For Timothy T. O’Donnell, the Sacred Heart has been part of his spirituality almost as far back as he can remember. “Devotion to the Heart of Jesus has been with me since my childhood, thanks to the faithful nuns who taught me in Catholic grammar school,” recalls O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia since 1992, and Northern Virginia Chapter Legate. “I remember making the nine First Fridays for the first time in seventh grade. I rode my bike to early morning Mass for nine consecutive First Fridays.” As an adult, O’Donnell learned of the theological richness of the devotion while studying at the Angelicum in Rome. Under his leadership, Christendom College has renewed its consecration to the Sacred Heart annually, and he continues to practice the devotion faithfully himself.
“The devotion has been a great blessing to me in my adult and professional life as it focused on developing and cultivating a deep interior relationship with the Lord Jesus,” O’Donnell said. “His Heart symbolizes His entire interior life and manifests His deep love and desire to be known and to be loved by us in return.”
The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which the Church celebrates on the Friday following the second Sunday of Pentecost, falls on June 8 this year.
Origins of the Devotion
In his book Heart of the Redeemer, O’Donnell recounts the foundations of the devotion.
Early Christians “contemplated the crucified Savior with deep veneration and love,” he writes. Meditating upon the wound in Jesus’ side opened by the soldier’s lance, popular piety turned to his pierced heart, “seen from the very outset” to symbolize Christ’s caring love for every person.
From the first centuries, the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side were understood as symbols of the Eucharist and Baptism. His pierced side inspired parallels with Genesis: Just as Eve was created from Adam’s side, so was the Church created from the side of Christ. The Apostle John reclining at Jesus’ breast, close to his heart, at the Last Supper suggested intimacy with Him. St. Augustine associated Jesus’ heart with His acceptance of His Passion through His merciful love.
Later spiritual writers called the wound in Christ’s side a “fountain of eternal life” from which living waters of divine grace flowed, revealing Christ’s immense love. By the 11th century, the heart of Christ was identified as the source from which these “treasures” emanated.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux frequently homilized about the Savior’s Heart, and prayers and hymns were circulated. Mystics like St. Catherine of Siena and St. Gertrude sought the union of their hearts with Christ’s heart. Gothic art depicted the crucified Christ with blood gushing from His side, often with an angel or saint collecting the blood in a chalice.
The Franciscans and Dominicans, led by St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great, developed the connection between the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist, instituted out of Christ’s boundless love. Jesuit thinkers wrote about it; St. John Eudes taught of a mystical unity of the Sacred Heart with the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s Visions
In the 17th century, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French Visitation nun, had visions of Jesus. In December 1673, Jesus allowed her to rest her head upon His Heart as St. John the Apostle had done. He asked her to make His great love known throughout the world.
In 1675, Jesus showed Margaret Mary His wounded Heart, saying, “There it is, that Heart so deeply in love with men!” He asked that “a special feast in honor of my Heart” be celebrated annually on the Friday following the Corpus Christi solemnity. Jesus promised to “open my Heart to all who honor me” on that feast by receiving Communion and making a solemn act of reparation for the ingratitude and irreverence many show toward the Eucharist.
Jesus made other requests and promises. In one vision, He asked the faithful to receive Communion frequently and to observe a Holy Hour. In another, He said that anyone who receives Communion on nine consecutive First Fridays will not die unrepentant (see sidebar).
Once Margaret Mary’s visions were publicized, the devotion spread across Europe. Poland was the first nation to obtain papal approval for a feast and liturgy honoring the Sacred Heart in 1765, and requests soon poured in from everywhere. In 1865, Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII dedicated the world to the Sacred Heart. Popes ever since have encouraged the devotion.
St. Faustina Kowalska was a Polish nun deeply devoted to the Sacred Heart. In the 1930s, Jesus appeared to her and revealed His heart filled with divine mercy. This devotion to Divine Mercy, now celebrated with a feast on the Sunday after Easter, has become popular, seemingly overshadowing the Sacred Heart devotion.
But Father James Kubicki, S.J., author of A Heart on Fire, describes Divine Mercy as “not a replacement for the Sacred Heart devotion but a further development in the expression of God’s love.”
The two devotions, he writes, “are inseparable but not identical…. In both we are called to have hearts like the Heart of Jesus – hearts that are merciful in thought, word, and deed.”
O’Donnell agrees. Just as rays of mercy stream from the Heart of Jesus in the familiar Divine Mercy image, “so too does Divine Mercy issue from devotion to the Sacred Heart,” he writes.
Practicing Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Sacred Heart devotion takes many forms. Individuals, families, and communities can be consecrated to the Sacred Heart. Jesus promised to bless homes where His Sacred Heart is displayed and honored, and so the image formally can be “enthroned” in a residence. A daily offering, a litany, and various novenas and prayers invoking the Sacred Heart are at our disposal. First Fridays and Holy Hours are hallmarks of the devotion.
Considering how it enriches his own life, O’Donnell “heartily” recommends this devotion. “Anyone who is interested in deepening his relationship with Our Lord should allow Him to speak ‘heart to heart’ in a conversation of friendship,” he said.
Recalling St. Augustine’s words — “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Fr. Kubicki believes the devotion is a pathway to quenching our natural desire for God.
“Only a heart that is infinite, that is capable of endless love, could satisfy the deep longing in every human heart. Only a heart that is human can be approached without fear of being overwhelmed and annihilated,” he writes in his book. “We find this heart in Jesus, the Son of God. We find the answer to our longing in the Sacred Heart.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
12 Promises of the Sacred Heart
Scattered in letters to her spiritual director and others, St. Margaret Mary described various promises Jesus made to her regarding those devoted to his Sacred Heart. These were collected into a list of twelve in the latter 1800s and later published in more than 200 languages. These promises include:
I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.
I will establish peace in their families.
I will console them in all their troubles.
They shall find in My Heart an assured refuge during life and especially at the hour of their death.
I will pour abundant blessings on all their undertakings.
Sinners shall find in My Heart the source of an infinite ocean of mercy.
Tepid souls shall become fervent.
Fervent souls shall speedily rise to great perfection.
I will bless the homes where an image of My Heart shall be exposed and honored.
I will give to priests the power of touching the most hardened hearts.
Those who propagate this devotion shall have their names written in My Heart, never to be effaced.
The all-powerful love of My Heart will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the First Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under my displeasure, nor without receiving their Sacraments; My heart shall be their assured refuge at that last hour.
According to Father James Kubicki, S.J., author of A Heart on Fire, such promises constitute “a call to devotion, not superstition.”
“Through sincere devotion to the Heart of Jesus, the promises will be realized in one’s life,” he writes. “They are not magic, but the natural consequence of a life lived in union with the Heart of Jesus.”