As a cradle Catholic, I cannot fully appreciate how odd some Catholic feasts or devotions or practices sound to the untrained ear. Growing up, my mom frequently responded to complaints with a pithy “Offer it up!” which seems similar but is actually lightyears away from the secular “Suck it up!” one hears. During college I took a world religions class and when we expressed surprise over a particular belief, my professor reminded us how odd the teaching on the Eucharist sounds to the uninitiated. Even the crucifix that is so ubiquitous in Catholic settings can be striking for the person who sees it never or infrequently.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus might hold a similar sense of oddity for the one unfamiliar with such a phrase. Since June is the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we will focus briefly on this particular devotion today.
When did this devotion begin?
There have been monumental moments in the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, however there is not one clear beginning point. St. John the Evangelist laid his head on Our Lord’s chest at the Last Supper and the early Church meditated on the blood and water that came from the side of Jesus on the cross. Yet these devotions weren’t specific to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, there arose a particular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. St. Mechtilde and St. Gertrude were both familiar with this devotion and received mystical experiences with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. St. Gertrude even had a mystical experience where she was able to place her head near the heart of Jesus, similar to St. John at the Last Supper. In this same vision, St. John appeared to her and she asked if his experience was similar to hers as well as questioned why he never wrote of it. St. John replied:
My mission was to write of the Eternal Word…but the language of the blissful pulsations of the Sacred Heart is reserved for latter times, that the time-worn world, grown cold in the love of God, may be warmed up by hearing of such mysteries.
Despite the acknowledgement of such a devotion, the prayers and practices were always individual and there was not a feast of the Sacred Heart in the Church at that time. The devotion to the Five Wounds was propagated (particularly by the Franciscans) during the subsequent centuries and has a close connection to the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In 1673, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and showed her a vision of the Sacred Heart along with a call to spread the devotion. St. Margaret Mary was afforded a similar privilege as St. John and St. Gertrude by being allowed to rest her head near the heart of Jesus. In one of the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus said:
My Heart is so full of love for men that It can no longer contain the flames of Its burning love. I must discover to men the treasures of My Heart and save them from perdition.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart was officially approved by Pope Clement XIII in 1765. In 1856, the feast of the Sacred Heart was extended to the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX, at the urging of the French bishops. Pope Leo XIII consecrated all mankind to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 11, 1899.
What is this devotion?
More than just an honoring of the human heart of Jesus, the devotion of the Sacred Heart is a recognition of the profound love Jesus has for humanity.
Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony and his Passion, and gave himself up for each one of us: “The Son of God. . . loved me and gave himself for me.” He has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that. . . love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception.
The word heart calls to mind the center of our being, our critical life-sustaining organ alongside the source of love. Tied closely the devotion of the Five Wounds, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is both a recognition of profound love for the world and yet the deep suffering endured at its hands.
In this month of June, consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it is natural and a pleasure for me to exhort you to recall to your minds your hope and your prayer to the Heart “which has loved men so much” and which continues to love us with his twofold love, divine and human, especially those who are more troubled, tearful and suffering. From the Heart of Christ, “full of goodness and love”, you can obtain strength and comfort in your sufferings, peace in your heart and merit in all your pains!
Pope St. John Paul II
When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, He gave an image of the Sacred Heart burning with flames and crowned with thorns. While the flames represented the passionate love of Jesus for humanity, the crown of thorns symbolized the ingratitude and sinfulness of humanity. To this mystic Jesus entrusted the spreading of the Sacred Heart devotion and revealed twelve promises for all who practice this devotion.
When do we celebrate the Sacred Heart?
The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus occurs 19 days after Pentecost or the Friday after Corpus Christi. The Church also remembers June as the month of the Sacred Heart.
How do we practice this devotion?
As saints through the centuries have reminded us, the Lord desires to be in an intimate relationship with each of us. Having revealed His Sacred Heart, the Lord emphasizes the closeness found between love and suffering, thereby inviting us into an experience of both. There are several ways that we can dive into this devotion of the Sacred Heart. A few include:
- Enthrone an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in your home
- Observe the First Friday devotion
- Pray the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
- Using imaginative prayer, place yourself at the Last Supper and, like St. John and St. Gertrude and St. Margaret Mary, rest your head near the heart of Jesus
- Pray the Sacred Heart Chaplet
- Offer prayers of reparation to the Sacred Heart
- Read a book/encyclical to learn more about this devotion and its history