Sacred Heart: An Ancient Devotion Made New
My first memories of the Sacred Heart Devotion were having a special set of prayers after Mass on First Fridays at my home parish. I was accompanying my mom to Mass and the crowd was mostly older folks. When I was at Catholic school for freshman and sophomore year of High School, we would have First Fridays off from school. “Go Jesus!” At some point, I heard about the 12 promises made by the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. And that was pretty much it.
Indeed, I feel that for the most part, people think about the Sacred Heart Devotion as a “Get out of jail free” card, like in the boardgame Monopoly. That has always bothered me, because it seems kind of cheap and mechanical. You go to Mass for nine First Fridays and you are guaranteed a spot in Heaven. What about sin? It almost seems like the “once saved, always saved” of the Protestants.
Growing up, I had a lot of contact with Protestants. I knew some really model evangelical Christians. They tended to be the best people around. At the house where I grew up, our neighbors to the back were very strong evangelical Christians. I was always impressed by their faith. Although we did get into a few shenanigans together, for the most part we had the same set of values.
Later, when I went to public High School, I found that the evangelical Christians were the best people on campus. The Catholics were more likely to share in the more pagan things going around: sex, drugs, and alcohol. I spent a lot of time talking to some of them. One Baptist kid who was planning on becoming a preacher made it his mission to convert me. We would actually have a crowd watching our debates. One thing that stuck out in the tracts that he would give me was this idea of “once saved, always saved.” Or, often an evangelical Christian will ask you, “are you saved?” How do you respond to something like that as a Christian? To paraphrase St. Joan of Arc, I think the best answer is “I hope I am.”
But how could “once saved, always saved” fit in with the doctrine of sin? Do our actions have no consequences? The idea is derived from Calvinistic thought. John Calvin taught the doctrine of predestination. Now, one interesting thing in the history of theology is that heresies tend to be oversimplifications of authentic teaching. Thus, Arianism is an application of Plotino’s understanding of the Demiurge to the Son of God, leaving him as less than God the Father. Apollinaris confuses the soul of Christ, giving him a divine soul and a human body, which would deny him a full human nature. Calvin confuses God’s Will that we all be saved while respecting our free will, with a divine predetermination of who will be saved and who will be condemned. Modern evangelical thought simplifies it further, thinking that once who have your “saving moment,” all else cannot really matter.
So when I get versions of devotion to the Sacred Heart that feel “Calvinistic” or mechanical, I get a little uneasy. What is the devotion really about? I think it is important to understand the rigorist manifestations of Catholicism that were present in France at the time of the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1673.
Jansenism and Quietism
Cornelius Jansen was a Dutch theologian who emphasized the importance of divine grace and held a pessimistic view of human nature due to the effects of original sin. This is a bit of a re-hashing of the Pelagian heresy that St. Augustine had battled centuries before. Since, for Jansen, it seemed almost impossible for a typical Catholic to live out his faith, they insisted on strict moral discipline and Communion was only received directly after confession. This led to a reality where most people did not receive Communion frequently. This was even the case in many monasteries, where the religious brothers or sisters did not consider themselves worthy to receive the Eucharist. This is a far cry from our modern situation where people will insist on their right to receive Communion, even if they are conscious of being in a state of mortal sin.
Jansen’s thought was lived out most rigorously in the Port-Royal Abbey outside Paris. The emphasis was on intense prayer, fasting, and penance. Although some notable tracts on theology and philosophy were produced, the Abbey was eventually disbanded by the Church authorities, trying to limit the reach of the heresies being taught.
Another current that ultimately reflects a similar worldview is Quietism. Following the writings of Miguel de Molinos, Madam Guyon and Francois Fenelon saw very little merit in man’s action. He can only surrender himself passively to God’s will. They believed in a total annihilation of the personal will to submit oneself to God’s grace.
Both the Jansenistic and the Quietist approach are problematic. As humans, we are supposed to respond vigorously to the call to holiness that God places in our hearts. “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition.” (Lumen Gentium, 40) To be Christian is to try to respond to the universal call to holiness. This is explored during the entire Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium.
