Today is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. That this is not common knowledge ought to be surprising, given the once ubiquitous visual and devotional culture of the Sacred Heart prior to Vatican II. Various factors contributed to the devotion’s decline: ecclesial-political (symbolizing pre-conciliar Catholic devotional trends), theological (one-sidedly emphasizing reparation for sins[i]), aesthetic (sentimental and tacky devotional images[ii]).
Yet I would argue that a Church without a prominent devotion to the Sacred Heart is poorer for its loss.[iii] After all, as Pius XII pointed out in his 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas, the Sacred Heart is not merely one devotional object among others (nos. 10, 109), but a primary symbol by which we approach “the divine love for us” manifest in God incarnate (no. 23). The devotional means by which this attention to and response to the love of God may change (no. 112), but the Heart of Jesus is the Real Symbol of God’s love.[iv]
Sketches of the History of Devotion to the Sacred Heart
How has devotion to the Heart of Jesus functioned in various historical contexts? A quick survey might indicate the ways in which devotion to the Sacred Heart has manifested God’s love in response to various historical situations.
- Beginning from a typological reading of John 7:37-39 and 19:34, many patristic writers identify the origin of the Church in the water (Baptism) and blood (Eucharist) flowing from Christ’s side (and thus heart), pierced by a lance. What flows from Christ’s heart becomes the way by which we enter Christ’s Mystical Body and God’s own life, a theme appropriate to the establishment of the Church.[v]
- In the medieval age, Christ’s heart becomes the site of contemplative wisdom. Combining patristic insights with a monastic location and a focus on mystical union, the Heart of Jesus opens the inner mysteries of God’s life to participatory union. The “exchange of hearts” between mystic and Christ emerges in Catherine of Siena’s experience. Female contemplatives especially receive a privileged location for learning and teaching in union with Christ’s heart.[vi]
- In the early modern French School of Spirituality, Christ’s heart becomes that by which all Christians are given form by being con-formed to Christ. Emphasizing the nothingness of human beings (a common trope with Calvinism), these writers—especially John Eudes—pointed to conformity to Christ’s heart as the way by which human sinfulness is overcome. With Margaret Mary Alacoque’s famous visions, the element of reparation to the Heart of Jesus for human sins gains dominance in contrast with Jansenist disdain for the body.[vii]
- In the mid-19thand early 20th century, devotion to the Heart of Jesus responded to the Church’s loss of temporal power and opposition to secularism and materialism. Beginning with Pius IX’s extension of the Feast of the Sacred Heart to the Universal Church in 1856, this devotional rise reached a peak in Leo XIII’s consecration of the entire world to the Sacred Heart, seeing it as a response to the division of spiritual and temporal power (Annum Sacrum, no. 10). Pius XII’s Haurietis Aquas understood the emphasis given to the love of God in the Sacred Heart as a powerful counterpoint to materialistic Communism and increasing secularism (Haurietis Aquas, nos. 119-120).
As even these little sketches show, the devotion to Christ’s Heart is not simply static: it evolves and changes in response to the needs of the Church in the world.
The Sacred Heart Today
What then might the devotion to the Sacred Heart offer to a contemporary Church? I would gesture to three benefits. First, the Biblical concept of the heart points to the very center of the person, the place from which the person lives. Returning to devotion to the Sacred Heart can move us to “exchange hearts with Christ” so as to feel and act with the Heart of Jesus. Moreover, this might transform our understanding of Eucharistic participation: in the Eucharist, we receive Christ’s own heart so that our hearts may be transformed into His. Finally, in contrast to the prevailing apathy and listlessness of American digital culture, renewing devotion to the Heart of Jesus enables us to become “wholehearted,” fired with the love of God in such a way that we can give ourselves completely to establishing the Kingdom of God.
In response to the contemporary context, what might a renewed devotion to the Sacred Heart emphasize? I would point to three possible sites for re-envisioning devotion to the Sacred Heart.
- Heart of Christ, Heart of the Poor: Pope Francis’s ideal of “a Church of the poor and for the poor” reminds us that the heart of Christ cannot be seen in isolation from Christ’s passionate love for the poor. Christ’s Sacred Heart seeks justice for the poor and—according to Matthew 25—makes its home among the poor (for “what you did to the least of these, you did to me”). To devote ourselves to the Sacred Heart is to live in and for the poor.
- Heart of Christ, Heart of Creation:Especially looking towards the release of Francis’s encyclical on ecology, the Heart of Jesus cannot be separated from its relationship to the created world. Not only is the Heart of Jesus the creaturely Real Symbol of God’s love: it is itself the beating heart sustaining all of the created world. The insights of Teilhard de Chardin[viii] are ripe for re-envisioning this aspect.
- Heart of Christ, Heart of Mercy: Finally, as we approach the Holy Year of Mercy, recalling the Heart of Christ as a heart filled with mercy provides a clear image of what mercy can mean in our lives. Whereas earlier devotion focused on the Sacred Heart as an image of God’s mercy for us in Christ’s crucifixion, today the Sacred Heart can be a template for our own acts of mercy. We must be moved to our bowels, to the very depths of our persons, by mercy, which we can do by being moved by that which moves the Heart of Christ.
A simple return to previous forms of devotion to the Sacred Heart is not going to do justice to this devotion. Rather, a contemplative attention to the mystery of Christ and our world’s needs call us to return to the Sacred Heart in a new way. For God’s love burns for us, burns so powerfully and so brightly—in the faces of the poor, in the “freshness deep down things” of creation, in our exchanges of mercy—that we can look nowhere else but to Christ’s Heart for our own identity and our own future. It is our task—in union with the Spirit, the living waters flowing from Christ’s Heart—to see what life in and with this Heart means today.
[i] This was something already which Pius XII sought to move away from in his 1956 encyclical, Haurietis Aquas, and by the time Benedict XVI writes his 50 year commemorative letter, reparation has dropped almost completely out of the description.
[ii] Though here, one must not be blinded to the enormous importance such images may have in their cultural or temporal contexts: cf. Alex García-Rivera’s study of popular images of St. Martin de Porres in chapter 5 of A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), pp. 74-97.
[iii] For another discussion of the Sacred Heart in terms of communities and solidarity, cf. the Daily Theology blog post of Fr. Aaron Pidel, SJ, and ensuing discussion with Kevin Ahern: “Communion(s) of Saints.”
[iv] Karl Rahner’s idea of the Realsymbol developed in an essay treating the Sacred Heart: “The Theology of the Symbol” in Theological Investigations IV: More Recent Writings, trans. Kevin Smyth (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 221-252. For an accessible summary, see Kimberly Hope Belcher’s blog post, “Real symbol and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” For a use of this concept by Pope Francis, see his 2013 Angelus address on the Sacred Heart.
[v] Cf. “Sacred Heart, Devotion to.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 490-492. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 June 2015. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3407709800&v=2.1&u=nd_ref&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=ed025bb156a7355a7630310919c03f74.
[vi] For more on this, cf. Wendy M. Wright, “Hearts Human and Divine: Women’s Sacred Place.” Studia Mystica X (1999): 43-55.
[vii] For more, see Wendy M. Wright, “Transformed Seeing: Visual Devotional Imagery and the Shape of the Imagination (The Case of the Sacred Heart).” Studia Mystica XXII (2001): 97-109.