17th century promoted this devotion, the origins of the honoring of Jesus and His love for man trace back to Scripture and many other saints and sacred writings throughout the history of the Church. And the devotion is not outdated, but actually for our time. The 20th century saw almost every pope promote the devotion to the Sacred Heart, including the encyclical Hauerietis Aquas (On the Sacred Heart) by Pius XII in 1956. 

The actual feast began only in 1765 as a locally celebrated in Poland and certain congregations, and then in 1856 Pope Pius IX made it a feast for the universal church. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII raised it to a higher rank, and Pius XI elevated the feast even higher, and revised the liturgical texts, which are the basis of the Mass texts used today.

Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy

To the naked eye, there seems to be a waning of public devotion to the Sacred Heart, with more emphasis on the devotion to the Divine Mercy. But the devotions do not have competition. Both devotions are connected to the same Heart of Christ, and speak of His love and mercy. One author explains that the difference is merely on the emphasis: 

The devotion to the Sacred Heart calls for reparation of sin, and the devotion should lead us to a deeper understanding of His infinite love and mercy for us. Our Lord told St. Faustina, "My daughter, know that My Heart is mercy itself. From this sea of mercy, graces flow out upon the whole world. No soul that has approached Me has ever gone away unconsoled" (Diary, 1777).

And yet, when we look at the Image of the Merciful Savior, we see rays of Blood and Water emanating from the area of His pierced Heart. The rays are emanating outward—they are going out to a hurting world. That is perhaps one of the differences; the Sacred Heart enables us to get a deeper understanding of the infinite mercy and calls us to reparation, yet the Divine Mercy now calls us to live that message to a hurting world.

A Pertinent Devotion 

The month of June is still dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although the devotion was popular in the Middle Ages and then combated Jansenism of the 19th and 20th centuries, turning to Jesus' mercy and love and making reparation for sin is important for all Catholics, especially for this era. The Directory of Popular Piety explains:

172. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a wonderful historical expression of the Church's piety for Christ, her Spouse and Lord: it calls for a fundamental attitude of conversion and reparation, of love and gratitude, apostolic commitment and dedication to Christ and his saving work. For these reasons, the devotion is recommended and its renewal encouraged by the Holy See and by the Bishops. Such renewal touches on the devotion's linguistic and iconographic expressions; on consciousness of its biblical origins and its connection with the great mysteries of the faith; on affirming the primacy of the love of God and neighbour as the essential content of the devotion itself.

One of best books on the Sacred Heart is Heart of the Redeemer by Dr. Timothy T. O'Donnell, S.T.D., originally published in 1989 by Trinity Communications but reprinted (and still in print) by Ignatius Press. Dr. O'Donnell explains the doctrinal basis of the devotion, provides the Scriptural references, both Old and New Testaments, traces the historical development (explaining how it is not only from St. Margaret Mary), shows the importance of the devotion in the teaching of the magisterium, and finally discusses the relevance of the Sacred Heart in this post-Vatican II world. This is not a personal devotion relegated to aged and traditional folks, but universal:

The veneration of our Lord's Heart, insofar as it honors Christ as the source and substance of our redemption, is no ordinary devotion. It is truly latreutical--a devotion which is rendered to God alone. For the Heart of Christ occupies a central position, as the focal point through which everything passes to the ultimate center in the Father--per Christum ad Patrem. It is a devotion of tremendous theological richness, containing a complete synthesis of faith, or, as Pius XI put it "summa totius religionis." The devotion is at once theocentric and anthropocentric, Trinitarian and Christocentric; it emphasizes love of God and calls eloquently to the fraternal apostolate. It may also lead to that sound eucharistic piety so greatly desired by the Second Vatican Council. This is especially true since the Eucharist, as Pope Paul VI observed, is the "outstanding gift" of the Sacred Heart of Jesus...

...[T]he spirituality fostered by this devotion can best meet the spiritual needs of our age. It is a practical form of spirituality which emphasizes familiaritas cum Christo and therefore is marvelously suited to aid priest, religious and laity alike in their journey of growth in holiness. If practiced in the family, devotion to the Heart of Jesus may greatly help to counter those pagan elements of culture which all too often work their way into the sanctuary of the home. 

The devotion should be made available to all. Unfortunately, the widespread ignorance throughout the Church of the devotion's rich theological foundations has greatly hindered its full appreciation and practice. It is only by returning to these sources as found in Sacred Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church's magisterium that we can hope to renew the devotion and thereby allow it to play a central role in the larger effort to renew the Church. (Introduction, p. 21-22).

Stumbling Blocks

Many people are not drawn to this devotion because all they read or see is saccharine-sweet devotionals with stilted or archaic language and feminized images of Christ with an image of His wounded heart. For people of other faiths, even Eastern Catholics, the image of the Sacred Heart can be somewhat disgusting. 

I personally am conflicted with the images. I had open heart surgery exactly a year and a half ago on this feast day. The image of a real heart isn't consoling, but actually uncomfortable at times. I admit it, I'm squeamish and the depiction of the human heart isn't evoking sweet thoughts from the medical aspect.

While I don't always like the images, what the heart represents has become even more personally significant after my surgery. One doesn't appreciate the "Emperor" (as the Chinese refer to the heart) as much as when one finds it is weak. The heart should be the body's strongest organ, providing life to the rest of the body. I was blissfully unaware that my heart wasn't functioning properly, but once I did understand the inner workings of my heart, I became daily aware of its weakness and how I need to treat it well. Another aspect of the surgery was the pain and suffering in actually opening up to reach my heart. I didn't do it just for me. I underwent the pain for my family, so that I could be here longer and share and take care of my sons and husband. It was done for love.

Dwelling on my heart helped me appreciate more the devotion to Jesus' heart. The images might be personally off-putting, but they are like open heart surgery or an echocardiogram, revealing what is hidden. The Sacred Heart images show Christ's heart, the secret or invisible center of all His work with us. He has revealed His heart to us, and made it accessible and not hidden. We can all enter in and rest in His love and mercy. And then there's the aspect of His suffering, His opening of His heart to save us. He provided the ultimate sacrifice of His body, even to the very depths of His heart for love of us sinners.

Devotion in the Family

There are many suggestions for prayers and devotions to the Sacred Heart. The main page for the feast has suggestions in the sidebar, and there is also the special page on the Devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Valentine crafts can be the basis of many ideas for this feast. As I mentioned before, I'm not comfortable trying to be anatomically correct in displays for this feast. I prefer to emphasize the symbolism of giving one's heart, and showing love and mercy rather than depictions of the heart.

There are many traditional devotions and hymns, and none need to be used formally. I find many to be too syrupy sweet to be comfortable. But there are some basic suggestions in The Directory of Popular Piety, and Dr. O'Donnell provides a very practical list for individual or parish devotions:

  1. Invoke our Lord under the aspect of his Heart in prayer....
  2. Make a daily offering in the morning of all your "prayers, works, joys and sufferings of the day" to the Heart of Christ....
  3. Our daily offering should be "in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world." Attendance at daily Mass, or whenever possible, in which we recognize the Eucharist as the gift of his Heart, is an excellent way to practice the devotion....
  4. Make a formal act of consecration to the Heart of Jesus in which you surrender and re-dedicate yourself to the Heart of the Divine King....
  5. Family consecration and home enthronement, which is social acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Heart of Christ over a Christian family, can greatly deepen the devotion....
  6. Seek to cultivate a spirit of reparation to the Heart of Christ in prayer and good works....
  7. Attend Mass on the First Fridays of each month as our Lord requested and make a communion of reparation in which you thank the Lord for the loving sacrifices of his life....
  8. Make a Holy Hour on the Thursday night before First Friday at church or at home....
  9. One should become an apostle of the Heart of Christ.... (Heart of the Redeemer, pp. 282-282).

Regardless of the expression, this feast reflects the "summary of our religion" (as Pius XI said) and pertinent to our life our secularized world today. Perhaps the traditional images and prayers don't need to be used, but turning to the heart of Jesus should be central in our daily lives and devotion.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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