John Gayford offers a Critical Historical Evaluation of Liturgical Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus can be defined as the response of the faithful to the fact of Christ’s love, divine and human, symbolized in his physical heart. Historically the devotion to the Sacred Heart is a development of devotion to Christ’s sacred humanity whom we may adore because the human nature of Christ is combined with his divine nature. There is an affinity between devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and worshipful admiration of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
The doctrine and adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus goes back to the cross, but moved slowly for the first 1000 years and was mainly confined to private meditation within the monastic life. Early references to the Sacred Heart can be traced to Justin the Martyr, Irenaeus, St Hippolytus of Rome, Origen, Cyprian, St. Ambrose and St Jerome. St. John Chrysostom one of the greatest preachers of the early Church states the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the cross were symbols of the Eucharist and Baptism and he goes on to say that from these two sacraments the Church is born. St Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions written towards the end of his life speaks of his desire for his heart to be united with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as two hearts beating in unison. After St Augustine’s meditation we have to wait for St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 12th century for sermons on the Sacred Heart. This was taken up by St Bonaventure who provides us with the second lesson in the Office of Readings for the Feast. He does not dismiss the importance of emotion in the spiritual life. To him all human wisdom is folly compared with the mystical illumination that God sheds on faithful Christians. He speaks of the splendour of truth and the sweetness of love. In the 13th century two Helfta nuns Saints Mechtilde and Gertrude the Great from the Benedictine Abbey in Saxony developed what is often called the “Helfta Style” of devotion to the Sacred Heart and wanted to love Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. In 1353 Pope Innocent VI instituted a Mass in honour of the mystery of the Sacred Heart but this was only authorised within monastic houses. By 1373, Julian of Norwich was receiving a series of revelations. Her tenth vision was all about the Sacred Heart of Jesus with revelations of theological truths. The Anima Christi Prayer has been ascribed to St. Ignatius Loyola as he opens his Spiritual Exercises with it, but it was well known before his time. This prayer brings us into union with the timeless love of Christ. Edward Caswell (1818-1878) used this as the basis for his hymn Soul of my Saviour Sanctify my breast. St Francis de Sales gives us more prayers in the late 16th century. In the 17th century many attribute the mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque with the beginning of the modern adoration of the Sacred Heart. In 1693 and 1697 privileges were granted to her order with a special Mass and Office but refused for common use. The devotion was spreading through religious institutions. St. John Eudes (1601-80) was a complicated, deeply spiritual and charitable French priest who came under the influence of the Jesuits. His devotion to the Sacred Heart became a symbol of opposition to Jansenism and to the French Revolution in their denial of a merciful God. Eventually he was commissioned to write a new Office and Mass of the Sacred Heart. The Marseille plague of 1720 was the occasion for spread of devotion to the Sacred Heart outside religious communities.
The 19th century was to see Papal approval and wide spread Catholic devotion, with emotional appeal, to the Sacred Heart. Sister Mary of the Divine Heart (1863-1899) is an important figure in the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She felt the compulsion to write to Pope Leo XIII asking him to consecrate the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and that the first Friday of each month be observed in honour of the Sacred Heart. Eventually this pope commissioned an inquiry, which he proclaimed on 11th June, the feast of the Sacred Heart that year. Three days prior to this Sister Maria died at the age of 36. Pope Leo XIII is reported as saying his solemn consecration of the whole of humanity to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (in his encyclical Annum sacrum of 1899) was the greatest act of his pontificate. Later Pope Pius X decreed that this consecration be renewed annually at the feast of Christ the King.
The emotional devotion to The Sacred Heart was not natural to the restrained English, but the writings of Newman and Manning paved the way for Anglican appeal. St. John Henry Newman using his poetic skills gave us a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus concealed in the Blessed Sacrament, which takes us away from the popular Baroque style of Catholicism of the time. The Second Vatican Council damped down some of the excesses which allowed more ecumenical acceptance. As a counterbalance the writings of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar warn us against possible pseudo- religious expressions.
The Church in the celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus invites us to acknowledge the love for mankind which moved the Saviour in all the works he undertook for our sake. His love is the love of God who became human. Physical excesses of this popular catholic cult may have deterred some Anglicans from accepting this feast, but the realisation that there is a longing to acknowledge and adore a compassionate God in the suffering humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross has overcome some of these barriers, allowing many Anglicans to keep this feast with love and devotion. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is now kept as a Solemnity on the Friday after octave of Corpus Christi (in the second week of Pentecost 19 days after the Feast of Pentecost). June has become the month of the Sacred Heart. There is a votive Mass of the Sacred Heart which can be said on the first Friday every month but not often used now.
