The Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolises God’s love for mankind. However, the love that God has for the human race is not symbolic, it is actual. It is made known to us through the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, and that humanity is rendered accessible in images of His Sacred Heart.
Metaphorically and iconographically, the heart is the seat of our human emotions; tenderness, devotion, affection, commitment, attachment, love. In reference to Christ’s Heart these words are an attempt to convey what in His humanity He personally feels for mankind. The human feelings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are the truest reflection that we have of what “feelings” the Godhead has for His human creation.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart flowered in the 17th century. Both St Francis de Sales and St John Eudes were drawn to it; and from 1673 to 1675 at Paray-le-Monial in France, the Visitandine nun St Margaret Mary Alacoque experienced visions of the Sacred Heart.
In 1765, the Church authorised the liturgical observance of the feast of the Sacred Heart. This was extended by popes Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius XI. In 1899, in response to the visions of Sister Maria Droste zu Vischering, Leo XIII consecrated the whole world to the Sacred Heart. Maria Droste died on the feast of the Sacred Heart that year. She was beatified by Paul VI in 1975.
In her visions, St Margaret Mary understood that Christ promised rich blessings to those who persevered in devotion to His Heart. The Lord, she said, promises them the following: He will give them all the graces necessary for their state; He will grant peace to their family; He will console them in all their troubles; He will be their certain refuge throughout their life and above all at the time of their death; He will bestow abundant blessing on all their enterprises; in His Heart sinners will find an infinite ocean of mercy; lukewarm souls will become fervent; fervent souls will be raised up to a level of great perfection; He will bless those homes where the image of His Sacred Heart shall be displayed and honoured; He will give to priests the gift of touching even the most hardened of hearts; those who propagate this devotion will have their name written on His Heart from whence it shall never be effaced; to those who receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of the month, nine times consecutively, He will grant the grace of final repentance, so that they will not die in His disfavour nor without receiving the sacraments; and that in their final moment (in their last breath) His divine Heart will be their certain refuge.
We should be slow to dismiss such assertions of God’s love on the grounds of it being simply private revelation. It is that, of course, but a private revelation which is in harmony with the general public revelation given to us through the Scriptures and the Church’s living tradition.
The love radiating from Christ’s Heart is not merely a generic love for the race in aggregate. It is a personal love for individual persons. Our Lord never stops taking any of us seriously. Again and again He takes us back and renews His passionate commitment to us. Time and again when we stumble He helps us get back on our feet, so that we can keep trudging along our pilgrim camino to the City of God.
It is an extraordinary component of our faith that God does actually still love what He made. In spite of our revolting fallen nature, in spite of the ocean of sin with which we pollute our moral and spiritual lives, in spite of our apparently unshakeable attachment to tribal warfare, nevertheless our Maker still takes us seriously, still thinks we are worth bothering with. The Heart of Christ is an ever-open portal, a stargate which never shuts, through which the Creator’s infinite patience flows down to us.
In one’s spiritual life particular words and phrases can acquire a rich and allusive power to lift our flagging spirits. “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” is one of those phrases which never fails to warm and encourage. I first discovered devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus when I was an Anglican schoolboy, attending weekday lunchtime services at the church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. On many a first Friday the beautiful texts of the votive Mass of the Sacred Heart from the inspiring English Missal were imprinted on my mind, for which I can never be sufficiently grateful. It helped me to believe (subsequently) that the promises made by our Lord to St Margaret Mary are true. The thoughts of His Heart are from generation to generation; to feed them when they hunger, to save them when they die.
Fr Ignatius Harrison is provost of the Birmingham Oratory and actor of the Cause for the canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman
This article first appeared in the June 23, 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald