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‘Behold the Heart that has so loved men’

Was it a system unique to schools in the care of the Sisters of Notre Dame? I have no idea and it probably betrays my vintage. However, during the last days of Pope Pius XII and the first of Pope John XXIII, May and June found themselves spectacularly marked by “honouring days”.

At least in St Michael’s primary school in Liverpool, the teacher divided the class into pairs of eager children and allocated each duo their “honouring day” on which they would lead their classmates in honouring Mary or the Sacred Heart.

The next stage in the process was for each pair to select a title from the Litany of Loreto or that of the Sacred Heart to act as the class theme for the day. The children who were “honouring” had the privilege of writing their chosen title on the blackboard. They lit the candle in front of the statue of Our Lady or the picture of the Sacred Heart and went to Mass at midday to pray for their classmates. Of course, publicly wearing the “honouring badge” in church added an incentive. It felt as though the whole world stood in awe of one’s brief spell of special importance to Mary and to Jesus.

There was a hymn that I still associate with “honouring days”. Even though, at times, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has gone to either an extreme of sentimentality or one of complete neglect, the words hold an abundance of unequivocal truth about the nature of Jesus in his Divinity and his humanity.

Heart of Jesus, Sacred Heart,
Praise to thee for all thou art…
Heart of a Saviour, Heart of a friend,
Heart that has loved thine own to the end,
Heart of our King and Heart of our Lord,
Be thou for ever loved and adored.

The poet Naji Almurisi wrote:

I have two hearts
Heart is pulsating with blood
And heart is pulsating with love…

We all know a great deal about the human heart, because we all have one. We’ve all felt our hearts bursting with pride, or sadness, or excitement, or love… but at such a moment, few of us are concerned about the contraction of our ventricles and the response of cardiac valves to the increased blood flow.

Similarly, although we know Jesus had a heart which a soldier pierced with a lance (Jn 19:34), Christians throughout the centuries have taken this wounding of the heart of Jesus on to a spiritual level. “He was pierced for our sins” (Isaiah 53:5) and as a symbol of his complete self-giving on Calvary. Quite literally, humanly speaking, Jesus had nothing left to give us: the flowing of blood and water as a result of the lance showed that even his heart was emptied on our behalf.

The concept of the heart as the seat of love is so fundamental to human cultures that within two centuries of Jesus’ death, the heart of Jesus began to symbolise the love of God for humanity. By the Middle Ages, his heart became an object of devotion in itself as a means of understanding, ever more deeply, the mystery of Christ living in the Church through the liturgy. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, devotion to the Sacred Heart was particularly associated with the Franciscan devotion to Jesus’s Five Wounds, but also with the Jesuit custom of placing the image on the title-page of their books and the walls of their churches.

Between 1673 and 1675 a French Visitation nun, Margaret Mary Alacoque, received a series of visions in her convent at Paray-le-Monial, in which Jesus appeared to her as the Sacred Heart. Over a period of about 18 months the future saint revealed that she had received instructions to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the reception of Holy Communion on the First Fridays of each month, the adoration of the Host during a Thursday Holy Hour and the celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. St Margaret Mary recorded all that happened in her visions, writing that, during the Octave of Corpus Christi, 1675, Jesus spoke to her, saying:

“Behold the Heart that has so loved men… instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part [of mankind] only ingratitude…”

She also wrote that Jesus wanted the promotion of the devotion to the Sacred Heart to become the special responsibility of the Visitation nuns and the Jesuits.

The first liturgical celebration in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus occurred on October 20 1672, with the “Nine First Fridays” devotion following shortly afterwards. The Feast of the Sacred Heart has been a universal solemnity in the Catholic liturgical calendar since 1856. On June 11 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole of humanity to the Sacred Heart. His successor Pope Pius X decreed that this consecration should be renewed annually.

However, devotion to the Sacred Heart did not happen in isolation. Although we have John’s probable eyewitness account of Jesus’s piercing with a lance (Jn 19:34), we also know that Simeon prophesied that a sword of sorrow would pierce the heart of Mary (Lk. 2:35), a direct reference to her presence on Calvary.

Veneration of the Sacred Heart of Mary started to emerge in its own right towards the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century. There was, from the very start, a big difference between the two devotions. In effect, Jesus was the prime mover and Mary the perfect response. The Sacred Heart of Jesus overflowed with God’s love for humanity. The Sacred Heart of Mary brimmed over with her human love of God and for her Son and did so unimpaired by sin. Eventually, in order to clarify this distinction, the title of the Marian devotion was changed to that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

St John Eudes, in 1681, unsuccessfully attempted to obtain official Church recognition of the veneration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. However, the devotion continued to spread. Our Lady appeared to St Catherine Labouré in 1830 and, as a result, we have the Miraculous Medal where the Sacred Heart of Jesus, crowned with thorns and burning with love, is represented alongside the sword-pierced Immaculate Heart of Mary.

At Fatima Mary asked for repentance, prayer and the Eucharist, saying that “God wishes to establish in the world devotion to her Immaculate Heart”. In 1944, Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to be celebrated on August 22. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved it to the day following the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

St Margaret Mary reported that Jesus made 12 promises to those who would venerate his Sacred Heart. The 10th promise was: “I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.”

On May 15 2006, the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Haurietis Aquas, about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Fr Hans Kolvenbach, the Jesuit Superior General, reaffirming the importance of the devotion. It is not surprising that he has chosen to end the Year of the Priests on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is an end that is also a beginning.