For many years now, June has been observed as the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. While many Catholic people are inclined to think of devotion to the Sacred Heart as something relatively modern -- going back only to the late 17th century and the private revelations received by Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque -- the roots of the devotion go much deeper. Indeed the primary theme of the devotion is reflection on the love that God has for us, and how deeply we should love Him in return, and that can even be said to predate Christianity.
In the Old Testament we see some indication of God's love for us, but, admittedly, that love often manifests itself as jealousy. Of course, God had reason to be jealous of His adulterous children, who were all too often willing to take their wives from among the daughters of idol worshippers, and even to manufacture a golden calf or two for themselves.
In our modern day celebration of the Sacred Heart, many of the Scripture readings are from the Old Testament. God is faithful in His love. The very first readings of the feast are Psalms promising the Messias to the Jewish people, and Psalms promising His protection to those who keep His ways: "In holy splendor; before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten thee.... He has sent deliverance to His people, He has ratified His covenant forever."1 If, to the modern ear, God sounds a little gruff in His Psalms -- "crushing kings on the day of His wrath, doing judgment on the nations, and heaping up corpses by the way" -- we will just have to think of this as what we today call "tough love," the love of a parent for children who don't quite understand that their Father wants only the best for them, protecting them from themselves as much as from any enemy.
Again on the feast of the Sacred Heart, we hear from Jeremias, a prophet of the Captivity: "I will regard with favor Juda's exiles whom I sent away.... I will look after them for their good, and bring them back ... not to tear them down.... I will give them a heart with which to understand that I am the Lord. They shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.... I will place My law within them and write it upon their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be My people."2 The love still sounds a little tough, but it is undoubtedly love seeking love in return. In retrospect, it is not hard to see God as the Father who mourns over the children of the Old Testament who did not respond to His redemptive love.
Saint John the Apostle is said to have heard the heartbeat of Jesus while John's head reposed upon the Master's breast at the Last Supper, and the same evangelist relates how the soldier "opened our Lord's side and immediately there came forth blood and water."3 And John's epistles are filled with the love of God and the imperative of returning that love. Yet, none of the writers of the early Church, including Saint John, used the Heart of Jesus as a symbol for God's love as we do today. It was more common to compare Eve coming from the side of Adam with the Church emanating from the side of Christ, or perhaps of the streams of grace that are the Sacraments being represented by the blood and water. Understand that the heresies of the early Church often denied the divinity of Christ, so the Fathers were reluctant to place any greater emphasis on our Lord's humanity.
It would take until the middle ages for devotion to the humanity of Christ and particularly to His Sacred Heart to develop. The Benedictines, the Cistercians, and the Franciscans would give us the mystical writings of Saints like Gertrude, Bernard of Clairvaux, Mechtilde, and Bonaventure, who would firmly establish meditation on our Lord's Sacred Heart as a means of approaching the divine Love. Often, such devotions were a part of a larger reflection on the wounds of Christ, the instruments of His Passion, and the love demonstrated for us by His setting aside His life for us on the Cross. As the Evangelist records: "Greater love than this no man has, that he lay down his life for his friends." The Carmelites and the Jesuits (among others) would add their sentiments in the following centuries; and by the time of the later middle ages, the Sacred Heart of Jesus was becoming a pre-eminent symbol of God's love expressed through His sacred humanity. The Jesuits, particularly, are known for an image of the Sacred Heart printed in their books and painted on the walls of their churches.
Even united to her Son, it is not surprising to see the heart of Mary honored along with the divine Heart. Just as she is co-redemptrix, mediatrix, and Mother of God, her heart is proposed as an object of devotion as it reflects the divine Love. Saint Robert Bellarmine would write in the 16th century, "She has a heart opened wide to all, and she desires greatly that none should perish of those whom her Son redeemed with His Precious Blood and His precious death" -- and he would address to us the words of our Lord to His Beloved Disciple, "Behold your Mother."4 At the beginning of the next century, Saint John Eudes would strive actively for the public honor of the Two Hearts, establish a charitable society of the "Admirable Mother of God" and an order for training priests dedicated to the "Most Holy Names of Jesus and Mary," and organize an early Mass and Office in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1670. John Eudes would be proud to know that the Church has observed feasts in honor of the Heart of Mary ever since the pontificate of Pope Pius VII (in the early 1800s).
If the middle ages emphasized the Love of Christ for man as demonstrated in His Passion, the post-Reformation era gave rise to the focus on reparation for mankind's indifference to that Love. Certainly we see this in the testimony of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, who relates that our Lord Himself asked her to "'Behold the Heart that has so loved men . . . instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part (of mankind) only ingratitude . . .', and asked her for a feast of reparation of the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi."5 Saint Margaret Mary is often thought of as the saint of the Sacred Heart, and, hopefully, we will hear more about her -- perhaps in preparation for the First Friday before her feast in October. Her writings are replete with promises made to her by our Lord for those who devote themselves to His love, particularly by receiving Holy Communion of the First Friday of the month.6
The feast on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi became a reality in 1765 under Pope Clement XIII, and it was extended to the whole Church by Bd. Pope Pius IX. Under Leo XIII and Pius XI, the feast was associated with an "Act Of Consecration Of The Human Race" and later an "Act of Reparation." Very purposefully, when Pius XI established the feast of Christ the King, he assigned it as the day on which the "Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart" would be made. The modern world -- the 19th, the 20th, and our own 21st century -- has progressively repudiated the social reign of Christ as King over public society and over families. Even though all authority comes, ultimately, from God, governments and families have gotten farther away from honoring God or even following His natural moral law.
Under the Popes of the first half of the 20th century the Church labored to re-establish this Social Kingship of Jesus Christ by identifying Christ the King with the loving Christ of the Sacred Heart. At another time we will talk about the "enthronement apostolate," a movement to place a picture of the Sacred Heart in a prominent place in each Catholic home and in some public places. Unfortunately, a lot of the hard work done in the early 1900s began to be undone in the 1960s, when even countries that were legally "Catholic countries" were prevailed upon to secularize in the wake of Vatican II and its false notions of religious liberties. (Before that, for example, the Blessed Virgin was constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief of the Argentine military forces; Ecuador was constitutionally a "Republic dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.")
In any event, we in the 21st century have entered June, the month of the Sacred Heart. I would like to ask you to make a point of enthroning the Sacred Heart of Jesus in your own hearts -- and perhaps a picture or a statue of Him in a prominent place in your homes. I would ask you as well to do the best you can to bring the Love of the Sacred Heart into your homes and families, and to urge the Kingship of Christ in the world around you wherever you go.
If at all possible, plan to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion on the feast of the Sacred Heart at the end of this month. And make a resolution to join us for Mass and the hour of Adoration that we celebrate on the first Friday of each month -- you can begin in just a few days. These things take some effort on our part, but honestly, they are but little in comparison with the efforts expended by our Lord for love of us.
Let me close, now, with the words of Saint Bonaventure about seven or eight hundred years ago: