“Behold this Heart which has so loved mankind”
(Sacred Heart of Jesus to St Margaret Mary Alacoque)
The Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus calls to mind a devotion which is long established in the Catholic Church, to the extent that it is difficult to find Catholic church which does not contain an image of that Sacred Heart.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart is older that you might think – going back to at least 1298 and St Mechtilde and St Gertrude. However, it was more than three hundred years later that it came to prominence in the form in which we now recognise it.
In 1673, St Margaret Mary Alacoque was a young member of the Visitation Sisters, living in Paray le Monial in France. She was granted a series of vision of Jesus, appearing with His Heart – declaring His immense love of humanity and asking for reparation for the sins offend that divine Heart. Around that time, the Church was plagued with the heretical beliefs of Jansenism – these declared that most men would be damned and only a few saved; after all, men are inherently evil; and there was a great rigour, with the letter of the law more important than the spirit of then law. A dark legalism was prevailing which left no room for compassion or mercy on the part of God. God’s response was clear – the image of a living Heart, pierced on the Cross for love of all mankind, wounded by our sin but still loving us in spite of that.
As well as speaking of the great love in His Heart, Jesus made certain requests of St Margaret Mary, including the establishment of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the devotion of the nine first Fridays of reparation, a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration, and consecration to His Heart. He also gave Twelve Promises for those who would so honour His Sacred Heart –
I will give them all of the graces necessary for their state of life.
I will establish peace in their houses.
I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
I will be their strength during life and above all during death.
I will bestow a large blessing upon all their undertakings.
Sinners shall find in My Heart the source and the infinite ocean of mercy.
Tepid souls shall grow fervent.
Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
I will bless every place where a picture of my heart shall be set up and honored.
I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in My Heart, never to be blotted out.
I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who communicate on the First Friday in nine consecutive months the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in My disgrace nor without receiving their sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.
Initially, the devotion spread within religious communities; then, it came out of the convents and religious houses, moved across France and Europe and then over the whole world.
The Popes granted each of the requests of the Lord one by one – establishing the Feast and Mass; consecrating the entire world and all people to the Sacred Heart by Pope Leo XIII in 1899, with Pope Pius X decreeing that the consecration be renewed every year.
In 1956, Pope Pius XII wrote his beautiful Encyclical, ‘Haurietis Aquas’ on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Speaking in June 2016, our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, said –
“I invite everyone to pray to the Heart of Jesus for the entire month of June”.
During the Jubilee for Priests, the Holy Father recommended his brother Priests to read ‘Haurietis Aquas’, noting that the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the Key to mercy.
And speaking on the feast day of the Sacred Heart in 2020, Pope Francis said –
“I invite you to discover the riches that are hidden in the Heart of Jesus, to learn to love your neighbour.. Do not be afraid to present to Him all the intentions of our suffering humanity, its fears, its miseries. May this Heart, full of love for men, give everyone hope and trust.”
There is much in common between the devotions to the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy.
Both focus on the living and suffering Heart of Christ, as the seat of His infinite love for mankind and the Vessel containing the fullness of the Treasury of His Grace. In the first, the loving Heart itself is the object; in the other, the object is the Mercy flowing from that loving Heart. Love and mercy; the two are really inseparable.
The requests of the Lord in each devotion bear similarities but also differences. And perhaps the time periods in which each devotion is set are not so different – now, in our own day, we see a plague similar to that of Jansenism, where men seek to limit the mercy of God, declaring it to be excessive or too far-reaching, as though the far-reaching arms of Christ Crucified can somehow be held down in case He is too-forgiving of sins.
Perhaps what we forget sometimes, is that to embrace God’s mercy, we first must recognise our sins and failings, our imperfections and our weaknesses; and in doing so and in reaching out to the mercy of God, we are transformed ‘to go and sin no more’. Our reaching out is a response to His reaching out to us, a response to His divine grace. We can never be more merciful than the Lord, Who willingly died for our sins. That is infinite mercy and compassion. That mercy will not be limited by our endeavours – it will forgive “seventy times seven”.
In this month of June, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we take a moment each day to contemplate that merciful Heart, pierced on the Cross for love of us; and make a commitment to reflect His own mercy in our dealings with all people.
‘And so we can easily understand that the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men. Or to express it in another way, devotion of this kind is directed towards the love of God for us in order to adore it, give thanks for it, and live so as to imitate it; it has this in view, as the end to be attained, that we bring that love by which we are bound to God to the rest of men to perfect fulfillment by carrying out daily more eagerly the new commandment which the divine Master gave to His Apostles as a sacred legacy when He said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you. . .This is My commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”‘
(Pope Pius XII, ‘Haurietis Aquas)