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The devotion to the Sacred Heart

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The informal devotion to the Heart of Jesus began with the prophetic words of the fourth evangelist: "They will look upon him whom they have pierced" (Jn 19:37). The open wound of Jesus, the window to his physical heart, fostered a cordial spirituality.

The emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the centrality of love as his only passion and motivation would pave the way for a more distinct spirituality of the Heart of Jesus.

We cannot go through all the centuries of the Christian era. However, let us note, for example, that in the 15th century an enduring prayer became popular, the Anima Christi. One of its verses says, "Within your wounds hide me." In the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote some Spiritual Exercises that sought "the inner knowledge of the Lord." This request predisposes souls to a more formal devotion to the Sacred Heart.

The 17th century was the first golden century of the Heart of Jesus. A priest, St. John Eudes, composed an office and a Mass of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary that received the approval of the Archbishop of Rouen in 1672.

A religious of the Visitation, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, stated that Jesus wanted a liturgical feast that would honor His Heart wounded by our sins. Her confessor, St. Claude La Colombière, judged the nun's experiences to be credible. These private revelations, with an emphasis on reparation, took place between 1673 and 1675.

At that time, representations of Jesus showing his wounded heart in his chest were made public. This icon won over the Christian people and soon these paintings appeared in Catholic homes, a practice that continues to this day.

The liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart made its way slowly, first in France and then in Poland.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the birth of numerous religious institutes under the patronage of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A spirituality so warm and intimate more than filled the gaps that poverty, chastity and obedience, all lived in radical fidelity, could create. The rate of perseverance in the vocation became very high.

The dream of the saints of the 17th century became a reality when Blessed Pius IX extended the feast of the Heart of Jesus to the whole Church in 1856. Its liturgy then rose to the rank of solemnity in 1889 on the initiative of Pope Leo XIII.

The Apostleship of Prayer was born in the middle of the 19th century (1844), giving a boost to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, still active today.

All the popes of the 20th century wrote encyclicals promoting the devotion to the Heart of Jesus. The encyclical Haurietis Aquas (1956), by the Venerable Pius XII, deserves a special mention. It highlights the biblical and patristic roots of the devotion, and its foundations are more solid than the private experiences of mystical saints.

In spite of the efforts by the Church in favor of the devotion, some turbulent years came after the Second Vatican Council that weakened the devotion to the Heart of Jesus.

That decrease coincided with the drop in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, as well as the decline in religious practice and the rise of atheism in countries with a long Christian tradition. What a coincidence!

This Friday, June 19, we will celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. May the Lord inspire the Christian people to rediscover in His Heart the path towards the formation of a more fervent, more evangelized and more evangelizing Church.

Comments from readers

Dr Joan DiGregorio - 06/15/2020 04:41 PM
Dear Father Barrios - Thank you for this compact history of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is wonderful to have this chronology and theological / spiritual points elucidated in such a pithy form - thank you most kindly. I am highly devoted to the spirituality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, owing to my parents who beautifully infused me with the core of this central devotion as a young child and forward in my life with prayers, mediations and reflections suitable to a young mind and heart - ( thanks be to Our Lord -my father was educated in Jesuit boarding schools in Italy and my mother in Benedictine). From them I learned the Anima Christi in Latin and Italian and English. So naturally it has remained a favorite prayer that I have prayed a good deal in this pandemic crisis. I also can truly be grateful for Franciscan sisters and friars in the USA who deepened the devotion -as my primary and secondary school educators. I wonder if you happened to see the extraordinary new Litany to the Sacred Heart written by renown Dominican Fr Peter John Cameron OP - in the June 2020 issue of Magnificat p. 12. It is derived from Ven Pius XII encyclical - Haurietis Aquas. It has been a truly deeply moving revelation in prayer and contemplation for me to the most beloved Sacred Heart of Jesus. For me , in my daily life, within the Church and in seeking to live a life consecrated to Our Lord. Again, many thanks Father Barrios for your compelling and beautiful reflection on the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus! May God bless and grant you every grace, Dr Joan DiGregorio

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