Devotion to the Sacred Heart is but a special form of devotion to Jesus. We shall know just what it is and what distinguishes it when we ascertain its object, its foundations, and its proper act.
Special object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart
The nature of this question is complex and frequently becomes more complicated because of the difficulties arising from terminology. Omitting terms that are over-technical, we shall study the ideas in themselves, and, that we may the sooner find our bearings, it will be well to remember the meaning and use of the word heart in current language.
(a) The word heart awakens, first of all, the idea of a material heart, of the vital organ that throbs within our bosom, and which we vaguely realize as intimately connected not only with our own physical, but with our emotional and moral life. Now this heart of flesh is currently accepted as the emblem of the emotion and moral life with which we associate it, and hence the place assigned to the word heart in symbolic language, as also the use of the same word to designate those things symbolized by the heart. Note, for instance, the expressions “to open one’s heart”, “to give one’s heart”, etc. It may happen that the symbol becomes divested of its material meaning that the sign is overlooked in beholding only the thing signified. Thus, in current language, the word soul no longer suggests the thought of breath, and the word heart brings to mind only the idea of courage and love. But this is perhaps a figure of speech or a metaphor, rather than a symbol. A symbol is a real sign, whereas a metaphor is only a verbal sign; a symbol is a thing that signifies another thing, but a metaphor is a word used to indicate something different from its proper meaning. Finally, in current language, we are constantly passing from the part to the whole, and, by a perfectly natural figure of speech, we use the word heart to designate a person. These ideas will aid us in determining the object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
(b) The question lies between the material, the metaphorical, and the symbolic sense of the word heart; whether the object of the devotion is the Heart of flesh, as such, or the love of Jesus Christ metaphorically signified by the word heart; or the Heart of flesh, but as symbol of the emotional and moral life of Jesus, and especially His love for us. We reply that worship is rightly paid to the Heart of flesh, inasmuch as the latter symbolizes and recalls the love of Jesus, and His emotional and moral life. Thus, although directed to the material Heart, it does not stop there: it also includes love, that love which is its principal object, but which it reaches only in and through the Heart of flesh, the sign and symbol of this love. Devotion to the Heart of Jesus alone, as to a noble part of His Divine Body, would not be devotion to the Sacred Heart as understood and approved by the Church, and the same must also be said of devotion to the love of Jesus as detached from His Heart of flesh, or else connected therewith by no other tie than that of a word taken in the metaphorical sense. Hence, in the devotion, there are two elements: a sensible element, the Heart of flesh, and a spiritual element, that which this Heart of flesh recalls spiritual element, that which this Heart of flesh recalls and represents. But these two elements do not form two distinct objects, merely co-ordinated they constitute but one, just as do the body and soul, and the sign and the thing signified. Hence it is also understood that these two elements are as essential to the devotion as body and soul are essential to man. Of the two elements constituting the whole, the principal one is love, which is as much the cause of the devotion and its reason for existence as the soul is the principal element in man. Consequently, devotion to the Sacred Heart may be defined as devotion to the adorable Heart of Jesus Christ in so far as this Heart represents and recalls His love; or, what amounts to the same thing, devotion to the love of Jesus Christ in so far as this love is recalled and symbolically represented to us by His Heart of flesh.
(c) Hence the devotion is based entirely upon the symbolism of the heart. It is this symbolism that imparts to its meaning and its unity, and this symbolism is admirably completed by the representation of the Heart as wounded. Since the Heart of Jesus appears to us as the sensible sign of His love, the visible wound in the Heart will naturally recall the invisible wound of this love. This symbolism also explains that the devotion, although giving the Heart an essential place, is but little concerned with the anatomy of the heart or with physiology. Since, in images of the Sacred Heart, the symbolic expression must dominate all else, anatomical accuracy is not looked for; it would injure the devotion by rendering the symbolism less evident. It is eminently proper that the heart as an emblem be distinguished from the anatomical heart: the suitableness of the image is favourable to the expression of the idea. A visible heart is necessary for an image of the Sacred Heart, but this visible heart must be a symbolic heart. Similar observations are in order for physiology, in which the devotion cannot be totally disinterested, because the Heart of Flesh toward which the worship is directed in order to read therein the love of Jesus, is the Heart of Jesus, the real, living Heart that, in all truth, may be said to have loved and suffered; the Heart that, as we feel ourselves, had such a share in His emotional and moral life; the Heart that, as we know from a knowledge, however rudimentary, of the operations of our human life, had such a part in the operations of the Master’s life. But the relation of the Heart to the love of Christ is not that of a purely conventional sign, as in the relation of the word to the thing, or of the flag to the idea of one’s country; this Heart has been and is still inseparably connected with that life of benefactions and love. However, it is sufficient for our devotion that we know and feel this intimate connection. We have nothing to do with the physiology of the Sacred Heart nor with determining the exact functions of the heart in daily life. We know that the symbolism of the heart is a symbolism founded upon reality and that it constitutes the special object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, which devotion is in no danger of falling into error.
