When Maggie Sweeney was growing up in Norwood, Mass., her mother, Margaret Kane, used to take down a picture of the Sacred Heart, put it on her lap, and pray for a half-hour. “He looked so sad,” Mrs. Kane would tell her daughter. “But when I told him everything, he looked so happy.”
That sort of Catholic devotion waned starting in the late 1960s, say followers of the Sacred Heart, as the Church's attention turned to liturgy and Scripture. But over the past five years or so, observers say they have seen rekindled interest in the Sacred Heart and other pious practices, especially eucharistic adoration.
“We've noticed a slight surge taking place,” said Jesuit Father John Rainaldo, national director of the Apostleship of Prayer (Web site: www.cin.org/ap) in New Hyde Park, N.Y. The Apostleship emphasizes the offering of daily duties and routine hardships as a prayer to the heart of Christ that suffered for humanity.
Of the dizzying array of Catholic devotions, what makes the Sacred Heart stand out?
“I think the Heart is the essence, the symbol of love,” said Maggie Sweeney, who founded the Apostolate Alliance of the Two Hearts in Hyannis, Mass., in 1993. “It's a universal symbol of love. Love in Christ is love itself — the burning love that he had for each one of us — and we just have to learn to return it.”
Devotion to the Sacred Heart is often associated with the 17th-century apparitions of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), a cloistered Visitation nun. According to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus asked that his heart be honored in the form of a human heart; that Catholics receive Communion frequently, especially on the first Friday of the month; and that the faithful keep an hourlong vigil Thursday nights commemorating his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
He also directed that a feast of the Sacred Heart be kept the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. This year, the feast is on Friday, June 11.
The devotion served as a tonic for Jansenism, which was at its height in the time of St. Margaret Mary. The heresy emphasized man's unworthiness to be in the Lord's presence and to receive his love.
“The Sacred Heart teaches the reverse,” said Father Rainaldo. “It emphasizes closeness, intimacy and the warm, personal relationship that should exist between us and God.”
Links with Other Devotions
The devotion did not begin with St. Margaret Mary. Father Benedict Groeschel traces it all the way back to the second century, when the image of Christ as Divine Physician was popular among believers. Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, is working on a history of devotion to Christ, to be called I Will Be With You.
Asked why the Sacred Heart seems to be gaining popularity, Father Groeschel said: “First of all, a lot of things are making comebacks. … We went through a time of confusion and readjustment. It's totally predictable.”
“Secondly,” he added, “people are lonely. The message of the Sacred Heart is that Christ is there in the Blessed Sacrament as an individual for me.”
Father Groeschel links the Sacred Heart with the flourishing of eucharistic adoration and the Divine Mercy, “which is really the same devotion,” he said. The Divine Mercy devotion, introduced following the apparitions of Jesus during the 1930s to Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun. It emphasizes forgiveness, trust, and reparation through the Eucharist.
Both devotions use images of love flowing from the breast of Jesus. The promises are similar: grace, peace in families, consolation in life and at death, and “an ocean of mercy.”
The Sacred Heart is also synonymous with love of the Eucharist, where Christ can be found in his body, blood, soul and divinity — including his physical, human heart that continues to beat with a divine love.
Sweeney, of the Apostolate Alliance of the Two Hearts, said she has received many calls during the last few years looking for help starting eucharistic adoration.
When Sweeney and her husband were married in 1967, they had what is called an “enthronement ceremony” in their home. A priest came and said Mass, blessed the rooms, and said special prayers. Then the Sweeneys “enthroned” a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a central place — in their case, the kitchen, which would become a gathering room for the family.
Over the last 32 years, Maggie Sweeney said, her family of six children has had extraordinary peace, which she attributes to the Sacred Heart. When her oldest son got married, he and his wife had an enthronement ceremony, as well.
“It's a covenant for the family,” Sweeney said. “You're just placing the Sacred Heart as the Lord and master of your family. … I really believe this is what's going to bring the family back together, because families are in such disarray.”
