Thoughts on Devotion to the Sacred Heart, by Bishop John Walsh

Sacred Heart of Jesus stained glass window, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003The profound wisdom and untiring zeal with which our Holy Mother, the Church, prosecutes her sublime mission of saving souls, and of extending the reign of Christ on the earth, is a subject which challenges the admiration and gratitude of mankind. Animated and illumined by the Holy Ghost, who is her life, she puts forth all her heaven-given resources to supply the spiritual wants of man, and to save from eternal ruin, the world redeemed in the precious blood of Christ. Like unto the good shepherd, she goes in search of the lost sheep, tenderly binds up the wounds it received in its wanderings, and with joy brings it hone to the shelter of the fold. She gives the food of revealed truth to the hungry intellect, and an all-satisfying object of love to the yearning heart. She has a balm for every affliction, relief for every misery, and consolation for the dark sorrows that afflict humanity. With the tender care and sleep less vigilance of a fond mother, she watches over our spiritual welfare, and labors to in sure our eternal happiness.

As each age has its own special wants, and its own moral epidemics, she draws forth from her inexhaustible treasure-house of grace, the helps that are needed, and the remedies required, for the healing of the sick nations. Hence the various devotions that have ever and anon sprung up in her bosom with all the beauty and variety of summer flowers, putting forth the blossoms and fruits of virtue and sanctity, and filling the air with a perfume of sweetest fragrance, “exhaling the good odor of Christ unto salvation.” O, it is good for us to be her children, it is good for us to be with Christ and his apostles on this holy Mount of Thabor, on which we see the entrancing vision of revealed truth and holiness, and the luminous cloud of Christian virtues that may not be seen amongst the sects below in the mist-covered valley! What child-like innocence; what stainless purity of life, has she not fostered by devotions to Christ’s blessed Mother; what countless virgins, pure as the lily, has she not induced to follow the heavenly bridegroom, by holding up to their enraptured gaze, the virgin without stain! How many hearts grown hard in sin has she not melted into deep compunction? what streams of penitential tears has she not caused to flow down the cheeks of sinners by her devotion of the way of the cross? And now that the charity of many has grown cold, that faith has lost its freshness and vigor, that a dead sea of indifferentism has spread abroad over the earth, the holy Church holds up be fore the eyes of all, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, burning with love for us, calls on the perishing world to return to its divine Saviour and live; and behold, many peoples that were in different give ear, and the tepid are aroused from their lethargy, and faith revives, and charity is inflamed, and the “ages of faith” are in many places brought back again.

Let us for a moment dwell on the consideration of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the holy Church so urgently recommends to her children at this particular time, and we shall find that the object and end of this devotion are such, as to appeal with a mighty power to the heart and conscience of every Christian; are such as to draw the soul as with the cords of Adam and the bands of love to the foot of the cross, and to its merciful and loving Saviour, who on that Blessed rood purchased it with a great price, and died a cruel death that it might have everlasting life.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus was always an object of devotion and adoration in the Church, for it is the Heart of the God-Man, and is deified by its hypostatic union with the Divinity. This devotion is the same in substance as that which is paid to the adorable person of Jesus Christ whose Sacred Heart was the seat and center of His ineffable love for us.

Christ was very God and very Man. His human and divine natures were perfectly distinct, and yet were hypostatically united in the adorable person of our blessed Redeemer, the second person of the most blessed Trinity. The divinity and humanity do not separately, but unitedly exist in the person of Christ, and neither the one nor the other exclusively exists in any part of His glorious person, the union of the two natures being a real indissoluble and eternal union. This is the teaching of the Church on this important subject, and it follows from it, that each part of our Lord s sacred body is equally worthy of adoration, from its personal union with the Divinity, but we are sometimes more powerfully moved by the contemplation of one part than by that of another. In the language of man kind, the heart is said to be the seat of the affections. The soul operates principally upon the heart, and hence we ascribe to the heart the various affections and emotions of the soul. Hence it is that God, accomodating Himself to our human notions, commands us to love Him “with our whole hearts.” The Heart of Jesus contains the fullness of the divine and human nature, in it “dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead corporally” (2nd Collossians). It loved us from the first moment of the Incarnation, and will love us for evermore. Since the time it was pierced by the lance of the Roman soldier, it was an object of the deep vehement love of His children, and together with the blood and water, there flowed with them the full tide of God s graces and mercies on the world. Saint Augustine says, the side of Jesus was opened for him by the lance, and that he entered in and abode in the Sacred Heart as in a place of secure refuge. Saint Bernard writes in sentiments of most tender devotion concerning the Heart of Jesus. Saint Thomas of Aquinas pictured that most loving heart as wounded for our sins, and pouring out through the opening its precious blood, to show the excess of His love, and to inflame with His love the tepid hearts of His disciples. Saint Bernardino of Sienna, speaks of this divine Heart as “a furnace of the most ardent love, capable of setting the whole world on fire.” “O love! cries out Saint Francis of Sales, “O sovereign love of the Heart of Jesus! What heart can. praise and bless Thee as Thou dost deserve! Let this adorable Heart live forever in our hearts.”

In adoring the Sacred Heart, we adore Jesus Himself, the figure of the Father’s substance, and the splendor of His glory; we adore Him whom the angels and saints adore in Heaven, of whom, when coming into the world, it was said, “let all the angels of God adore Him” (Hebrews 4:6) We adore and love our dearest Redeemer, our God and our All, our first beginning and last end, Him, who for us men and for our salvation, came down from Heaven and became man, who stooped into the abyss of our nothingness in assuming human nature, “emptied Himself,” says Saint Paul, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man; He humbled Himself, becoming obedient, even unto the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7,8) We adore that divine and loving Heart, every throb and beat of which were for our salvation and happiness, the Heart of Him who broke not the bruised reed, and the smoking flax did not extinguish, who was the friend of publicans and sinners. We adore that divine Heart, which still, in the sacrament of the altar, abides with us in this valley of tears to cheer our exile, to dry up the tears of our sorrow, to heal the wounded heart, to dart into our bosoms the flames of divine charity that glow and burn in It, and to cast on the cold, bleak earth, the fire of love which Christ came upon the earth to enkindle. Well may we cry out with the Church, “O Felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum, meruit habere Redemptorem.” O, happy sin which deserved to have such and so great a Redeemer, whose Sacred Heart abides with us forever. “O, mira circa nos tuce pletatis dignatio.” O, wonderful and ineffable con descension of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for us! What heart so cold as not to return It love for love, what bosom so dead to gratitude and to all the noble impulses of our nature as not to be forever loyal and true to It! If I forget thee, Sacred Heart, let my right hand be forgotten, let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not make thee the beginning of my joys and the burden of my praise. “As the heart panteth after the fountains of waters, so panteth my soul after Thee, God; my soul hath thirsted after the strong living God. I shall go over into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, even to the house of God” (Psalm 41), wherein the Heart of Jesus abides in the sacrament of His love. Such are the sentiments that must fill the soul, such the ardent desires and the vehement longings for Heaven and for God, that must inflame all who contemplate and adore the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

But we not only adore the Sacred Heart as being a principal part of the adorable body of our Lord, we also profoundly adore the infinite abysmal love of God for us, of which the Sacred Heart is a living symbol. The love the incarnate God bore us is an unfathomable abyss, which the plummet-line of human intelligence can never fathom. The prophet said of the sorrow of our crucified Lord, that it was as great as the sea. We may also truly say, that his love for us was as vast, as deep, as boundless, as the ocean. Saint Paul is ravished with trans ports of joy as he contemplates, with all the saints, “the breadth and length and height and depth of the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all understanding” (Ephesians 3:18). The Sacred Heart reminds us forcibly of the infinite love, which brought the Son of God down from Heaven to redeem us; which induced Him to become poor that He might make us rich with the riches of Heaven; which caused Him to spend thirty-three years here on earth, in poverty, humiliation, and sufferings, for our sakes of that ineffable and tender love that animated the Good Shepherd, that forgave the Magdalen, that burned in the bosom of the father of the prodigal of that compassionate love that moved Him to shed tears at the grave of Lazarus, over the doomed city of Jerusalem, and over thousands of un-repenting souls, of which Jerusalem is the type that dried the tears of the widow of Nairn, and restored the buried Lazarus to the embraces of his sisters of that all-embracing love that excluded no child of Adam from its circle, not even the cruel enemies that flogged and crucified the Redeemer, and put Him to death : Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do:” of that love that would gather His children around Him, even as the hen gathereth her chickens under her wings. The love of the Sacred Heart is a persevering love He was made man through love for us, and from the moment of His in carnation to His death, He never ceased to love us. He died to teach us his love, and sitting at the right of His Father in the glory of Heaven He loves us still, always living to make intercession for us, and on the countless altars of Catholicity He loves us with undying love in the most holy sacrament; it is a patient love which waits for our conversion, pleads with us to give Him our hearts, pursues us in our wanderings, and brings us back to the fold rejoicing an imperial, omnipotent love, that broke the scepter of death, that destroyed the empire of the grave, that plucked from death its sting, and from hell its bite, and flung open for His children the gates of Heaven, and prepared a place for us in the many man sions of His Father s house in fine, it is the love of the best of fathers, of the most affectionate of brothers, of the most devoted of friends: “I have called you my friends;” “Go tell my brothers that I will meet them in Galilee.” O, ineffable love, inflame our tepid hearts with the love of thee! O, Sacred Heart of Jesus, we implore, that we may ever love thee more and more.

The end aimed at by the Church in establishing the devotion to the Sacred Heart is, to promote God s glory, to destroy the reign of sin, and to inflame the hearts of men with the fire of divine charity. This devotion is also intended to make reparation to our Lord, for the cold neglect and ingratitude with which He is treated in the blessed sacrament. But its principal aim is, to cause His love to be loved. The mission of Jesus Christ upon the earth, was to enkindle therein the fire of divine love. I have come, said He, to cast fire on the earth, and what will I but that it be kindled (Luke 12:49)

When our blessed Lord came in the incarnation, He found the world steeped in corruption, and enveloped in the thick night of paganism; it was a huge, lifeless carcass, with the coldness and palor of spiritual death upon it. Everything therein was worshiped save the true God, and He was an outlaw in His own creation. Our divine Redeemer came, enkindled in far distant Galilee the fire of divine love, and behold, this fire flames out and spreads from east to west, until it embraced the world in its divine flames; until it purged and purified the earth, and made it a new creation; and in the words of Holy Writ, “renewed the face of the earth.” When the Sacred Heart began to beat and palpitate in the world, the idols fell shattered from their pedestals, the oracles became dumb, the multifarious errors of paganism disappeared like a wrack of storm clouds before the rising sun, and regenerate man rose from the grave of spiritual death, and his heart was changed and warmed into a new life: “was not our heart burning within us whilst He spake in the way (Luke 24:32). The partrician and plebeian, the noble lady and lowly handmaid, the soldier and civilian, men and women of every state and social grade, leave all for the love of Christ, because Christ first loved them, and died for their salvation. ” The charity of Christ constrains us (says Saint Paul), judging this, that if one died for all, then all were dead; and Christ died for all, that they also who live may not live to themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again (2nd Corinthians 5:14,15).”

But, alas! the fervor and the love of God that distinguished the early Christians have disappeared. The times are now dark and mena ing; false and wicked principles are in the ascendant; society is out of joint; the thrones that are still erect are tottering to their fall; the apostles of a degrading and un-christian philosophy are inoculating the world with the deadly poison of their false and pernicious teachings; men are turning their backs on the Christian Church and on the broken rays of truth that are yet reflected through the shattered mirror of Protestant Christianity, and are venturing out on the sea of life without chart or compass or guiding star, to be tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of false doctrines, and to be finally wrecked as to their eternal happiness.

