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Devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

June 7, 2024

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On June 7, 2024, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Accordingly, I would like to offer some insights into the history and significance of this great feast.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus goes back centuries. It is, of course, rooted in Sacred Scripture’s numerous depictions of God’s love for humankind. According to a helpful information page on EWTN’s website, eleventh-century meditations on the five wounds of Jesus can be viewed as a sort of precursor to the Sacred Heart devotion. Then, in the thirteenth century, St. Gertrude the Great received private revelations about the Sacred Heart specifically.

Subsequently, as Vatican News writes, “On 20 October 1672, Father Giovanni Eudes [St. John Eudes], a priest from Normandy, celebrated this feast for the first time. But there had already been several German mystics that had begun cultivating devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages: Mechtild of Magdeburg (1212–1283), Mechtilde of Hockeborn (1240/1–1298) and Gertrude of Helfta (1256–1302)—and the Dominican, Blessed Henry Suso (1295–1336).”

Most famously, however, the Sacred Heart devotion is tied to a series of apparitions of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690). Some consider these visions of Christ as a response to the Jansenist movement that spread during that time period. As Bishop Donald J. Hying writes: “Over the centuries, many Christians developed harsh images of God and Jesus as fearsome judges, distant from human affairs, ready to impose punishment for moral failure. . . . Jansenism, particularly prevalent in France in the 16th and 17th centuries, overemphasized the wrath of God, the unworthiness of human nature and fear as a fundamental response to the divine.” “Viewed in this context,” Bishop Hying continues, “the apparitions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque manifest a need for a theological correction and a spiritual balance regarding popular perceptions of Jesus.”

My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with humanity that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of its ardent love. It must pour them out.

In contrast with the overly wrathful image of Christ, on December 27, 1673, Jesus is reported to have said these words to St. Margaret Mary: “My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with humanity that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of its ardent love. It must pour them out.” Vatican News reports that “the following year, Margaret had two other visions. In the first, Jesus’s heart was on a throne enveloped in flames brighter than the sun and more transparent than crystal, surrounded by a crown of thorns. In the other, she saw Christ shining in glory. Flames of fire were coming out of every part of his chest to the point that it looked like a furnace.” Additionally, as EWTN reports: “[Jesus] asked that Catholics receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays of the month and adore Him in the Holy Eucharist.” Specifically, the request was made that the faithful fulfill this request on nine consecutive First Fridays. Friday is significant, of course, because it is the day of Our Lord’s crucifixion by which he offered himself for our redemption in a supreme act of love.

The website of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hanover, PA, elaborates further, noting that “he [Jesus] also requested that there be a special liturgical feast for His Sacred Heart in the Universal Church to be celebrated eight days after the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.” As Derek Pettinelli relates, “It wasn’t until 90 years later in 1765, that the feast was officially celebrated in France. In 1856, Pope Pius IX made the feast of the Sacred Heart into a universal celebration.” Pettinelli also provides a list of the twelve promises associated with devotion to the Sacred Heart.

While it took almost a century to establish the universal feast requested by Our Lord, several popes have since written fervently about the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and its associated devotion. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Annum Sacrum, “On Consecration to the Sacred Heart.” Therein, he notes that he is following the “example of Our predecessors Innocent XII, Benedict XVIII, Clement XIII, Pius VI, and Pius IX, devoutly to foster and bring out into fuller light that most excellent form of devotion which has for its object the veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (2). Leo XIII states further that “since there is in the Sacred Heart a symbol and a sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love one another, therefore is it fit and proper that we should consecrate ourselves to his most Sacred Heart—an act which is nothing else than an offering and a binding of oneself to Jesus Christ” (8), adding, “for these reasons We urge and exhort all who know and love this divine Heart willingly to undertake this act of piety” (9).

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A few decades later, in May of 1928, Pope Pius XI likewise wrote an encyclical on the Sacred Heart: Miserentissimus Redemptor (“On Reparation to the Sacred Heart”). Therein, the pontiff explicitly connects devotion to the Sacred Heart as a remedy against the Jansenism mentioned earlier: “In the most turbulent times of a more recent age, when the Jansenist heresy[, . . .] hostile to love and piety towards God, was creeping in and preaching that God was not to be loved as a father but rather to be feared as an implacable judge; then the most benign Jesus showed his own most Sacred Heart to the nations lifted up as a standard of peace and charity” (2). Later, he insists that “among those things which properly pertain to the worship of the Most Sacred Heart, a special place must be given to that Consecration, whereby we devote ourselves and all things that are ours to the Divine Heart of Jesus, acknowledging that we have received all things from the everlasting love of God” (4).

Following this papal tradition, Pope Pius XII penned his own lengthy encyclical Haurietis Aquas, “On Devotion to the Sacred Heart,” promulgated on May 15, 1956. Pius XII offers wonderful meditations on the connection between the Sacred Heart and other elements of Catholic faith, such as the Incarnation (including Jesus’s divine and human love), the gift of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Most Holy Eucharist, among others. He also describes the essence and purpose of this devotion, saying:

of its very nature, [it] 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. Or to express it in another way, devotion of this kind is directed towards the love of God for us in order to adore it, give thanks for it, and live so as to imitate it; it has this view, as the end to be attained, that we bring that love by which we are bound to God to the rest of men to perfect fulfillment by carrying out daily more eagerly the new commandment which the divine Master gave to His Apostles as a sacred legacy when He said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (107)

Growing up, my own family was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We prayed nightly the Prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus before an image of the Sacred Heart displayed prominently in our home. That devotion has stuck with me and has been a regular part of my own prayer life. I regularly pray it after Mass while kneeling before the tabernacle. I encourage all individuals and families to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart, following the express wishes of so many of our holy pontiffs and, most importantly, the desire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus himself.