(d) The heart is, above all, the emblem of love, and by this characteristic, the devotion to the Sacred Heart is naturally defined. However, being directed to the loving Heart of Jesus, it naturally encounters whatever in Jesus is connected with this love. Now, was not this love the motive of all that Christ did and suffered? Was not all His inner, even more than His outward, life dominated by this love? On the other hand, the devotion to the Sacred Heart, being directed to the living Heart of Jesus, thus becomes familiar with the whole inner life of the Master, with all His virtues and sentiments, finally, with Jesus infinitely loving and lovable. Hence, a first extension of the devotion is from the loving Heart to the intimate knowledge of Jesus, to His sentiments and virtues, to His whole emotional and moral life; from the loving Heart to all the manifestations of Its love. There is still another extension which, although having the same meaning, is made in another way, that is by passing from the Heart to the Person, a transition which, as we have seen, is very naturally made. When speaking of a large heart our allusion is to the person, just as when we mention the Sacred Heart we mean Jesus. This is not, however, because the two are synonymous but when the word heart is used to designate the person, it is because such a person is considered in whatsoever related to his emotional and moral life. Thus, when we designate Jesus as the Sacred Heart, we mean Jesus manifesting His Heart, we mean Jesus manifesting His Heart, Jesus all loving and amiable. Jesus entire is thus recapitulated in the Sacred Heart as all is recapitulated in Jesus.
(e) In thus devoting oneself to Jesus all loving and lovable, one cannot fail to observe that His love is rejected. God is constantly lamenting that in Holy Writ, and the saints have always heard within their hearts the plaint of unrequited love. Indeed one of the essential phases of the devotion is that it considers the love of Jesus for us as a despised, ignored love. He Himself revealed this when He complained so bitterly to Saint Margaret Mary.
(f) This love is everywhere manifest in Jesus and in His life, and it alone can explain Him together with His words and His acts. Nevertheless, it shines forth more resplendently in certain mysteries from which great good accrues to us, and in which Jesus is more lavish of His loving benefactions and more complete in His gift of self, namely, in the Incarnation, in the Passion, and in the Eucharist. Moreover, these mysteries have a place apart in the devotion which, everywhere seeking Jesus and the signs of His love and favours, finds them here to an even greater extent than in particular acts.
(g) We have already seen that devotion to the Sacred Heart, being directed to the Heart of Jesus as the emblem of love, has mainly in view His love for men. This is obviously not that it excludes His love for God, for this included in His love for men, but it is above all the devotion to “the Heart that has so loved men”, according to the words quoted by Saint Margaret Mary.
(h) Finally, the question arises as to whether the love which we honour in this devotion is that with which Jesus loves us as Man or that with which He loves us as God; whether it is created or uncreated, His human or His Divine Love. Undoubtedly it is the love of God made Man, the love of the Incarnate Word. However, it does not seem that devout persons think of separating these two loves any more than they separate the two natures in Jesus. Besides, even though we might wish to settle this part of the question at any cost, we would find that the opinions of authors are at variance. Some, considering that the Heart of Flesh is connected with human love only, conclude that it does not symbolize Divine love which, moreover, is not proper to the Person of Jesus, and that, therefore, Divine love is not the direct object of the devotion. Others, while admitting that Divine love apart from the Incarnate Word is not the object of the devotion, believe it to be such when considered as the love of the Incarnate Word, and they do not see why this love also could not be symbolized by the Heart of flesh nor why, in this event, the devotion should be limited to created love only.
Foundations of the devotion
The question may be considered under three aspects: the historical, the theological, and the scientific.
