On the Feast of the Sacred Heart

On the Feast of the Sacred Heart


“Then they came to the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Baptist was bemused.
“Why do y’all have a statue of Jesus with his heart on the outside?”
“Well,” said the Catholic lady sweetly, “You Baptists like to ask Jesus into your heart right?”

“That’s right.”
“We like to ask Jesus to take us into his heart.”
Perfect apologetics. Welcoming and kind and working from what the other person knows to what they have yet to discover.”

from Have You Accepted Jesus into Your Heart? by Fr Dwight Longenecker

If you read enough novels that feature Catholic characters, you’re bound to run across a Catholic family described as having an “oleograph of the Sacred Heart” hanging somewhere in their house (usually the kitchen, the dining room or the bedroom). It’s the lazy novelist’s shorthand for a certain kind of kitschy, overheated devotional stance that is supposed to “locate” for the reader the pious sensibilities of the (usually indigent or uneducated) Catholic characters.

The Sacred Heart is one of the few devotions that have probably suffered from its artistic representations. Many of the images with which older Catholics are familiar are both kitschy and off-putting: a doe-eyed Jesus pointing to his heart, which is always pictured outside his body. There is the yuck factor (the bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns is often pictured in gruesome detail) and the disbelief factor (there’s no way that a carpenter from Nazareth looked so effeminate). It’s a tragedy that art has distanced many Catholics from a powerful way of looking at Jesus.

The devotion began with the mystical visions of Jesus and his Sacred Heart as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a Visitation Sister living in the French town of Paray-le-Monial. As is often the case, the sisters in her community were highly doubtful about her reported visions. At one point Margaret Mary was told in prayer that God would send her “his faithful servant and perfect friend.” Shortly afterwards, the mild-mannered St. Claude la Colombiere, a Jesuit priest living nearby, was assigned to serve as her spiritual director. Later, Margaret Mary would have a vision that showed their two hearts (hers and Claude’s) united with the heart of Jesus.

From that point the two worked together to spread the devotion, which became strongly associated with the Jesuits, who promoted it with vigor in the following centuries. As the devotion flourished, the paintings, mosaics, sculptures and yes, oleographs proliferated. So did parishes, hospitals, retreat centers, schools and universities named in its honor. Everything you know that is named “Sacred Heart” (including the great church of Sacré Coeur in Paris) stems from these two people—and Jesus of course.

(By the way, Fr. Claude wasn’t thought of too highly by his brothers either. Jesuit communities used to have house “historian” who would record the events of the community life. The final few days before Claude’s death were recorded as follows by the house historian: “Nothing worthy of note.”)

In time, though, devotion to the Sacred Heart fell off to such an extent that Pedro Arrupe, SJ, then the superior general of the Society of Jesus, had to remind his brother Jesuits in 1981: “I have always been convinced that what we call ‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart’ is a symbolic expression of the very basis of the Ignatian spirit.” He told them that the Sacred Heart is “one of the deepest sources of vitality for [my] interior life.” Yet Father Arrupe acknowledged, “In recent years the very expression ‘Sacred Heart’ has constantly aroused, from some quarters, emotional, almost allergic reactions.”

Those “allergic reactions” mean that we are missing a powerful and vivid symbol of the love of Jesus. For the Sacred Heart is nothing less than an image of the way that Jesus loves us: fully, lavishly, radically, completely, sacrificially. The Sacred Heart invites to meditate on some of the most important questions in the spiritual life: In what ways did Jesus love his disciples and friends? How did he love strangers and outcasts? How was he able to love his enemies? How did he show his love for humanity? What would it mean to love like Jesus did? What would it mean for me to have a heart like his? How can my heart become more “sacred”? For in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for us and inviting us to love others as Jesus did.

Perhaps newer images are needed to revive this storied devotion. Or perhaps we just need newer ways of thinking about this Solemnity, which is today.

Two years ago I participated in the “Hearts on Fire” retreat, a young-adult retreat sponsored by the Apostleship of Prayer. It was a wonderful day-and-a-half of talks and prayers and songs and sharing led by a group of talented young Jesuits. During one session, Phil Hurley, S.J., the director of the program, gave a lively presentation to the young adults on the Sacred Heart. He recounted how he had recently shown some images of the Sacred Heart to some schoolchildren. “Why do you think Jesus’s heart is shown on the outside of his body?” he asked the children.

One girl spoke up: “Because he loves us so much that he can’t keep it in!”

from Father James Martin on Facebook I can’t figure out how to link to the individual post.

Also, don’t miss Apathy, Illness, Enthronement Sally Thomas’s reflection on the Sacred Heart devotion and her experience of enthroning the image in her home.


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  • Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the various posts you have done on this topic.  I stopped reading some Catholic blog, websites because of this very issue.  Regardless of how great the actual post / article is, when the com box descends into utter bickering, name calling, ad hominem attacks and yes, sometimes spurred on by those that wrote the post and their allies – it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. 

    One of those blogs was Mark Shea’s blog and then I read one of his recent posts and was inspired by his humility and hopefully changing tone.

    I always try to remember this old saying when treading into controversial com boxes (which is rarely actually) – “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. 

    Thank you again M!

  • This is a great post and very insightful. 

    Sherry Weddell says in her book, “Never accept a label in place of a story,” and this is like that.  A person saying they’re an atheist, particularly online, can mean just about anything, especially if they’re being argumentative.

    True atheists, and there are a few, don’t really even care enough to talk about religion in the first place.  That’s why they’re atheists.

  • Thank you, Marie. I saw Mark Shea’s apology and found it really moving. I generally try to stay away from comments, and usually regret it when I find myself sucked in. And yet sometimes there’s a weird kind of pull.

    Jan, Thank you. I think there are many different kinds of people who adopt the label atheist. As you say, it’s impossible to know what they mean by it unless you hear their story. I’ve quoted that line from Sherry in other blog posts. I also like where she says a good question to draw out someone’s story is: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”

  • I avoid Jen’s NCR combox…even if her topic isn’t connected to atheism, it can get harsh in there. I wish Christians of all stripes would respond briefly with love and then let it go

  • Once again you provide compassionate food for thought.  That combox was disquieting, and I’ve seen it played out many times.  But our face, our presence, might be the only evidence of Christ these people see.  It’s especially terrifying to spew vitriol in the name of a religion founded on Love.