One observer emphasized that enthronement is not just a picture-hanging ceremony, but a commitment to make Jesus king of one's life and activities. So it requires preparation. “The ceremony is the beginning of a way of life,” said Father Columban Crotty, director of the National Enthronement Center in Fairhaven, Mass.
“In a way, you could say it's a kind of a renewal of baptismal commitment, not just individually but by the family,” said Father Crotty, a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Father Crotty said there are now 17 chapters of Men of the Sacred Hearts in the United States.
Bishop Sean O'Malley plans to consecrate his Fall River (Mass.) Diocese to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral on Thursday, June 10, the night before the feast. The idea came from the Fairhaven chapter of Men of Sacred Hearts, according to diocesan spokesman John Kearns.
Some maintain that devotions such as Sacred Heart take attention away from liturgy and Scripture, and that as devotions waned over the past 30 years, attendance at daily Mass (though not at Sunday Mass) has increased. But Father Groeschel suggested that largely the same people who now go to daily Mass are also the ones making weekly holy hours and following the devotions.
“The Mass is the great central act of Christian worship, but it does not exhaust our spiritual life,” said Timothy O'Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. “We need to pray.”
Some old practices, such as saying the rosary during Mass, probably should not have been happening, he said, but reformers went too far. “They set up a false dichotomy, as if the liturgy was in opposition to popular piety,” said O'Donnell, whose book, Heart of the Redeemer, is in its second printing with Ignatius Press.
Father Rainaldo said he encourages balance. Devotion enthusiasts, he said, have been accused of ignoring the Bible. But devotion to the Sacred Heart is “profoundly Scripturally based,” he said.
The word heart, he noted, appears in the Bible more than 500 times. Jesus himself uses the word some 25 times in the Gospels.
He describes himself as “gentle and humble of heart” in Matthew 11:29. When Jesus saw the widow of Nain whose son has died, “His heart went out to her” (Luke 7:13). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says, “My heart is troubled” (John 12:27). After Jesus dies, a Roman soldier lances his side, causing a flow of blood and water (John 19:34), which suggests the lance pierced Jesus' heart.
“John emphasizes the opening — not just the wounding, but the opening of the side,” O'Donnell said. At Jesus' death the veil of the Temple splits, revealing the holy of holies (Matthew 27:51), O'Donnell noted, just as in John's account the veil of Jesus'flesh is torn to reveal the holy of holies, his heart.
O'Donnell first got interested in the devotion while studying theology in Rome. He discovered that every pope this century has issued an encyclical or apostolic letter on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “I was blown away, because every one of them stressed the urgency of the devotion,” he said.
“It really focuses on all the truths of our Catholic faith,” O'Donnell said. “Pius XI said it is ‘the complete summary of the Christian life.’”
Leo XIII's Consecration
This year is the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart, which he called the most important act of his pontificate. Pope Leo XIII's consecration anticipated the holy year of 1900, and some have speculated Pope John Paul II may renew the consecration sometime during the Great Jubilee year of 2000, O'Donnell said.
Pope John Paul II is also devoted to the Sacred Heart. He canonized Jesuit Father Claude La Colombière (1641–1682), who served briefly as St. Margaret Mary's confessor and buoyed her when her fellow sisters doubted her apparitions. In his canonization sermon, the Pope praised St. Claude for spreading devotion to the Sacred Heart, and called it “a source of balance and spiritual strengthening for Christian communities so often faced with increasing unbelief.”
“In a period of contrast between the fervor of some and the indifference or impiety of many, here is a devotion centered on the humanity of Christ, on his presence, on his love of mercy and on forgiveness,” the Pope said. “… Following the example of Claude La Colombière, the faithful understand that such a spiritual attitude can only be the action of Christ in them, shown through Eucharistic communion: to receive in their heart the heart of Christ and to be united to the sacrifice which he alone can offer worthily to the Father.”
Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.