(a) Historical foundations
In approving the devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Church did not trust to the visions of Saint Margaret Mary; she made abstraction of these and examined the worship in itself. Margaret Mary’s visions could be false, but the devotion would not, on that account, be any less worthy or solid. However, the fact is that the devotion was propagated chiefly under the influence of the movement started at Paray-le-Monial; and prior to her beatification, Margaret Mary’s visions were most critically examined by the Church, whose judgment in such cases does not involve her infallibility but implies only a human certainty sufficient to warrant consequent speech and action.
(b) Theological foundations
The Heart of Jesus, like all else that belongs to His Person, is worthy of adoration, but this would not be so if It were considered as isolated from this Person and as having no connection with It. But it not thus that the Heart is considered, and, in his Bull “Auctorem fidei”, 1794, Pius VI authoritatively vindicated the devotion in this respect against the calumnies of the Jansenists. The worship, although paid to the Heart of Jesus, extends further than the Heart of flesh, being directed to the love of which this Heart is the living and expressive symbol. On this point the devotion requires no justification, as it is to the Person of Jesus that it is directed; but to the Person as inseparable from His Divinity. Jesus, the living apparition of the goodness of God and of His paternal love, Jesus infinitely loving and amiable, studied in the principal manifestations of His love, is the object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, as indeed He is the object of the Christian religion. The difficulty lies in the union of the heart and love, in the relation which the devotion supposes between the one and the other. Is not this an error long since discarded? If so, it remains to examine whether the devotion, considered in this respect, is well founded.
(c) Philosophical and scientific foundations
In this respect there has been some uncertainty amongst theologians, not as regards the basis of things, but in the matter of explanations. Sometimes they have spoken as if the heart were the organ of love, but this point has no bearing on the devotion, for which it suffices that the heart be the symbol of love, and that, for the basis of the symbolism, a real connection exist between the heart and the emotions. Now, the symbolism of the heart is a fact and every one feels that in the heart there is a sort of an echo of our sentiments. The physiological study of this resonance may be very interesting, but it is in no wise necessary to the devotion, as its foundation is a fact attested by daily experience, a fact which physiological study confirms and of which it determines the conditions, but which neither supposes this study nor any special acquaintance with its subject.
The proper act of the devotion
This act is required by the very object of the devotion, since devotion to the love of Jesus for us should be pre-eminently a devotion of love for Jesus. It is characterized by a reciprocation of love; its aim is to love Jesus who has so loved us, to return love for love. Since, moreover, the love of Jesus manifests itself to the devout soul as a love despised and outraged, especially in the Eucharist, the love expressed in the devotion naturally assumes a character of reparation, and hence the importance of acts of atonement, the Communion of reparation, and compassion for Jesus suffering. But no special act, no practice whatever, can exhaust the riches of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. The love which is its soul embraces all and, the better one understands it, the more firmly is he convinced that nothing can vie with it for making Jesus live in us and for bringing him who lives by it to love God, in union with Jesus, with all his heart, all his soul, all his strength.
Historical ideas on the development of the devotion
(1) From the time of Saint John and Saint Paul there has always been in the Church something like devotion to the love of God, Who so loved the world as to give it His only-begotten Son, and to the love of Jesus, Who has so loved us as to deliver Himself up for us. But, accurately speaking, this is not the devotion to the Sacred Heart, as it pays no homage to the Heart of Jesus as the symbol of His love for us. From the earliest centuries, in accordance with the example of the Evangelist, Christ’s open side and the mystery of blood and water were meditated upon, and the Church was beheld issuing from the side of Jesus, as Eve came forth from the side of Adam. But there is nothing to indicate that, during the first ten centuries, any worship was rendered the wounded Heart.
(2) It is in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we find the first unmistakable indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Through the wound in the side of the wound Heart was gradually reached, and the wound in the Heart symbolized the wound of love. It was in the fervent atmosphere of the Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries, in the world of Anselmian or Bernardine thought, that the devotion arose, although it is impossible to say positively what were its first texts or were its first votaries. To Saint Gertrude, Saint Mechtilde, and the author of the “Vitis mystica” it was already well known. We cannot state with certainty to whom we are indebted for the “Vitis mystica”. Until recent times its authorship had generally been ascribed to Saint Bernard and yet, by the late publishers of the beautiful and scholarly Quaracchi edition, it has been attributed, and not without plausible reasons, to Saint Bonaventure (“S. Bonaventura opera omnia”, 1898, VIII, LIII sq.). But, be this as it may, it contains one of the most beautiful passages that ever inspired the devotion to the Sacred Heart, one appropriated by the Church for the lessons of the second nocturn of the feast. To Saint Mechtilde (d. 1298) and Saint Gertrude (d. 1302) it was a familiar devotion which was translated into many beautiful prayers and exercises. What deserves special mention is the vision of Saint Gertrude on the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, as it forms an epoch in the history of the devotion. Allowed to rest her head near the wound in the Saviour’s she heard the beating of the Divine Heart and asked John if, on the night of the Last Supper, he too had felt these delightful pulsations, why he had never spoken of the fact. John replied that this revelation had been reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would have need of it to rekindle its love (“Legatus divinae pietatis”, IV, 305; “Revelationes Gertrudianae”, ed. Poitiers and Paris, 1877).
(3) From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the devotion was propagated but it did not seem to have developed in itself. It was everywhere practised by privileged souls, and the lives of the saints and annals of different religious congregations, of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., furnish many examples of it. It was nevertheless a private, individual devotion of the mystical order. Nothing of a general movement had been inaugurated, unless one would so regard the propagation of the devotion to the Five Wounds, in which the Wound in the Heart figured most prominently, and for the furtherance of which the Franciscans seem to have laboured.
(4) It appears that in the sixteenth century, the devotion took an onward step and passed from the domain of mysticism into that of Christian asceticism. It was constituted an objective devotion with prayers already formulated and special exercises of which the value was extolled and the practice commended. This we learn from the writings of those two masters of the spiritual life, the pious Lanspergius (d. 1539) of the Carthusians of Cologne, and the devout Louis of Blois (Blosius; 1566), a Benedictine and Abbot of Liessies in Hainaut. To these may be added Blessed John of Avila (d. 1569) and Saint Francis de Sales, the latter belonging to the seventeenth century.
(5) From that time everything betokened an early bringing to light of the devotion. Ascetic writers spoke of it, especially those of the Society of Jesus, Alvarez de Paz, Luis de la Puente, Saint-Jure, and Nouet, and there still exist special treatises upon it such as Father Druzbicki’s (d. 1662) small work, “Meta Cordium, Cor Jesu”. Amongst the mystics and pious souls who practised the devotion were Saint Francis Borgia, Blessed Peter Canisius, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, and Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, of the Society of Jesus; also Venerable Marina de Escobar (d. 1633), in Spain; the Venerable Madeleine Saint Joseph and the Venerable Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament, Carmelites, in France; Jeanne de S. Mathieu Deleloe (d. 1660), a Benedictine, in Belgium; the worthy Armelle of Vannes (d. 1671); and even in Jansenistic or worldly centres, Marie de Valernod (d. 1654) and Angélique Arnauld; M. Boudon, the great archdeacon of Evreux, Father Huby, the apostle of retreats in Brittany, and, above all, the Venerable Marie de l’Incarnation, who died at Quebec in 1672. The Visitation seemed to be awaiting Saint Margaret Mary; its spirituality, certain intuitions of Saint Francis de Sales, the meditations of Mère l’Huillier (d. 1655), the visions of Mother Anne-Marguerite Clément (d. 1661), and of Sister Jeanne-Bénigne Gojos (d. 1692), all paved the way. The image of the Heart of Jesus was everywhere in evidence, which fact was largely due to the Franciscan devotion to the Five Wounds and to the habit formed by the Jesuits of placing the image on their title-page of their books and the walls of their churches.
(6) Nevertheless, the devotion remained an individual or at least a private devotion. It was reserved to Blessed Jean Eudes (1602-1680) to make it public, to honour it with an Office, and to establish a feast for it. Père Eudes was above all the apostle of the Heart of Mary; but in his devotion to the Immaculate Heart there was a share for the Heart of Jesus. Little by little the devotion to the Sacred Heart became a separate one, and on 31 August, 1670, the first feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated with great solemnity in the Grand Seminary of Rennes. Coutances followed suit on 20 October, a day with which the Eudist feast was thenceforth to be connected. The feast soon spread to other dioceses, and the devotion was likewise adopted in various religious communities. Here and there it came into contact with the devotion begun at Paray, and a fusion of the two naturally resulted.
