The Divine Double Pump: A Sacred Heart Primer for Confirmands

What does it mean to “trust in” the Sacred Heart of Jesus?

José de Páez, “Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Louis Gonzaga”, ca. 1770
José de Páez, “Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Louis Gonzaga”, ca. 1770 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

“I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26

Trust, by definition, is a risky venture. It’s an abandonment to something or someone else, a loss of control over process or outcomes, and it naturally gives rise to a certain amount of anxiety — even when it’s trust well placed.

Sometimes, however, we don’t really have much say in whom we trust — like any time we make use of transportation that we ourselves aren’t operating. When you were a kid, and your parents (or older siblings) drove you here and there, you didn’t even think about trusting their driving abilities — but, in effect, you had to. Then there’s all those bus drivers and train conductors and pilots — don’t we trust them to know what they’re doing as they cart us around? Don’t we implicitly trust them to get us where we’re going?

Baptism is like that for most of us. The vast majority of Catholics (and, really, Christians in general) are infants when they’re baptized. That means, among other things, that our parents did the original religious driving for us — wanting what’s best for us, they chose to have us baptized, a second birth — and we went along for the ride. In a sense, our moms and dads were taking big spiritual risks on our behalf, and they took on the sobering responsibility of guiding us in our initial journey toward our ultimate destination — heaven!

Confirmation, however, is different. It’s a sacrament we get to choose for ourselves (again, for most of us), and so we take on all the accompanying risks. It’s like that moment you pass your road test and get your driver’s license — woo-hoo! It’s something to celebrate — a sign that the state deems you trustworthy to get behind the wheel — but it’s also a serious milestone: Soon enough, you’ll be the one giving rides to others, including your parents eventually, but before that, you’ll be the one that’s responsible for your own safety as your travel as well as everybody else around you on the road.

With confirmation, there’s a similar shift in responsibility: That baptismal faith your parents chose for your infant self is not only strengthened (“confirm” literally means “to make firm”), but it becomes unquestionably yours — mom and dad are off the hook! Once confirmed, you’re formally entrusted with the responsibility of getting your own soul to its heavenly destination. Moreover, you’re compelled to heed Christ’s call to take up spiritual arms in the cosmic battle against evil. No worries, though. Along with confirmation’s sacramental strengthening comes an intense outpouring of the Holy Spirit who helps us stay rooted in the Church, where we gradually learn to trust less in ourselves and ever more in Jesus for what we need.

That’s where devotion to the Sacred Heart comes in. You’ve seen it, in pictures and statues — Jesus looking right at you and motioning to his exposed heart, usually pierced and bleeding, and on fire. What’s that all about? What does it mean to “trust in” Jesus’ Sacred Heart?

We get clues when we think about how we use the word “heart.”

On the one hand, it’s a metaphor, an image: The heart is traditionally associated with one’s central identity and passions — as in the phrase, “close to my heart,” or “put your heart into” something. It’s also an image of strength — like the hero at the end of the tale of Robin Hood, King Richard the Lionhearted, or, in contrast, the sad visage of someone weak-willed who just “doesn’t have the heart.” Other dimensions of heart imagery include mercy — “Please, have a heart,” we might say when begging for assistance — and, perhaps most obviously love, especially on Valentine’s Day when hearts adorn virtually every card and decoration.

On the other hand, the heart is an actual human organ — and what does it do? Sure, it pumps blood, and we all know that blood carries oxygen along with nutrients and other stuff. But the heart’s not just any ordinary pump. If you have a stethoscope handy, listen to your heartbeat — or listen here to a recording. Wait for it … what’s there? Not just one beat, but two: lub-dub, lub-dub, over and over. In a way, those dual sounds help illustrate the reality that the heart is in fact a double pump that sustains a constant double circulation. In one direction, it ships oxygen out to the whole body — arms and legs, brain and all the other organs and tissues — in what we call the systemic circulation. The other direction is the pulmonary circulation, to and from the lungs — the place where we breathe in fresh oxygen and breathe out respiratory waste (carbon dioxide).

So what? So, all these ideas align with our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion that is bound up in the Incarnation — our firm conviction that Jesus was truly God and truly man.

