Externals of the Catholic Church – The Devotion to the Sacred Heart

It is not within the scope of this book to discuss the spiritual side of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of our Blessed Lord. There are scores of volumes that treat of the benefits of this special worship which we pay to our Divine Redeemer, and of the various ways in which it can be profitable to the souls of the faithful. The aim of this work is merely to give the history of Catholic practices and to explain their nature, their reasonableness and their use.

Each of the twelve months of the year has its special devotion. Some of these have been merely advocated by spiritual writers, with the intention of providing, throughout the year, a series of religious exercises for the devout. Others are authorized and approved by the Church, and those who practise them receive certain indulgences.

The month of June, as all Catholics know, is the month of the Sacred Heart. During it the Church urges the faithful to special zeal in the worship of the Heart of our Saviour, considered as a part of His sacred Humanity and as the emblem of His infinite love.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart is one which has become widely known only since the seventeenth century; and it was not sanctioned by the Church for general use until the latter part of the eighteenth. Though it is now recognized as an important element in Catholic worship, it met with strenuous opposition when it was first introduced – not only from the Jansenists (who had fallen into error regarding many doctrines of the Church) but from earnest Catholics who object to the new doctrine because they misunderstood it.

The Blessed Margaret Mary

Homage paid to the Heart of Jesus is mentioned by spiritual writers as early as the twelfth century; but it was practised to a very limited extent until a little more than two hundred years ago. A humble and holy French nun, the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, within the space of a religious life of only nineteen years, instituted a devotion which bids fair to last forever. She became the apostle of the beautiful and now universal worship of the loving Heart of our Blessed Saviour.

She was born in the village of Lhautecour, in France, in the year 1647, and lived until 1690. After a childhood remarkable for sanctity, she entered the community of the Visitation nuns at Paray-le-Monial in 1671. Here she lived a life of mortification and prayer, and in return for her fidelity and fervor our Divine Lord is said to have vouchsafed her a privilege which He has frequently given to other holy souls. He appeared to her on several occasions; and in one of these visions He showed her His Heart, pierced with a wound, encircled with a crown of thorns, surrounded by flames and surmounted by a cross – as we see it usually represented in pictures and statues at the present day. He commanded her to practise and to teach others the devotion to His Sacred Heart, because of His ardent desire to be loved by men and His wish to give to all mankind the treasures of His love and mercy.

The pious nun sought the counsel of her superiors, and the account of her visions was received at first with incredulity. All her actions and her teachings were subjected to a most severe examination, and it was long before any approval was given to the devotion which she was endeavoring to establish. But the will of God cannot be opposed. The devotion spread rapidly through France, and was gradually established in other parts of the world. It did not at first receive the approbation of the Holy See, for our Church is cautious in giving her sanctions to anything that savors of novelty in religion, and makes a long and careful scrutiny before she recommends a new devotion to her children. In 1794, however, Pius VI issued a decree approving the devotion to the Sacred Heart and granting indulgences to those who practise it.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart

Attempts had been made, in 1697 and in 1729, to have a day set apart in honor of the Sacred Heart, but on both occasions the proposal was rejected by the Roman Congregation of Rites. In 1765, however, a number of churches were permitted to celebrate this feast, and in 1856 this permission was extended to the whole world, and the feast was fixed on the day after the festival of Corpus Christi, in the month of June. In 1889, under Leo XIII, the day was raised to a higher rank in the Church’s calendar, and all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On account of the importance of this great June festival, the whole month of June is considered as being specially devoted to the worship of the Sacred Heart.

Margaret Mary Alacoque was pronounced Venerable by Leo XII in 1824, and was honored with the title of Blessed by Pius IX in 1864. Through her intercession many miracles have been performed, especially at the place of her burial, and it is very probable that in this humble French nun we have one of God’s chosen servants, whose name will some day be placed on the list of the Church’s Saints, and whose virtues will be venerated by Catholics throughout the world.

Why We Adore the Sacred Heart

Let us examine into the reasonableness of this devotion. Are we obliged to believe the account of the visions of Margaret Mary? No. We are not obliged to believe anything supernatural except the truths that God has revealed to be accepted by all. This is a point that is nearly always misunderstood by non-Catholics. Because we Catholics practise a devotion which was established by a woman who claimed to have had a vision, they regard us as votaries of superstition and our Church as a promoter of fanciful ideas, not reflecting that, even though the vision might be false, the devotion might be true. The Catholic Church does not assert that the French nun really saw our Blessed Lord; neither does she oblige us to believe it. She merely declares that the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not only not opposed in any way to divine revelation, but that it is an excellent form of worship; and she recommends it to her children, urges them to make use of it, and grants spiritual favors to those who do so.

We shall state briefly the Catholic doctrine regarding the worship of the Sacred Heart. It is not a mere relative homage, such as we give to holy things or to holy persons. It is not the higher form of religious veneration, such as we pay to the Blessed Mother of God. It is supreme adoration, because it is paid to the physical Heart of Christ, considered not as mere flesh, but as united to the Divinity. We Catholics adore that Heart as the Heart of Christ, an inseparable part of Him. All the members of Christ are or may be the object of divine worship, because they are a part of His human nature and are thereby united to the Divine Nature of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

But why is the Heart of Jesus selected as the object of this special adoration? Because His real and physical Heart is a natural symbol of the infinite charity of the Saviour and of His interior and spiritual life. The heart is a vital organ which, as it throbs within us, is part of our existence. It has always been looked upon as an emblem, sometimes of courage, sometimes of one’s whole interior nature, but oftener of love. How often we hear such expressions as “Be of good heart,” meaning “Have courage”; “He opened his heart to me,” meaning “He told me all his secrets”; and our Lord Jesus, in asking our love, made the request in these words, “Son, give me thy heart.” We see, then the reasonableness of taking the Sacred Heart of our Saviour as an object of our worship, not only because it is a part of Him, but because it symbolizes His love for all mankind.

From early times the Five Wounds of our Lord were venerated as the symbol of His Passion, and this devotion received the approbation of the Church. In like manner, in these later days, she has seen fit to sanction and recommend the worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to urge her children to offer their homage to that symbol of our Saviour’s love, wherewith “He has loved us even to the end.”

A Symbol of Love

We must remember, then, that while this devotion is directed to the material Heart of our Blessed Lord, it does not stop there. It includes also a spiritual element – namely, the infinite love of Jesus for us, which is recalled and symbolized by His Sacred Heart.

There is no devotion that has been extended throughout the Catholic world in so short a time. This means of realizing and honoring the all-embracing love of our Blessed Saviour would seem to have filled a long-felt want in the hearts of the devout faithful. Religious communities of men and women have been established under the title of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and many societies have been formed among the laity with the special object of offering united worship to that adorable Heart. Among these the League of the Sacred Heart is the best known and the most flourishing in our country as well as throughout the Christian world.

The First Fridays

One of the greatest factors not only in making the worship of the Sacred Heart known but in distributing its spiritual benefits is the “Devotion of the First Fridays.” The faithful are exhorted to receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of each month for nine months in succession, by which they may gain a plenary indulgence; and in many churches and chapels the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament takes place, either during the whole day or in the evening, and special services are held in honor of our Eucharistic Lord and especially of His Sacred Heart, the symbol of His unutterable love for us whom He died to save.