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What we lost when we lost the Sacred Heart

This beautiful devotion has inspired the faithful to noble acts of self-sacrifice. But the Church’s cultural revolution nearly buried it

A hymn to the Sacred Heart should fill us with spiritual joy, but how we winced in my childhood parish when our old Irish priest chose it. Until yesterday I’d forgotten the words, but as soon as I typed “Sweet Heart of Jesus” into my browser I was back in the 1970s: an altar boy yawning under the baldacchino – now unforgivably demolished – while the choir swooped up and down the stave. It’s that sort of hymn. Here’s the chorus:

Sweet heart of Jesus, we implore.
O make us love thee more and more.

On the words “Jesus” and “love” the melody reaches the top of the octave and stays there. Outstays its welcome, indeed, if the organist slows down for dramatic effect and the singers are gasping for oxygen.

So we winced. But affectionately, the way you do when your tipsy uncle stumbles through an oft-told family anecdote. Even 40 years ago, “Sweet Heart of Jesus” was a relic of pre-conciliar Catholicism. You wouldn’t have heard it in most parishes, but our priest – though willing to say the New Mass – resisted the cultural revolution that was supposed to accompany the liturgical changes.

Young practising Catholics today, with their love of Eucharistic Adoration and the Latin Mass, have no idea how brutally the ancient devotions were swept away. Thanks to our priest, our parish escaped the Seventies blitz. The Eighties were a different matter: the equivalent of today’s Chinese bulldozers moved in. “Sweet Heart of Jesus” was heard no more.

I doubt it was much missed. My parents, born in the 1920s, thought of it as belonging to their parents. They were ready for the vernacular Mass. It was my grandmothers, May Benbow (born 1898) and Mary Thompson (born 1908), who missed the old ways – not so much the Latin but the spirituality.

Both had a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So did their friends. My parents’ friends were mostly Catholic, too, but when they heard the words “Sacred Heart”, they probably thought of a parish or a school.

This sidelining of the Sacred Heart was a loss to the Church, I now realise. And when I say “now”, I mean in the past 24 hours.

Last week there was a Twitter fight after the American Jesuit Fr James Martin urged “LGBT” Catholics to celebrate June as “Pride month”. I wish he’d stop doing this. Gay Catholics shouldn’t be nagged into rebranding themselves as LGBT; Pride and the rainbow flag belong to secular ideology.

One Catholic reminded Fr Martin that June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. I didn’t know that, but then I knew very little about the topic. So I went to Wikipedia, which is good on these things.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus wasn’t invented by some overwrought 19th-century nun, as I might have guessed. It arose (says Wiki) out of the medieval cult of the Holy Wounds and a new focus on Christ’s humanity. That’s why the Eastern Orthodox have doubts about it: they think it smacks of Nestorianism, the heresy that separated the human and divine natures of Christ.

Those “kitsch” 19th-century statues of the Sacred Heart represent a devotion that was already 500 years old. But you can discover the history for yourselves. My mind is drifting back to that hymn. The poetry is painfully uninspired; the ideas painfully beautiful.

Sweet heart of Jesus, fount of love and mercy,
today we come, thy blessing to implore;
O touch our hearts, so cold and so ungrateful,
and make them, Lord, thine own for evermore.

And so it continues. May our hearts be “from things of earth uplifted”; may we be pure and gentle, “and when we fall – sweet heart, oh, love us still”.

Why is the image of Jesus’s heart so powerful? Here’s a theory. His heart stopped. Of course it did: he died – to rise again, but Our Lady still had to watch her son lose consciousness as the heart stopped pumping.

One of my grandmothers saw her only son die from heart failure in his late 50s; the other was told in person that her oldest son, my father, had dropped dead of a heart attack at 55.

Those pictures of a bloody Sacred Heart surrounded by thorns don’t disturb us because they’re tasteless; we recoil at the reminder that all our hearts will stop. If they are “so cold and so ungrateful”, we need to help others.

When I was young, I’d often hear that an elderly Catholic “had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart”. Not coincidentally, this person would often be a member of the SVP or some other great self-sacrificing charity. Our generation has no right to dismiss their hymns or their statues as “sentimental”.

Those were noble sentiments, unlike the ghastly self-worship implied by songs in which you announce that you are the Bread of Life, People of God or whatever. Shouldn’t we rediscover them? For centuries, Catholics found new cultural expressions of love for the Sacred Heart. Then we skipped a generation. And look what happened.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator