When I was a kid, my parents had a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus prominently displayed on their dresser. I have a distinct memory of my mother kissing the statue. Which of course made an impression on my young mind, as I had no recollection of her kissing any other inanimate objects in the house. Clearly there was something special about this particular object.
Of course, it didn’t take long to realize that Mom wasn’t actually worshipping the statue. She was, in kissing it, showing her affection and devotion to Jesus himself, and particularly for his heart — the seat and symbol of his great love for us.
Ever since, and probably because of those early memories, I have had a great fondness for what we Catholics call Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I can’t say I knew a lot about it. But it just felt like love — my Mom’s love for him, my Mom’s love for me, and his love for me.
Lately, I’ve been digging more into the background of that devotion. What I’m finding is fascinating.
This particular devotion dates back to the 17th century, when a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque claimed to have received apparitions from Jesus himself, asking humanity to return to devotion to his heart.
I know. “So, you say Jesus appeared to you, huh?” Cue the men in the white coats. But stay with me for a minute.
Stories like this fall in the realm of “private revelation.” Catholics are free to believe or disbelieve it actually happened, without questioning anything essential to the faith.
But let’s set all of that aside for a minute and look at two things: the context and the message.
First of all, the context. French Catholicism in the 1600’s was very much influenced by a heresy called Jansenism. The Jansenists were very big on the wrath of God. God was big and scary and angry and itching to punish us lowly humans. God was to be feared. Not a lot of room for a loving God in Jansenism.
One can see where the God who loves us would be anxious to correct such a misconception. Perhaps even anxious enough to appear to a French nun to straighten things out.
The message is simple: Christ’s heart burns with love for humanity. He loves us, and he deeply desires our love in return. In the crucifixion, his heart was literally pierced out of love for us. And, far too often, the humanity he created and saved has responded with ingratitude and indifference. In our devotion to his heart, we constantly receive and return that love, and we implore his mercy for ourselves and for those who are far from him.
This is great news, both for the French Catholics of the 17th century and for us today. He loves us!
The Church clearly saw great beauty and value in the message of this humble French nun. She was canonized after her death, and is now known as St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. And devotion to the Sacred Heart has become one of the best known and most widely practiced forms of devotion to Christ.
So what does devotion to the Sacred Heart look like? St. Margaret Mary listed several ways:
Formal consecration: This is simply the prayerful act, repeated regularly, of giving ourselves over to the Sacred Heart — or, in lay terms, giving ourselves to the love Christ has for us in his heart, and committing to honor that love and love him in return. There are several prayers of consecration floating around the internet, including the one written by St. Margaret Mary herself.
Daily offering: This is the boots-on-the-ground, every day renewal of the consecration. It’s where we offer ourselves to God’s service for the day, ask him to work through us, and “offer up” whatever happens that day, good or bad, for the intentions of his Sacred Heart. Again, google the prayer. My family recited it before breakfast every morning, followed by an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for “the Pope, vocations, missions, peace, President (fill in the blank — the first one I remember was Johnson), our country and our family.” We covered a lot of ground first thing in the morning.
Celebration of the Eucharist and reconciliation on consecutive First Fridays: The first Friday of every month is the day that Christ, in the Sacred Heart devotion, designated as the day to especially honor his Sacred Heart, and make reparation for those who do not. That is why so many Catholics attend Mass and receive communion on First Friday. We are consecrating the month to him.
Honoring an image of the Sacred Heart: It is clear from the messages to St. Margaret Mary that Jesus wants his image honored in our homes — as a reminder of his love to us and to all who visit us. Families and individuals often hold ceremonies in which they formally enshrine an image of the Sacred Heart in their homes. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is really devotion to the Eucharist. Of course, we believe that the Eucharist is the true body of Christ. But, as we have learned from the many Eucharistic miracles throughout the ages, the Eucharist is really the heart of Jesus. In Lanciano, Italy, in the 8th century, bread that was being consecrated during Mass suddenly, at the moment of consecration, changed into visible flesh. The material, which did not decompose, was preserved. In 1970, it was tested and determined to come from muscular tissue of the heart. (Fascinating story. Google “Eucharistic miracles.”) So, in the Eucharist, we are receiving his heart. His Sacred Heart.
The French Catholics of the 1600’s needed the message of the Sacred Heart. Don’t you think we need it today, too? In an era of terror, abuse, estrangement, isolation, loneliness and disrespect for life, what does this world need? We need love. We need to know that we are loved by the God who created and redeemed us, and that we can change the world by sharing that love.
I know I need his love, more than ever. So I am ramping up my devotion. I’m consecrating myself to him again. And I’m going to invite some people over and formally enshrine him. Because I want my home to be his home.
St. Margaret Mary listed 12 promises that Jesus gave her for those who practice devotion to the Sacred Heart. No space to list them here. Google is your friend this week. But I do want to mention one of them. He said that “Those who promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart.”
My Mom did that by the simple act of kissing the statue. I did it just now, by writing this article.
What are you going to do?