Finally Catholics and Anglocatholics need to remember to refute having a monopoly of the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was poured out for all mankind on the Cross. The concept of the loving mercy of Our Blessed Lord is very dear to Orthodox teaching but they object to what they call “worship of body parts” and find the statue of Jesus with a bleeding heart exposed on his chest objectionable. Nevertheless they use references to the wounded side of Jesus in offices and prayer. Also some kiss the chalice when receiving communion in veneration of the wounded Christ. Often Eastern Catholics see the devotion to the Sacred Heart as controversial, using terms such as liturgical Latinisation.
Catholic minded Anglicans have kept the Feast since the late 19th century. With the introduction of the English Missal containing the celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart with propers, lessons and preface in English, and a votive Mass on a Friday, interest widened and its doctrine has developed among Anglicans. The feast day does not appear in the Book of Common Prayer or in Common Worship which leads some to think the celebration is not of Anglican patrimony. That may be so for the celebration, but not for the doctrine, where the love of Jesus for humanity is universally regarded throughout Christendom. Periods of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament (often before Mass) are encouraged by Catholic minded Anglicans especially by the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC). A statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus holding out his hands showing his wounds from the nails of the cross is not out of place in some Anglican churches possibly placed next to votive candles and notice board where requests for prayers can be pinned. However, Anglican Churches are not likely to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus nor to be linked with the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Modern Anglicans are not so likely to embrace the external of adoration of the Sacred Heart such as the enthronement and scapular, nor are these so popular among English Catholics since the Second Vatican Council.
The Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is usually attributed to the Venerable Anne Madeline Remuzat of Marseille in 1718 and received approval outside monastic life when it was used at the plague of Marseille in 1720. The litany was modified a number of times to its present 33 petitions. Each petition expresses some aspect of God’s love for humanity symbolised in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Litanies have often been recited or sung in procession. More often now the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is left as a private meditation before the Blessed Sacrament or before a statue or picture of the Sacred heart. This allows time to meditate slowly on each petition.
Regarding the Sacred Heart in Art, from the 4th century there had been paintings of the Arma Christi (the weapons by which Christ overcame death) these included the cross, the crown of thorns, the nail and the lance. With the authorization of the feast in 1765, Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) a famous portrait painter in Rome painted one of the first pictures of the new form of devotion to the Sacred Heart and set in train an unfortunate proliferation of sentimental oleographs and plaster statues. The most common symbolic depictions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, it may have a cross on the top of the heart, also there may be flames which represent the divine love. An arrow may be piercing the heart representing the sins of the world. This may seem macabre to us today but it needs to be remembered it was not uncommon for a heart to be removed from a body so that it could be transported to a sacred place of burial. This links us with the concept that Christ is in Heaven but his heart is still with us, and for this we adore him. Despite some unfortunate legacies, there are many beautiful statues and icons of the Sacred Heart that help stimulate reverent meditations.
It may surprise some that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is demonstrated among others by Thomas Goodwin, Isaac Ambrose, Thomas Traherne and Richard Baxter, puritan and nonconformists from the 17th century. In spite of Calvinistic leanings, they demonstrate poetic depictions of the Sacred Heart. Some of the hymns of Charles Wesley, the famous Methodist hymn writer (1707-1788), such as Love Divine All Love Excelling and Jesus Lover of My Soul also demonstrate adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their various ways.
The Church in the celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus invites us to acknowledge the love for mankind which moved the Saviour in all the works he undertook for our sake. His love is the love of God who became human, and dispels any exclusivism. Carnal excesses of this popular catholic cult may have deterred some Anglicans from accepting this feast. All the same there is a longing to adore a compassionate God in the joys, work, friendship and suffering humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ which draws many to keep this feast with love and devotion.
Suggested Further Reading:-
– Croiset, J. Devotion to the Sacred Heart Translated by O’Connell, P. (Second Edition) Tan Books Charlotte, North Carolina 2013.
– Duffy, E. The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Prayerbook for Catholic Christians (Revised Edition) Bloomsbury London 2014
– Richo, D. The Sacred Heart of the World: Restoring Mystical Devotion to Our Spiritual Life Paulist Press Mahwah New Jersey 2007.