The image of the physical heart tickles everyone. Universally, the heart is the symbol of love, tenderness, affection, friendship and all the synonyms of the word—love. But we all know that the emotion ‘love’ has nothing to do with the human part of the body, the heart. Perhaps, as the heart is in the centre of the body and it regulates blood circulation and controls the body temperature it becomes a symbol of love. Often ‘rationalists’ criticize the devotion to the Sacred Heart as something emotional and complain of not having anything theological or biblical. But love is emotional in nature, because heart understands things that mind fails to grasp.

There is a popular fiction to explain the heart. Once a bunch of drug addicts challenged each other, “who among us has courage to cut open the chest of his mother and bring the heart.” One of the addicts in his height of inebriation accepted the challenge and rushed home to do his evil act. He took the kitchen knife and split open this mother’s chest and rushed out of his home with the heart dripping with blood.

In his hurry and excitement he tripped and fell at the doorstep of his home. As he fell, he heart his mother’s telling him, “Son, did you hurt yourself?” The story concludes, those words from the heart converted the addict to a responsible man.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the heart of Christ thus, “….Only the Heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.” (# 1439). And article no. 2669 explains the meaningfulness of the veneration of the Sacred Heart as it is connected to the holy name of Jesus, Christ as the Word and Christ’s own passion on the Cross. “The prayer of the Church venerates and honors the Heart of Jesus just as it invokes his most holy name. It adores the incarnate Word and his Heart which, out of love for men, he allowed to be pierced by our sins. Christian prayer loves to follow the way of the cross in the Savior’s steps.”

History of the Devotion

The devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the popular Catholic devotions, taking Jesus’ physical heart as the representation of His divine love for humanity. It is in line with the official teachings of the Church as explained in the Catechism. This devotion is predominantly used in the Catholic Church and also among some Anglicans and Lutherans. The devotion is especially concerned with what the Church deems to be the love and compassion of the heart of Christ towards humanity, and its long suffering. The origin of this devotion in its modern form comes from a Religious Sister form France, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, who learned the devotion from Jesus during a series of visions to her between 1673 and 1675.

But we can confidently say that the devotion to the Sacred Heart developed out of the devotion to the Holy Wounds of Jesus, in particular to the Sacred Wound in the side of Jesus. The first indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart are found in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The devotion arose in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine, Cistercian and other monasteries in the middle ages. The wounds of Jesus always had a special place in the Christian devotion and became even more popular with the phenomenon of stigmata received by well-known saints such as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio.

St. Bonaventure of 13th century wrote: “Who is there who would not love this wounded heart? Who would not love in return Him, who loves so much?” It was, nevertheless, a private, individual devotion of the mystical order. But nothing of an approved and recognized movement or devotion came to exist, except for similarities found in the devotion to the ‘Five Holy Wounds’ as promoted by the Franciscan monks. It is understandable that prayer when moved by emotions always find favourable place in our spirituality.

As the devotion progressed, in the sixteenth century, it passed from the domain of mysticism into that of Christian asceticism, involving rigorous penance and mortification. It was established as a devotion with prayers and special exercises of piety. They are particularly found in the writings of Lanspergius (+1539) of the Carthusians of Cologne, Germany and others such as Francis de Sales (+1622) of France.

Later during the time of Church’s expansion, reformation and evangelization into new lands, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread rapidly all over the Church, especially in the new Churches. Ascetic writers spoke of it, especially those of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was everywhere in evidence, largely due to the Franciscan devotion to the Five Wounds and to the Jesuits placing the image on the title-page of their books and the walls of their churches.

The devotion spread using popular hymns, images, paintings, litanies and novenas. We can confidently say that the devotion grew along with the recitation of the Holy Rosary and other common prayers. By 17th century an additional devotion of Immaculate Heart of Mary was added, that too quickly received well by the pious Christians.

Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque

The most significant source for the devotion to the Sacred Heart in the form it is known today comes from Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), a Religious Sister Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, who received visions of Jesus Christ, the first on 27 December 1673, the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, and the final one 18 months later. The visions recommended the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of each month, Eucharistic adoration during a “Holy hour” on Thursdays, and the celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. The saint said that in her vision she was instructed to spend an hour every Thursday night to meditate on Jesus’ Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These devotions and recommendations were well received by the people who found them easy and spiritually nourishing. The regular practice of these devotionals created a rhythmic prayer and spirituality, especially among the common people. Indeed human heart loves to keep a regular moments of love and practical expressions of it.

Soon Popes began to notice the growth of the devotion and the good it brought to the spiritual life of the Church. On June 11, 1899. Pope Leo XIII consecrated the human race to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and instituted the feast and approved monthly and weekly devotions. Later Pope Pius X decreed that the consecration of the human race performed by Leo XIII be renewed each year. And Pius XI in his encyclical letter Miserentissimus Redemptor  of May 8, 1928 affirmed the Church’s position with respect to Saint Margaret Mary’s visions of Jesus Christ by stating that Jesus had “manifested Himself” to Saint Margaret and had “promised her that all those who rendered this honor to His Heart would be endowed with an abundance of heavenly graces.” Other modern popes did the same in the recent years. Here we can also add that in one way or another the devotion to the Divine Mercy is a consequent development of the Sacred Heart.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is very practical, easily understood and remains a consolation to all the faithful who are devoted to it faithfully. The following prayer (which I pray daily with the staff of the University of the Sacred Heart, Gulu) to the Sacred Heart captures the spirituality and the devotion to this great Catholic practice of piety in its core.

O Sacred Heart of Jesus, filled with immense love, broken by our ingratitude and pierced by our sins, yet loving us still; accept the consecration we make to you of all that we are and all that we have. Through me, may everyone I meet this day see You, Lord, feel your presence and experience your Love. May I serve you by serving others in your Name making all that I do a gift of Love. Amen.

Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB

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