(7) It was to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a humble Visitandine of the monastery at Paray-le-Monial, that Christ chose to reveal the desires of His Heart and to confide the task of imparting new life to the devotion. There is nothing to indicated that this pious religious had known the devotion prior to the revelations, or at least that she had paid any attention to it. These revelations were numerous, and the following apparitions are especially remarkable: that which occurred on the feast of Saint John, when Jesus permitted Margaret Mary, as He had formerly allowed Saint Gertrude, to rest her head upon His Heart, and then disclosed to her the wonders of His love, telling her that He desired to make them known to all mankind and to diffuse the treasures of His goodness, and that He had chosen her for this work (27 Dec., probably 1673); that, probably distinct from the preceding, in which He requested to be honoured under the figure of His Heart of flesh; that, when He appeared radiant with love and asked for a devotion of expiatory love — frequent Communion, Communion on the First Friday of the month, and the observance of the Holy Hour (probably June or July, 1674); that known as the “great apparition” which took place during the octave of Corpus Christi, 1675, probably on 16 June, when He said, “Behold the Heart that has so loved men . . . instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part (of mankind) only ingratitude . . .”, and asked her for a feast of reparation of the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi, bidding her consult Father de la Colombière, then superior of the small Jesuit house at Paray; and finally, those in which solemn homage was asked on the part of the king, and the mission of propagating the new devotion was especially confided to the religious of the Visitation and the priests of the Society of Jesus. A few days after the “great apparition”, of June, 1675, Margaret Mary made all known to Father de la Colombière, and the latter, recognizing the action of the spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart, directed the holy Visitandine to write an account of the apparition, and made use of every available opportunity discreetly to circulate this account through France and England. At his death, 15 February 1682, there was found in his journal of spiritual retreats a copy in his own handwriting of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary, together with a few reflections on the usefulness of the devotion. This journal, including the account and a beautiful “offering” to the Sacred Heart, in which the devotion was well explained, was published at Lyons in 1684. The little book was widely read, even at Paray, although not without being the cause of “dreadful confusion” to Margaret Mary, who, nevertheless, resolved to make the best of it and profited by the book for the spreading of her cherished devotion. Moulins, with Mother de Soudeilles, Dijon, with Mother de Saumaise and Sister Joly, Semur, with Mother Greyfié, and even Paray, which had at first resisted, joined the movement. Outside of the Visitandines, priests, religious, and laymen espoused the cause, particularly a Capuchin, Margaret Mary’s two brothers, and some Jesuits, among the latter being Fathers Croiset and Gallifet, who were destined to do so much for the devotion.
(8) The death of Margaret Mary, 17 October 1690, did not dampen the ardour of those interested; on the contrary, a short account of her life published by Father Croiset in 1691, as an appendix to his book “De la Dévotion au Sacré Cœur”, served only to increase it. In spite of all sorts of obstacles, and of the slowness of the Holy See, which in 1693 imparted indulgences to the Confraternities of the Sacred Heart and, in 1697, granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to all, with special Mass and Office, the devotion spread, particularly in religious communities. The Marseilles plague, 1720, furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the South followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion became a popular one. In 1726 it was deemed advisable once more to importune Rome for a feast with a Mass and Office of its own, but, in 1729, Rome again refused. However, in 1765, it finally yielded and that same year, at the request of the queen, the feast was received quasi officially by the episcopate of France. On all sides it was asked for and obtained, and finally, in 1856, at the urgent entreaties of the French bishops, Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church under the rite of double major. In 1889 it was raised by the Church to the double rite of first class. The acts of consecration and of reparation were everywhere introduced together with the devotion. Oftentimes, especially since about 1850, groups, congregations, and States have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart, and, in 1875, this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world. Still the pope did not wish to take the initiative or to intervene. Finally, on 11 June, 1899, by order of Leo XIII, and with the formula prescribed by him, all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart. The idea of this act, which Leo XIII called “the great act” of his pontificate, had been proposed to him by a religious of the Good Shepherd from Oporto (Portugal) who said that she had received it from Christ Himself. She was a member of the Drost-zu-Vischering family, and known in religion as Sister Mary of the Divine Heart. She died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, two days before the consecration, which had been deferred to the following Sunday. Whilst alluding to these great public manifestations we must not omit referring to the intimate life of the devotion in souls, to the practices connected with it, and to the works and associations of which it was the very life. Moreover, we must not overlook the social character which it has assumed particularly of late years. The Catholics of France, especially, cling firmly to it as one of their strongest hopes of ennoblement and salvation.
- Jean Bainvel. “Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 14 August 2013. Web. 3 May 2015. <>