By DONAL FOLEY
This is the first article in a series of three concerned with the Sacred Heart Devotion. The origins of this devotion, which has proved so fruitful for the Church, go right back to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. In chapter 19 of St. John’s Gospel, we read of what happened after the crucifixion, after Jesus’ garments had been divided, after He had given Mary His Mother to St. John, and St. John to her.
While His dead body was on the cross, one of the soldiers pierced His side — His heart — with a spear, and blood and water came out of the wound. St. John pointed to the prophetic significance of this act saying that it fulfilled the words of Zechariah, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10).
The implication of this act of the soldier is that it showed that the very last drops of Christ’s Blood were shed for mankind, as a sign of His infinite love.
But even before this, during His public ministry, Christ had referred to this love of His for mankind, of His gentle and lowly heart, and invited all to share this love: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
While He was preaching, too, Christ had focused on the heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). He also spoke of how for those who believed in Him, His heart would become a fountain from which rivers of living water would flow (John 7:37-39). As St. John goes on to point out, this was a reference to the Holy Spirit, who would be Christ’s gift to His followers once He had been glorified.
Why did Christ focus on the heart in this way, both His own and that of others? Surely because the heart is universally recognized as the seat of the emotions, of human love. Although Jesus is God He is also man, and since the Incarnation, since His taking human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, He has had a real human body and a real human heart.
So in the devotion to Christ’s Sacred Heart we have a way of expressing our particular love for Him as a real person, and not just an abstract religious figure. And since He lives forever to intercede for us, He reciprocates our love in an infinite way.
The devotion to Christ’s Sacred Heart can also be traced back in a general way to the New Testament, as for example in the writings of St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist, with their focus on Christ’s love for mankind. But it was only around the 11th and 12th centuries that this devotion really began to develop, particularly in Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. Meditation on the wounded side of Christ ultimately led to a focus on His wounded heart, and this devotion was well known to figures such as St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Mechtilde, and St. Gertrude.
Indeed, it is related that St. Gertrude, who was a Benedictine nun, had a mystical experience on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, in which she rested her head near the wound in Christ’s side and heard the beating of His heart. She asked St. John, who was also present, why he had never spoken of this in his Gospel, and he told her that this new revelation was reserved for those times when love for God in the world, having grown cold, would need to be rekindled.
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, this devotion was practiced in a private way by many people, and also in a number of religious congregations. Various prayers and exercises were recommended for the devotion, as can be seen in the works of writers such as John of Avila, Louis of Blois, and, later on, St. Francis de Sales, most particularly in his Treatise on the Love of God.
From this point on, the Sacred Heart devotion flourished, being practiced by many Jesuits, including St. Francis Borgia and St. Peter Canisius. It was also popular amongst some Carmelites, Benedictines, and particularly in the Visitation Order founded in 1610 by St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales, for those women who didn’t have the physical strength to undergo the regime then current in other religious orders.
It was St. John Eudes (1602-1680), a French missionary and founder of two religious orders, though, who elevated the status of the devotion by composing an office and establishing a Feast for the Sacred Heart. Interestingly, he began by promoting devotion to the Heart of Mary, and only later did he focus on devotion to the Sacred Heart. These two devotions, and particularly the devotion to the Sacred Heart, acted as a spiritual antidote to the increasing rationalism of European society during this period. It was also around this time that Jansenism, a Calvinist-influenced strain of teaching, was causing a “coldness” to enter into Catholic life in France.
St. John Eudes was instrumental in promoting the first Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1670, at Rennes in France. It spread to other dioceses and was adopted by various religious communities, and eventually this devotion coalesced with that which originated through the work of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690).
Margaret Mary was a religious of the Visitation Order who had been attracted to the order because of her delicate health. Christ appeared to her on a number of occasions with revelations about the love of His Sacred Heart for mankind. Like St. Gertrude, she was given the privilege of resting her head upon Christ’s Heart, and being told how much He loved mankind and sought a return for this love.
This particular revelation occurred on December 27, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, probably in 1673, while Margaret Mary was a nun in the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, a small town in the Burgundy region of eastern France.
She related what happened to Fr. Claude de la Colombière, who was in charge of the Jesuit house in the town, describing how she had had a vision of Jesus, during which she was given some idea of the greatness of His love for mankind. She related how Christ had told her that He wanted her to announce this love; and a similar theme was expressed during the second apparition, early in 1674.
During this, Margaret Mary saw Jesus’ Sacred Heart on a throne of flames, transparent as crystal, surrounded by a crown of thorns signifying the sins of mankind, with a cross above it. Again Jesus told her of His infinite love for mankind and His desire that He should be honored through the display of this image of His heart, with the promise that all who did so would be especially blessed. This vision is the origin of the traditional Sacred Heart picture which became so well known in later centuries, as indicated in one of the promises made by Christ to her: “I will bless every place where a picture of my Sacred Heart shall be exposed and honored.”
The next article will look at the third and fourth apparitions to St. Margaret Mary, as well as the Great Promise associated with this devotion, and the way in which it developed in the Church in succeeding centuries.
+ + +
(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk.)