June has always been the month devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, clearly one of the most popular and significant devotions within the Church. This devotion’s decline in our time is all the more striking because of its pre-eminence in the first half of the 20th century, when so many Catholic families had a picture of Jesus and his Sacred Heart displayed in their homes, and when Thursday night holy hours and first Fridays proliferated in parishes.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has suffered cardiac arrest in recent decades. It has been dismissed as superstitious in its apparent guarantee of salvation to those who practice it, as masochistic in its emphasis on making reparation for Jesus’ own suffering.
Like many forms of heart disease, such atrophy could have been prevented through a healthy diet– in this case, Scripture and tradition. The heart, what the late, great Jesuit theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, has called a “primordial word”, is a powerful metaphor in the Bible. It signifies the wellspring of life, the totality of one’s being.
The prophet Ezekiel records God’s promise to change Israel’s “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” while John’s Gospel gives the heart its most profound scriptural expression: Jesus’ heart is the source of living water, of rest for the Beloved Disciple, of the church and its sacraments, of doubting Thomas’s faith.
Jesus revealed His Sacred Heart to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitandine nun, in seventeenth century France. From 1673 to 1675 at the Visitation convent of Paray-le-Monial, Margaret Mary received a series of four revelations from Christ about his heart. He showed Himself in a way that she could understand – with a human heart aflame with love. He told her that He would be present in a special way to those devoted to His Sacred Heart and that His presence would lead to peace in families, the conversion of sinners, blessings in abundance and perseverance when death was near.
This new devotion offered a tender, compassionate spirituality that helped to renew the church and counter Jansenism’s severity and sectarianism. Devotion to the Sacred Heart helps us experience Christ’s presence in our hearts, in our homes and in the Eucharist. It inspires us to love our family members, to be compassionate and forgiving toward others and to reach out to those who are poor. In other words, this devotion helps us to be better disciples.
The deepest meaning of the devotion, however, might be glimpsed in a poet who does not even mention it: Dante Alighieri. At the dark bottom of Dante’s Inferno, Satan is frozen in ice up to his chest, crying tears and drooling bloody foam, his six wings bellowing cold wind upward. Wedged into the inverted apex of the underworld, he is locked in his own resentment, impotent and utterly alone. Hell, the Inferno makes clear, is not fire, but ice: cold, crabbed isolation. Paradise is pure communion, illuminated and warmed by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
In today’s love-starving world, how we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ in His unspeakable love for us. If there is one adjective that describes the modern world, it is loveless. This world is a selfish world, so preoccupied with the present and immediate that it gives almost no thought to eternity and the everlasting joys that await those who have served God faithfully here on earth.
God puts into our lives so many occasions for loving people who obviously do not love us, or giving ourselves to people who have never given themselves to us. How desperately we need, especially in today’s world, to learn that God became man in order to suffer and die out of love for us on the Cross.
That is what devotion to the Sacred Heart is all about. It is the practice of selfless love toward selfish people. It is giving ourselves to persons that do not give themselves to us. In all of our lives, God has placed selfish persons who may be physically close to us, but spiritually are strangers and even enemies. That is why God places unkind, unjust, even cruel people into our lives. By loving them, we show something of the kind of love that God expects of His followers. The price of reaching heaven is the practice of selfless love here on earth.
Seventy-two times a minute. 4,320 times an hour. 103,680 times a day. Almost 38 million times a year. Over 2.6 billion times in the course of an average life. Fist-sized, the human heart beats powerfully and durably. It must be sturdy enough to contract and send fresh blood throughout the entire body, elastic enough to collect spent, deoxygenated blood. Too much hardness or softness of heart, and one dies. Only a healthy heart—strong and supple—can give and receive lifeblood. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus heal our coronary infirmities.
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt + Light Catholic Television Network