Never, perhaps, since the first promulgation of the Gospel, was the spirit of the world more dominant amongst mankind than it is at present. Society is wounded to the core. Great moral plague spots disfigure and putrefy it and eat and rot their way to its very heart. The insatiable thirst for gold, the idolatry of wealth, the practical ignoring of an eternal world, the wordly wisdom that now, as in the days of Saint Paul, scoffs at the folly of the Cross and at the virtues which it symbolizes these are the characteristics of our times, and they certainly are of the earth earthly, and directly antagonistic to the spirit of Christ and the teachings of the Gospel. Schools have been taken from under the protection and guardian ship of religion, and have been stripped of their Christian character. The godless education imparted therein is fast de-christianizing modern society. It is true that this system of godless education aims at the cultivation of the intellect and the diffusion of knowledge, but it leaves the heart a moral wilderness, overgrown with rank poisonous weeds and noxious plants. Under the baneful influence of this unchristian education, children are growing up without piety, without respect for parents, without veneration for old age, with out obedience to civil or ecclesiastical authority. They are fast realizing the truth of the description given by Saint Paul of those who in his day banished God from education: “And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense to do those things which are not convenient, proud, haughty inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy.” (Romans 1:28). Another dreadful evil of the time is the doctrine and practice of divorce. This evil aims a death blow at the very life of civil and religious society. The family is the germ of all other societies, the base of the social fabric, the well-spring from which civil and religious societies take their rise, the corner-stone of Church and State. For what is the State but an organization of a certain number of families under the authority of a common chief, for the protection of life and liberty, and for the pursuit of happiness? And what is the Church but an organization of Christian families under the guidance and authority of a common father, for the protection and development of their spiritual life? Hence, what the root is to the tree, what the fountain is to the river that flows from it, what the foundation is to the edifice that springs up from it in shape and beauty, that the family is to the State and to the Church. From it the former receives its citizens, the latter its children. It follows, therefore, that whatever affects the conservation and well-being of the family, affects also the conservation and well-being of society at large. Whatever affects its honor, its purity, its sanctity, affects also the honor, purity and welfare of the human race, and touches the very apple of its eye. Now, as society rests on the family, even so the family rests upon marriage and derives from it the origin of its life, its continuance, and its character. It is, therefore, evident that the doctrine and practice of divorce, in as much as they dissolve the unity and indissolubility of marriage, divest it of its Christian character, and rob it of its honor, its purity, and sanctities, destroy the family life, poison the well-springs of society, and sap the very foundations of the civil as well as of the religious order. The records of the divorce Courts in Europe and America show the fearful, wide spread prevalence of this moral plague which is ravaging society.

Such, is an imperfect picture of the moral condition of the world of to-day. We may ask with the prophet, “Quis medebitur ejus?” What beneficent power can heal a world so deeply wounded, so desperately diseased? We answer: The Catholic Church and she alone, by virtue of the divine power that is in her, can heal the diseases of the moral world, and bind up its wounds. She is the light of the world, and the suit of the earth. Her doctrines are the teachings of the truths which Jesus Christ has revealed for the life of the world; her sacraments arc the channels through which, in life-giving streams, the graces and merits of Christ are poured abroad for the salvation and sanctification of mankind. She redeemed the world from the errors and corruption of Paganism, and she has still the same inherent divine power to effect moral reformations. She converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, and when that Empire fell to pieces beneath the blows of the northern barbarians, she went abroad amid the ruins, armed with a creative power; she breathed the breath of life into the chaotic mass that lay before her, and up sprang her own beautiful creation known in history as Christendom. There are no moral evils for which she has not a divine remedy; there are no afflictions for which she has not a healing balm; there are no profound sorrows of the human heart for which she has not Christlike consolations; there are no dark problems of life for which she has not the solution, no doubts and questionings of the human soul for which she has not the most satisfying answers. The wonders which, by the power of Christ, who is her indwelling and abiding life, she wrought in the past in the conversion and sanctification of mankind, she can still repeat, if she be allowed the freedom to fulfill her divine mission. But the Church of God is not free to do so in many countries which need most- sorely the skill and medicine of the Heavenly Physician.