So what was it really about when Jesus gave his twelve promises of the Sacred Heart to a Visitation sister in Paray-le-Monial? Is it about fulfilling a series of requisites to guarantee a spot in Heaven? Or is it much more about establishing a personal relationship with so many Catholics that had allowed their love to grow cold, pushed in that direction by the erroneous ideas flying around at the time? Why did he appear to her 12 times between 1673 and 1675?
He was revealing something about his heart. God does not want us to obey him slavishly. He wants us to respond to his love with love. This is what we do through our devotion to the Sacred Heart. It puts a more approachable image of God before our eyes that allows us to open up our hearts to him.
What’s love got to do with it?
The most important aspect of this devotion is love. We are called to an actual personal relationship with Christ. This is what the Sacred Heart devotion is all about. Pope Pius XII spoke about this in his 1956 Encyclical Haurietis Aquas. “It is altogether impossible to enumerate the heavenly gifts which devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has poured out on the souls of the faithful, purifying them, offering them heavenly strength, rousing them to the attainment of all virtues.” (Pope Piux XII, Haurietis Aquas, 2) What is the way to respond to such amazing and heavenly gifts? “The Church, rejoicing in this inestimable gift, can show forth a more ardent love of her divine Founder” (Pope Piux XII, Haurietis Aquas, 2)
Some people try to reduce their faith to a series of penances and harsh spiritual practices. Pope Pius XII points out how devotion to the Sacred Heart should actually be the antidote to such a confused take on Christianity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is correct because “we recognize that His Heart, the noblest part of human nature, is hypostatically united to the Person of the divine Word.” (Pope Piux XII, Haurietis Aquas, 21) Furthermore, the Sacred Heart “is the natural sign and symbol of His boundless love for the human race.” (Pope Piux XII, Haurietis Aquas, 22)
Now granted, much of the language can seem outdated to us now. Thankfully, there is a language that is renewed – the way the Sacred Heart devotion is lived out within the Regnum Christi spirituality.
As Legionaries of Christ, we are dedicated to the Sacred Heart. This devotion is integrated into our Constitutions.
Within the Regnum Christi spiritual family, it is present especially in the contemplative aspect of Regnum Christi being “contemplative and conquering,” or “contemplative and conquering,” as expressed in the Statutes.
Outline of a Modern Devotion to the Sacred Heart
I would like to focus on five ways that we can live out devotion to the Sacred Heart, without it feeling old or stuffy. The authentic living of this devotion comes through much time in contact with Christ himself. We look at him, and he looks at us. We allow his gaze to penetrate and transform us. We learn from him what it means to love without counting the cost. We learn the value of silence, aware of how this is a common characteristic among the saints. We learn to ask Jesus to place his heart in our hearts, so that we can love as he loves. Finally, we learn to have a new perspective on life, judging not with purely political or selfish worldviews, but rather with criteria formed by meditating on the Gospel and trying to live it out in our daily encounters with others.
Focus on Christ’s gaze towards us and towards the world
Why did Christ give us the great gift of the Eucharist? He wants us to be one. He wants unity. He wants communion with us and for us to experience communion among ourselves. His priestly prayer to the Father for the disciples is “so that they may be one just as we are.” (Jn. 17:11) How does Christ see the world? It is good for us to spend time in prayer speaking with Christ about how he sees the world and how he sees us. This can give much material for our time spent in Eucharistic adoration. So often, we can feel dry and uninterested during our time of prayer. But if we begin to turn our gaze at our own life and the events of the world, standing or kneeling beside Christ, we begin to have a brand-new perspective.
When we allow the gaze of Christ to penetrate our own hearts and lives, it changes the perspective we have on our own. We are able to overcome our own insecurities and place ourselves firmly within the hands of God. We learn to trust and we gain a self-confidence that we had never known until now.
This also helps us to accept ourself and others. We all have gifts that we have received from God, but probably also some personality defects that may grate on others. Being able to recognize and accept that may help us be better able to carry the burdens of those around us as well.
