During a recent visit to my parish Church, my Protestant friend was interested in our Sacred Heart shrine and the meaning behind the devotion. I told her that the Sacred Heart was a sign of the love of Jesus for us. Is there anything else I should say? What about the history of the devotion?
Actually, your answer “hits the nail on the head.” The Catechism, quoting Pope Pius XII's beautiful encyclical Haurietis Aquas (1956), states, “[Jesus] has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, 'is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that… love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings' without exception (#478).
To appreciate this rich symbolism of the heart, we must remember in Judaism that the word heart represented the core of the person. While recognized as the principle life organ, the heart was also considered the center of all spiritual activity. Here was the seat of all emotion, especially love. As the psalms express, God speaks to a person in his heart and there probes him. This notion of the heart is clear when we read the words of Deuteronomy 6:5-6: “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”
The heart has even greater depth when contemplated in light of the incarnation. We believe that Jesus Christ, second person of the Holy Trinity and consubstantial with the Father, entered this world taking on our human flesh — true God became also true man. While Jesus' heart obviously served a physiological function, spiritually His sacred heart also represents love: the divine love our Lord shares with the Father and Holy Spirit in the Trinity; the perfect, divine love which God has for us; and the genuine human love Christ felt in His human nature. I think one of the most beautiful passages of the Gospels is our Lord saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Therefore, while meditating on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we are called to share in the love of the Lord and strive to express our own genuine love for God, ourselves, and our neighbors.
Throughout the gospel, we see the outpouring of Jesus' love from His heart, whether in the miracle stories, the reconciliation of sinners, or the compassion for the grieving. Even on the cross, our Lord poured out His love for us: there the soldier's lance pierced His side, striking the heart, and out flowed blood and water (John 19:34). St. Bonaventure said the Church was born from the wounded side of the Lord with the blood and water representing the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Baptism. This understanding was highlighted throughout the documents of the Vatican Council II, particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus (cf. John 19:34), and are foretold in the words of the Lord referring to His death on the cross: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). As often as the sacrifice of the cross by which Christ our Pasch is sacrificed (I Corinthians 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (#3).
The early Church Fathers clearly cherished this meaning of the Sacred Heart of our Lord. St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho said, “We Christians are the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart as from a rock.” Likewise, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) said, “The Church is the fountain of the living water that flows to us from the Heart of Christ” (Adversus Haereses). Paulinus of Nola (d. 431) added, “John, who rested blissfully on the breast of our Lord, was inebriated with the Holy Spirit, from the Heart of all creating Wisdom he quaffed an understanding which transcends that of any creature.” Although these are just a few brief examples from the times of the early Church, we find a profound respect for the Sacred Heart of our Lord as a font of His love which gave birth to the Church and continues to nourish its members.
The devotion continued to grow during the Middles Ages, and in 1353 Pope Innocent VI instituted a Mass honoring the mystery of the Sacred Heart. During the age of the Protestant movement, devotion to the Sacred Heart was practiced in hope of restoring peace to a world shattered by political and religious persecution.
Shortly thereafter, the devotion increased due to the fervor surrounding the apparitions of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90). For example, on Dec. 27, 1673, our Lord revealed, “My Divine Heart is so passionately inflamed with love… that, not being able any longer to contain within Itself the flames of Its ardent charity, It must let them spread abroad through your means, and manifest Itself to man, that they may be enriched with Its precious treasures which I unfold to you, and which contain the sanctifying and salutary graces that are necessary to hold them back from the abyss of ruin.” The four apparitions provided the catalyst for the promotion of the devotion to the Sacred Heart: a feast day in honor of the Sacred Heart and the offering of our Lord's saving grace and friendship if the individual attended Mass and received Holy Communion on nine consecutive first Fridays of the month.
In 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since then, his successors have exhorted the faithful to turn to the Sacred Heart and make acts of personal consecration. They have also begged the faithful to offer prayers and penances to the Sacred Heart in reparation for the many sins of the world. One hundred years later, in 1999, Pope John Paul II in his Message for the Centenary of the Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus stated, “I have often urged the faithful to persevere in the practice of this devotion, which contains a message which in our day has an extraordinary timeliness, because an unending spring of life, giving hope to every person, has streamed precisely from the Heart of God’s Son, who died on the Cross. From the Heart of Christ crucified is born the new humanity redeemed from sin. The man of the year 2000 needs Christ’s Heart to know God and know himself; he needs it to build the civilization of love.”
Considering our present day and age, the temptations and sins of this world, the growing apathy and secularism, and the awful scandal that continues to haunt our Church, we too should turn again in loving devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and ask Him to pour forth His grace. We must strive to make our hearts like His own, for He said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). May we remember the words of the Preface of the Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Lifted high on the Cross, Christ gave His life for us, so much did He love us. From His wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the Church. To His open heart the Savior invites all men, to draw water in joy from the springs of salvation.”
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.
(If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)