She is thwarted and opposed in her divine mission. In many countries which she redeemed from barbarism and paganism, and which had once shown resplendent with the reflected light of her truths and the beauty of her holiness, she is now bound and imprisoned or driven into exile. She is stricken in her head and members. The Vicnr of Christ is dethroned and discrowned. He is practically a prisoner and at the mercy of His enemies. He exercises the functions of his august office only by the toleration of a hostile and usurping power; and the Father of the Faithful, to avenge whose wrongs a million swords, flashing the light of battle, would, in other days, have leaped from their scabbards, is robbed of his liberty and rights, and is made dependent on the contributions of the faithful for the support of his dignity and for the means of enabling him to exercise his divine ministry. Kings and governments co-operated with, or regarded with shameful indifference, the monstrous and sacrilegious crime by which the Vicar of Christ was reduced to this sad and deplorable condition; but in co-operating with, or in conniving at this crime, they have, Samson-like in their blind folly, torn down in whelming ruins the pillars that support the temple of their authority and power. In the dethronement of the Vicar of Christ the majesty of kings, the security of thrones, the authority of governments, the stability of states, and the safety of society have been in principle dethroned and overthrown, and that principle is now, alas, in fatal and active operation in the world, and kings and rulers may well turn pale at the decrees of destruction which it is writing with the hand of fate on their palatial walls. But not only is the Church stricken in her head; she is also stricken in her members. In several countries of Europe the religious orders the body-guards of the Church have been suppressed, and their members dispersed and driven into exile; their colleges and schools have been closed; their charitable institutions have had their doors sealed against the indigent and suffering; their blessed ministrations amongst the poor, the ignorant, and the afflicted have been compelled to cease, “and the ways of Sion mourns; her gates are broken down, her priests sigh, her virgins are in affliction, and she is oppressed with bitterness” (Lamenentation 1:4,6).

In the presence of these appalling evils the Church turns to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, even as the Apostles did when the storm raged on the Sea of Galilee, and the angry waves threatened to submerge the bark of Peter, and she says to It, “Lord, save us, we perish.” “Sacred Heart of Jesus, save society from the deluge of evils that threaten to destroy it, save a perishing world from the ruin toward which it is fast hastening, enkindle the fire of Thy divine love in the cold breasts of men. Spare, Lord, spare Thy people, and be not angry with us for ever; let not my enemies prevail against me, nor the son of ungodly have power to hurt me, and let not the gates of hell prevail against me!”

The Sacred Heart is a secure harbor to the Church from the angry storms of persecution that now so fiercely assail her. It is true the Church is indestructible and can neither decay nor perish, for she is indissolubly united with the Holy Ghost, who is her life, and this union is eternal. I will send you, said Our Lord, another paraclete, the spirit of truth, to abide with you forever (John 14:16). And again, He said to His Apostles, behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world (Matthew 28:5,20). “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her ” (Matthew 16:18).

The Church Catholic is that immortal kingdom seen by Nebuchadnezzar in his vision of the night, and of which Daniel prophesied: “But in the days of those kingdoms the God of Heaven will set up another kingdom that shall never be destroyed, and His kingdom shall not be delivered up to another people, and it shall break in pieces; and shall consume all these kingdoms, and, ITSELF SHALL STAND FOREVER” (Daniel 2:44).

