It’s an unfortunate reality of our post-conciliar age that there has been a general decline in the devotional life of Catholics. The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, reminding us that it is the source and summit of our faith, but in our post-conciliar zeal for the Mass, we seem to have forgotten all of the other aspects of our faith that are so necessary to support our love of the Mass.
Just as in marriage there have to be other forms of love, other expressions of intimacy than just the conjugal act, so, too, in our spiritual life, there must be other expressions of faith than just attending the Holy Mass. Imagine if spouses knew no other way to express their love than in the bedroom. That's a marriage doomed to failure. While we could say that the conjugal act is the source and summit of marital love, it will quickly lose its meaning and sacredness if not supported by other expressions of love and intimacy.
Well, the same applies to our spiritual life. If the Holy Mass, the source and summit of our faith, is our only expression of that faith, then the Mass will quickly lose its meaning. It will quickly lose its importance in our life. This is why a strong devotional life outside of Mass is so important to our faith.
So often today when Catholics congregate with a desire to express their faith, the only thing they can think of doing is having a Mass, when in our tradition we have the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic exposition and benediction, a plethora of chaplets and novenas, the Stations of the Cross, the forty hours, lectio divina, just to name a few. There are books and books devoted just to our rich tradition of devotions, all of which stem from the Mass—hence the Mass is their source—and all of which bring us back to the Mass—hence the Mass is their summit. But if all that we have is the Mass, then it will quickly become boring or meaningless. It quickly becomes just another Sunday chore or something our parents make us do.
There is a reason why those who have the greatest love for the Mass, those who can't wait to go to Mass every Sunday—or even every day—those who rejoice when I tell them that Heaven is just a perpetual Mass…there's a reason why those people always have the strongest devotional life outside the Mass. There is also a reason why those who can't wait for Mass to end and even anticipate it with the “Judas shuffle,” — those who find Mass to be the most boring and bothersome hour of their week — those who couldn't imagine spending eternity in Mass and calling that heavenly bliss…there's a reason why those people always have the weakest devotional life outside of Mass. A relationship built upon intense pleasure, whether it be physical or spiritual, is doomed to failure.
St Thomas Aquinas defines devotion as “the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God” . He talks about devotion under the virtue of religion, the virtue whereby we give to God what we owe Him. Hence, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart devotion defined it thus: “devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men”. So, this devotion to the Sacred Heart, rightly understood and rightly practiced, is a devotion to the love that God has for us, and a call for us to respond to that love. In other words, it is an authentic exercise of the two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The word “heart”, of course, does not just refer to an organ that pumps blood, but is symbolic of the spiritual center of man's soul. So, devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very core of Jesus Christ Himself, to His human and divine natures, to His Incarnation, to His redemptive work on the cross, to His resurrection and ascension, and then calls us to respond to the love that that heart symbolizes.
Just imagine if a child spent hours, spent days, spent years meditating upon the heart of his parents, upon the love that they have poured out upon him, upon the sacrifices that they have made for him throughout his life. Would that child ever take his parents for granted? Would he ever mistreat them? Would he ever disregard their opinions? And if he did, how repentant would he be?
Of course, every parent is human. Every parent is a sinner. Every parent makes mistakes. When we are perfect sons and daughters, then we have a right to expect perfect parents. Until then, we need to concentrate on our own imperfections, on our own sinfulness, and thank the Lord that we do have a perfect Father in Heaven. But imagine if a son spent his entire life meditating upon the pain his mother went through to bring him into the world, just upon that aspect of their relationship. How would that change his relationship with her? How would that change the way he treats her?
The next time you see a crucifix, gaze upon the cross and witness what our Lord went through to open the gates of Heaven and deliver us into eternal life. That is the Sacred Heart devotion. That is the love that God has for us. So, what is our response to that love? How must our life change to properly respond to the sacrifice that He made for us? Can we conform to the world's standards and just keep our life the same? Or does something have to change in the way we talk, in the way we act, in the way we dress, in the way we pray?
The Sacred Heart devotion is essential for our time because of the great religious indifference that plagues our culture; and we all know what Christ said about indifference: “because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth”( Rev 3:16). Not a pretty image to say the least. The reason that indifference or lukewarmness, or, as a former Youth Minister I know liked to call it, “whatever” Catholicism—you know, “Hey, missing Sunday Mass is a mortal sin”… “yeah, whatever”—the reason that a “whatever” faith is so despised by our Lord is because it usually manifests itself in the form of sins against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin.
There are two extremes in the spiritual life, both of which are sins against the Holy Spirit. They are despair and presumption. The Sacred Heart devotion keeps us away from both of these extremes.
When we do not concentrate enough on God's mercy, we fall to the sin of despair. If we no longer believe that He will forgive us, then we stop asking for forgiveness. That's the only time that God cannot forgive us, when we do not ask for forgiveness, hence, despair is that unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
When we do not concentrate enough on our sinfulness, then we fall to the sin of presumption, presuming God's mercy. If we no longer believe that we are sinning, or think that it doesn't really matter because God's going to forgive us anyway, then, once again, we stop asking for forgiveness, and, once again, we have fallen into the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus reminds us that His mercy is infinite, that all sins can be forgiven, that He has already died upon the cross precisely so that those sins could be forgiven. But it also reminds us that our sins put Him on the cross, that we still need to repent of those sins and change our life, that we still need to be reconciled with our Lord. This is the balance that keeps us away from despair and presumption, that keeps us away from indifference about our faith and indifference towards the virtue of religion. It keeps us away from “whatever”.
Our Lord said to St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the 17th century mystic who was instructed to spread this devotion throughout the Church, “See this Heart that has loved men so much and has spared itself nothing until it has exhausted itself and consumed itself in order to show them its love. I receive in return scarcely anything but ingratitude because of their irreverence and sacrileges, and because of the coldness and disdain they show towards Me in this sacrament of love. But what hurts Me still more is that it is hearts who are consecrated to Me who treat Me thus. This is why I ask you that on the first Friday after the octave of the Most Holy Sacrament a special feast may be dedicated to the honor of My Heart by receiving Communion on that day and making reparation with some act of atonement.” On the 21st of June 1686 that feast was celebrated for the first time; and, although we no longer celebrate Corpus Christi for a whole octave, today, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart is celebrated throughout the Church on what would be the Friday following the octave of Corpus Christi. This feast, however, is not just for that day. It's a devotion for our whole life, a devotion to the love that God has for us and our response to that love.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
(Fr Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and is currently in residence at St. John Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, while he completes a Canon Law Degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)