First, there’s the literal human heart of Jesus — it’s just like ours, both in terms of function and metaphor. “He loved us all with a human heart,” reads the Catechism (§478), and that same heart was pumping when Jesus reconciled us to God the Father “in his fleshly body through his death” (Colossians 1:22). Plus, Jesus’ cardiac muscle is also a sign of his mercy, love, and strength, as well as his human vulnerability. Thus, we can think of our Savior’s heart — the same heart he possesses now in his resurrected body — as profoundly wounded, both figuratively (when we rebuff his friendship) and physically (by our sin).

That’s the dual dimension of Jesus’ human heart, but there’s even more to the story. Since Jesus was fully divine, his human heart was also fully sacred. Consequently, the ordinary functioning of his heart is coupled with an infinite power that has eternal ramifications. Here’s how the Catechism, quoting Pius XII, puts it:

“The Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, ‘is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that … love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings’ without exception” (CCC 478).

Note that the Sacred Heart is the engine of a double circulation akin to its purely physiological role. Jesus continually loves his Father — we see him frequently praying to and communing with the Father — which gets heavenly air to his lungs and down to his heart. Then, like the systemic circulation to the rest of the body, the oxygenated blood of divine sonship is sent coursing through the Church. In other words, Jesus continually passes along to us what he receives from the Father — proclaiming a Gospel of reconciliation, demonstrating boundless mercy, pouring himself out for us in sacrificial love.

We get a glimpse of this double divine circulation at work in the Gospel accounts of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6.45-52; Matthew 14.22-33; John 6:15-21). In all three versions of the story, we see the Lord withdrawing from the crowds (including his own disciples), hiking up a mountain, and reveling in time alone with his Father. He soaks up God’s intimate presence, like deep draughts of clean mountain air, and then heads downhill to communicate that divine presence to his followers. Good thing, because they’re floundering in a storm-tossed boat and could use an infusion of celestial assistance. “Take courage, it is I,” he tells them in St. Matthew’s recounting, “do not be afraid.” Then he gets in the boat with them as the storm abates — safe!

The lesson is not lost on the relieved Apostles, who proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33). Christ’s transcendence, however, extends well beyond coming to our rescue from time to time, for he invites us to share in that transcendence — that is, his Sacred Heart can become our heart. Like Jesus breathing in the Father, we, too, can continually receive from God — through prayer, through the sacraments, through the Word, through loving God and being loved by him. We breathe in the Holy Spirit, taking in grace, and we breathe out, turning over to God our frustrations, disappointments, hurts.

But that’s just the beginning. Following Jesus’ example again, we are called to disperse what we receive from God outward, carrying the divine presence to the world — loving and practicing mercy through direct service, through almsgiving, through prayer for others, through sacrifices on behalf of the suffering souls. Remember those confirmation service hours? They’re only a kickstart to get you going — like some preliminary driving lessons before you take to the road on your own.

Once we’re caught up into Jesus’ divine double pump, we’ll be swept along in the stream of sanctifying grace — always receiving from Christ and his Church, always striving to live holy lives and pour ourselves out for others. Frankly, it’s the way we become saints, and we were created to become saints — that’s the supreme responsibility we take on when we get confirmed. And becoming saints is a wild adventure — anything can happen along the way — which might make us a bit anxious. Take heart, my fellow saints-in-the-making! We can be confident that our creator knows what’s best for us — he won’t lead us astray. We can trust him most assuredly.

When you commemorate the Sacred Heart of Jesus this month, open up your own heart. Consider how you could receive more from God — that breathing in of the Father. Maybe make time for daily prayer, Rosary or morning offering, Bible reading, visits to Blessed Sacrament, even daily Mass? Then, follow those considerations with thoughts of how you could give more in God — the systemic circulation that translates your communion with God into communion with others. Allow your heart to be set aflame like Jesus’ heart; allow him to make you a saint. It’s your call.

Fletcher Abner with his first Communion rosary. The rosary he is holding was made by his grandmother, Shirley Jones. She has made more than 20 for her grandchildren on their first Communion.

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