As we begin to see how Jesus sees the world, we pick up on clues about what it means to love truly, without counting the cost. If Jesus had been calculating in his love, we would all be lost. We could never merit his great love. Little by little, we grow in our awareness of the great magnitude of his love. He wants to reach our hearts through his wonderful acts of love.
As we see his love towards us, we begin to love others in similar fashion. We worry less about how we are treated or taken into account and prefer to love without weighing it against how we are handled. Too often, we attach so much to our own sense of self-importance. When we learn to love without attachments, our hearts are truly free. This is one way how devotion to the Sacred Heart is an ancient devotion made new.
Silence for contemplation, silence for evangelizing
One way that the Sacred Heart devotion clashes with the modern world is the place that is granted to silence. We live in a noisy world. It seems that as time progresses, we get new devices and claims on our attention. Interior silence seems to be ever rarer.
But if we are going to grow in our relationship with Christ, we need to grow in silence. So often, our Sacred Heart devotion will lead us to time of silent reflection before the Eucharistic Lord. This can be silence for contemplation and silence for evangelizing.
We are able to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 34:8) in these moments of adoration. We grow in our relationship with him, knowing that he is the source of all goodness and of every blessing. This helps us in the contemplative aspect of our spirituality.
Our silence serves also for evangelizing. So many of our apostolic initiatives grow out of a time of adoration. Before the Lord, as we contemplate our own needs and the needs of those around us, we come up with initiatives for new ways to make the presence of the Lord more felt in our own world. There will be initiatives for catechesis, for service of the poor, for work with the young people, with married couples, with families, etc. All of this reflects the great love that is growing in our hearts.
Burning with the Heart of Christ
With time, our hearts begin to burn with the Heart of Christ. He came to the world with a specific mission. He wanted to establish his Kingdom in our hearts and in society. It is our duty as baptized Christians to work hard so as to further extend his Kingdom.
We need to spread two directions. First, we need to grow inwardly. Each one of us is a battleground between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Darkness. We can see when we make a good examination of conscience that the evil one tries to sow his seed. But we see too how Christ is constantly giving us his grace and laying the foundation for his Kingdom in our hearts.
Then, we want to grow outwardly as well. There are so many people who have never heard the good news of the Gospel of Christ. It is our duty to preach it to them, in word and by example.
Contemplating life in the Gospel and the Gospel in life
It is such a gift to grow in our knowledge of the Gospel. The more we know these sacred pages, the better we are able to interpret the reality of our world. We can look at the various events in the news and see how Gospel criteria might change the outcome, providing for better care for all involved.
We get to see the Gospel in life as well. It is a frequent occurrence when we know the Gospel to see it play out in everyday life. We see a generous woman and think of the widow who gave all that she had to the Temple as a sign of her love. (cf. Mk. 12:41-44; Lk. 21:1-4) We look at a young man leaving everything to follow Christ and serve others and think of the rich young man. (cf. Mt. 19:16-30; Mk. 10:17-31) Everything draws us closer to Christ and helps us see his benevolent hand in our world.
Sacred Heart: An Ancient Devotion Made New
We often associate the devotion to the Sacred Heart with the visions that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had in the 17th century, but there are traces of the devotion earlier on, as in the case of St. Gertrude the Great. The strength of the devotion comes from the fact that in the end it is a reflection of a Gospel truth. Christ came into the world to save us, not to condemn us. He wants, that as we experience our conversion and turn away from sin, we turn to him in tenderness and love. He does not want fear of Hell to be our primary motivator, but rather our love for him will impel us to preach his Kingdom. Caritas Christi urget nos. “The charity of Christ impels us.” (2Cor. 5:14)
In a world that wants to make us think that evil has won, we are encouraged by devotion to the Sacred Heart. With Saint Paul, we are called to be of good heart. We will overcome evil by multiplying our good works and our love for the Lord. Vince in bono malum. “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21) Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts more like yours.