At the heart of Catholic worship is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When we worship God, we take aim at a personal target precisely by inviting the divine archer to take aim at ours and, as Saint Francis de Sales writes, “heart speaks unto heart.” The incarnate heart of God alone is worthy to receive the rhythms of adoration surging from a desperate and impassioned human heart. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has evolved over the centuries, but its origin is rooted in the Johannine pairing:
“Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).
“One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).
Woven together, these two biblical texts proclaim the apex of divine revelation as the heart of God that beats and bleeds for the salvation of humanity. To express his undying love for us, the eternal Son of the Father became man to die with us so that we might rise with him. Though it was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that there is mention of the Sacred Heart of Jesus per se, the devotion to the Sacred Heart began with contemplation of the wounded side of the Savior. As one anonymous medieval sermon so eloquently puts it, “The secret of the heart is discovered through the openings in the body; revealed in this great sacrament of goodness, the bowels of the mercy of our God.” Christians across the centuries have been enraptured by the pierced side of the victorious victim whose heart throbs with merciful love for his beloved.
Over time, development of the devotion to the Sacred Heart expanded through the writings and lives of Saints Bonaventure, Mechtilde, Gertrude, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, Aloysius Gonzaga, and John Eudes — to name but a few. However, it was the mystical experiences of French Visitation nun, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), that put the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the map of the universal Church. In 1856, Pope Pius IX extended the Feast of the Sacred Heart across the Latin Rite worldwide, and in 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole human race to the Sacred Heart. As a “beloved disciple and evangelist of the Sacred Heart,” Saint Margaret Mary speaks of “the value and benefits of this precious treasure from which the more we take, the more there remains to be taken.”
Saint Margaret Mary was visited by Jesus in four distinct apparitions when she was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. The first apparition happened on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist in 1673, in which she was allowed “to rest for several hours on that sacred breast.” She understood herself to be resting on the Sacred Heart alongside the beloved disciple. Jesus spoke to Saint Margaret Mary: “My divine heart is so inflamed with love for men, and for you in particular, that not being able any longer to restrain within itself the flames of its ardent charity, it must spread them everywhere, through your means, and manifest itself to men that they may be enriched with its precious treasures … to rescue them from the abyss of perdition.” In this first apparition, Jesus took the heart of Saint Margaret Mary, placed it in his own, withdrew it “as a flame of fire in the form of a heart,” and restored it to its place, calling her “the beloved disciple of my Sacred Heart.”
Altogether, the spirit of the devotion to the Sacred Heart is pure love. The physical heart of Jesus, at once literal and figurative, acts as a living symbol of divine love insofar as the heart is understood to be the organ of love. We worship the person, not the part, of Jesus — yet, through a sacred synecdoche in which the whole is manifest in the part, the heart signifies the whole Christ. It is appropriate that, of all the parts of his sacred humanity, the heart serves as an object of devotion and worship because the heart offers the key to unlocking a luminous constellation of theological meaning. The incarnate heart of the word-made-flesh is an emblem of trinitarian love and of the hidden interior life of the God-man. It was not the aim of the soldier’s lance, but the love of the Savior that directed its thrust to perforate the pulse of creation and its uncreated maker. What Jesus reveals to us through the beating and piercing of his Sacred Heart is that the essence of divinity is love.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus both burns for the love of men and is wounded by these same men. This paradox is meant to provoke in us both unity with the immense love of Christ and, at the same time, sorrow that leads us to participate in active reparation for all that Christ suffers because of our own calloused hearts. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, therefore, is twofold: reparation and consolation. Like Saint Paul, the devotee to the Sacred Heart “makes up in his body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24). The desire of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is to become once again a mediator between God and humanity.
Through the private revelations of the apparitions and promises to Saint Margaret Mary, Jesus made known the “designs of the Sacred Heart for the salvation of souls” that altogether comprise the devotion to the Sacred Heart:
- Receiving communion on the first Friday of every month in a spirit of love and reparation for the love of Christ that goes unrecognized and forgotten by so many souls.
- On every Thursday night, between 11 p.m. and midnight, Saint Margaret Mary was to prostrate herself with her face to the ground in solidarity with Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading mercy for sinners.
- A public devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that would spread to the global Church — a feast on the first Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi.
Several other aspects of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus have followed:
- Enthronement and veneration of the image of the Sacred Heart
- Act of consecration to the Sacred Heart involving a complete gift of self to the Sacred Heart
- Act of reparation (see Manual of Indulgences)
- Frequent reception of the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament
- Offering a Holy Hour in union with Jesus suffering
- Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as we cannot separate Mary from Jesus
- Prayer and suffering for souls in purgatory
- Other various spiritual practices, including Litanies, the Little Office, and Associations dedicated to the devotion to the Sacred Heart
It has been said that “everyone is worshiping something.” For faithful Catholics, what we worship has a face, a name, and a heart. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus allows “heart to speak unto heart” and, as Pope Francis writes in Evangelii gaudium, “We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!” May the Sacred Heart of Jesus continue to guide us in the art of loving the other through face, name and heart.
Twelve promises Jesus made to Saint Margaret Mary in favor of those who practice and propagate the Devotion:
- I will give them the graces necessary for their state in life.
- I will give peace in their families.
- I will comfort them in all their trials and afflictions.
- I will be their secure refuge in life and death.
- I will bestow abundant blessings on all their undertakings.
- Sinners shall find in my Heart an ocean of mercy.
- Tepid souls shall become fervent.
- Fervent souls shall advance rapidly toward perfection.
- I will bless every dwelling in which an image of my Heart shall be exposed and honored.
- I will give priests a peculiar facility in converting the most hardened souls.
- The persons who spread this Devotion shall have their names written in my Heart, never to be effaced.
- The Great Promise: “I promise thee, in the excessive mercy of my Heart, that its all-powerful love will grant to all those who go to Communion on nine first Fridays of the month the final grace of repentance; they shall not die in its disfavor nor without receiving the Sacraments, my divine Heart becoming their assured refuge at that last moment.”
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been a practice of many of the Church’s greatest holy men and women. If you’re looking for more spiritual guidance in devotion to the Sacred Heart, consider reading one of these books.
- “The Autobiography of Saint Margaret Mary”
- “The Letters of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: Apostle of the Sacred Heart”
- “The Life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque” by Emile Bougaud
- “The Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: How to Practice the Sacred Heart Devotion” by Father John Croiset, S.J.
- “Holy Father, Sacred Heart: The Wisdom of John Paul II on the Greatest Catholic Devotion” by Pope John Paul II, edited by Carl J. Moell S.J.