Nations may disappear, dynasties may be overthrown, the proudest thrones may be shattered into fragments, but the Church of the living God shall live on forever, in all the freshness and vigor of youth. Princes may conspire against her mission and her very life, but their hopes shall be scattered like the chaff of the threshing floor, and their wicked machinations brought to naught; He that is in Heaven said: “Psalmist shall laugh at them, and the Lord shall deride them” (Romans 2:4). “No weapon,” said the prophet, “that is formed against her shall prosper, and every tongue that resisted her, in judgment she shall condemn” (Isaiah 44:18). This is our faith and consolation in the midst of an unbelieving and hostile world. But in the presence of the widespread indifferentism and impiety that now prevail; in the presence of the faint-heartedness, tepidity and worldliness, that exist among the children of the Church; in presence of the bitter persecution that now rages against the spouse of Christ and His Vicar, what are we to do? We must turn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for it is the very shrine of sanctification and healing. If a virtue went forth from the hem of His garment which cured a painful and chronic disease, if the handkerchiefs and aprons which had touched the body of Saint Paul, caused “the diseases” to depart from the sick, as we read was the case in the Acts of the Apostles, if, “the shadow” of Peter passing by delivered men from their infirmities, surely the virtue and healing influences that flow from the Heart of Jesus are sufficient to cure this age, that is sick and sore, and diseased to the very heart. Our help and our hope then lie in that wounded Heart, whence salvation first streamed down with its own precious blood on mankind. It is our sheet-anchor of hope in these unhappy times. When Saint Gertrude was favored with a vision of Saint John the Evangelist, and asked him why he had not revealed all the beatings of the Heart of our Lord, since he had felt them all himself when leaning on His bosom, he replied, “that the full persuasive sweetness of the beatings of that Heart was reserved to be revealed at a later time, when the world should have grown old and sunk in tepidity, that it might lie thus re-kindled and re-awakened to the love of God!”

Oh, we must then turn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and implore it to cast its divine fire of love on the frozen earth once more, so that the winter of our desolation may pass away, and the springtime of holy hope and fervor may come back again; we must implore It to breathe the breath of life into the numberless souls that, Lazarus-like, lie dead in the grave of sin, that they may arise to a life of grace and virtue; we must beseech It to banish from the children of the Church all spiritual sloth and unconcern in God s holy service, and in the all-important work of their salvation, to inflame their hearts with divine love, to enliven their faith, to strengthen their hope, and to enlarge their charity; and finally, we must beseech the Sacred Heart to restore peace and liberty to the persecuted Church and the Supreme Pontiff. “When Saint Peter was in prison, a prayer was made without ceasing by the Church unto God for him (Acts 12:5), and an angel of the Lord struck the chains from his hands and feet, flung open the prison gates, and set him free; and so, if we pray ardently, confidently, and perseveringly to the Sacred Heart for the Church and our Holy Father, their grievous trials in God s own time will cease. A Christian philosopher has remarked, that a nation that prays is always heard, and so, when the Church, the great nation of regenerated humanity, implores God to hasten the triumph of the bride of Christ, and to scatter her enemies, we may rest assured that that prayer will not remain unheard. For this two-fold end, viz., first: Of enkindling in our hearts the fire of divine charity, so that we may walk in justice and holiness before God all the days of our life; and, second: Of beseeching God to hasten the triumph of the Church over her enemies; we should consecrate ourselves, our thoughts, our words, our actions, in a word, our whole lives to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and should place our selves under the aegis of Its blessed protection; and we should also earnestly and perseveringly endeavor to propagate this most salutary devotion, and in this way help to spread abroad the good odor of Christ unto salvation.

The apostleship of the Sacred Heart can be exercised by laymen as well as by priests, by men and women, by old and young, by people in the world as by the religious in the shelter of the cloister; it is a blessed, a fruitful and most meritorious apostleship it cannot fail to do good, it cannot fail to convert sinners, to console the afflicted, to heal the broken in heart, and to bind up their wounds, to warm hearts with the fire of divine love, and to sanctify immortal souls; it cannot, in fine, fail to effect a moral and beautiful transfiguration in the Church and Society, to the glory of God and the salvation of man, whilst it will bring the rewards of eternal life to all who are engaged in it “They,” says the prophet, “who teach others unto justice, shall shine as stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12:3).

– text taken from Some Thoughts on Devotion to the Sacred Heart and Reflections on the Life and Work of Our Blessed Lord, by Bishop John Walsh, Diocese of London, Ontario, Canada, 1884