'Masterpiece of the Holy Spirit'
Honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus, first Fridays and every day
It wasn't so long ago that you could identify a home as Catholic just by walking in the front door.
On the mantle or in some other place of prominence, you'd spot a painting or statue depicting Jesus pointing to his chest. From there your eyes would be drawn to his exposed heart, radiant with the fire of his love and pierced by his crown of thorns.
“Devotion to the Sacred Heart was promoted very strongly back in the 1940s and ’50s,” says Sacred Heart Father Charles Yost, spiritual director of the Sacred Heart Auto League based in Walls, Miss. “It was very much a part of my family when I grew up.”
Times have changed, of course. Few and far between, it seems, are the Catholic households that witness their Catholic faith to guests and visitors by displaying the Sacred Heart.
Well, there's no time like the present — during June, the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart (the feast falling on the 18th) — for families to rediscover one of the Church's most powerful devotions.
Where to start? Think Friday — nine consecutive first Fridays, that is.
“First Friday is a wonderful way for the family to get together and gather for prayer,” Father Yost explains. “There are little acts of consecration to the Sacred Heart they can say as a family and renew each month.”
First Friday devotions began with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a 17th-century French nun to whom Jesus communicated, among other things, his desire for a special devotion to his heart.
“One Friday during holy Communion,” she recorded in her diary, “he said these words to his unworthy slave, if I mistake not: ’I promise you in the excessive mercy of my heart that its all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive holy Communion on nine first Fridays of consecutive months the grace of final repentance. They will not die under my displeasure or without receiving their sacraments, my divine heart making itself their assured refuge at the last moment.’”
“We use First Friday Masses to stress the fact that, while it's the individual who commits himself, the devotion is best done in the family,” the priest adds. “It's linked to Father Patrick Peyton's famous truism: 'the family that prays together, stays together.’”
The Walker family in Spring, Texas — Hal and Barbara and their four girls and one boy, ages 4 to 14 — go as a family to confession and Mass each first Friday.
“We let the children know of the promises the Sacred Heart made to St. Margaret Mary,” Barbara Walker says. “Because of their beautiful innocence, children respond to really wanting to receive the sacraments before death and get to heaven.”
According to Father Yost, St. Margaret Mary underscored the Eucharistic emphasis of her mysterious visions: Not for nothing did Jesus connect a request for devotion to his heart with frequent Communion and holy hours.
Nor should it be overlooked that it was on the feast of Corpus Christi that Jesus told Margaret Mary: “Behold the heart that has so loved men.” Then he confided the pain he experienced over receiving so little gratitude from human hearts, even after all he had done for them. He asked for a feast of reparation on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi.
In explaining this, Father Yost takes pains to point out that, just as the Eucharist is all of Jesus — body and blood, soul and divinity — so the Sacred Heart devotion is meant to honor all of Jesus.
“This is a devotion to the person of Jesus Christ,” he adds. “It's not proper or correct to have just the image of the heart; the heart is imposed on the image of Christ. The devotion stresses the love of Christ for us, which we should return to him. The heart is the universal symbol of love. Almost every culture understands that.”
So it was fitting that, in June 2002, Pope John Paul II said in a short address: “To celebrate the heart of Christ means to turn toward the profound center of the Person of the Savior, that center the Bible identifies precisely as his heart, seat of the love that has redeemed the world. In order to save man … God wished to give him a ’new heart,’ faithful to his will of love. This heart is the heart of Christ, the masterpiece of the Holy Spirit, which began to beat in the virginal womb of Mary and was pierced by the lance on the cross, thus becoming for all the inexhaustible source of eternal life.”
The Martin family of St. Louis — Jeffrey, Ann and their five boys and two girls — always turn to the Sacred Heart in a special way each June. Ann Martin says the children are eager to learn of Jesus’ love and his request to St. Margaret Mary to make reparations for sins against the Euchaxrist.
Small art projects, she says, have been instrumental in getting the message to take root in their hearts.
“By drawing pictures of the figure of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, they begin to understand,” she says. “We put the crown of thorns around it, and we often put a slash wound to show where he was lanced. Then we put the flames coming out the top because of his tremendous love and because of what he did for us.”
“My children have drawn the picture over and over again,” she adds. “They love to do different takes.” Michael, 15, has been working for months on an oil painting of the Sacred Heart he's going to give to his father for the office.
Ann also emphasizes how important it is for Catholics “to enthrone in their home the Sacred Heart of Jesus” and place a picture of the Sacred Heart in a prominent place.
And why not? The Sacred Heart is a timeless devotion and a wordless witness that will never go out of style.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.