A Brief History of a Devotion

Peter Névraumont’s The Sacred Heart of Jesus: The History and Meaning of Christianity’s Most Mystical Symbol is unique in its approach to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. In this book you will see many images of the Sacred Heart through the ages, learn about the history of this art, and discover the many churches and schools named for the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The art in this book parallels and echoes the history of the theology of the devotion to this symbol.

The word “heart” in the biblical sense stands for the whole person. It is used in scripture to indicate the deepest core of a person; it the place of thoughts, feelings, desires, and motives. The Sacred of Jesus is the center of his person, a symbol of his love. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is devotion to the love of God for us manifested in the humanity of Jesus Christ. As such, it was implicit in the life, worship, and teaching of the Church from the beginning.

The Gospel of John gives us two texts that are the chief scriptural foundations for the devotion to the Heart of Christ. These texts are John 7:37–38, where Jesus speaks of the rivers of living water flowing from his bosom, and John 19:34, where at the crucifixion “One of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately blood and water flowed out.” Both texts were commented on by the Fathers of the Church. The patristic period can be summed up in a single formula: “fons vitae” (fountain of life). Salvation, grace, the Church, the Sacraments—all flow from the fountain of living water the source of which is the pierced Heart of Christ.

In the early Middle Ages, devotion to the Heart of Christ flourished in the monasteries. The from 1200 to 1400, many mystics, including St. Lutgard, St. Gertrude the Great, and St. Catherine of Sienna, discovered the Heart of Jesus as a source of grace and shared their experiences. Some of the favors granted to these mystics from the Heart of Christ included the exchange of hearts, leaning against Jesus’ bosom (as John the Evangelist did during the Last Supper), the grace of drinking from the side of Jesus, and imprints of the wounds of Jesus. Soon, the devotion spread outside of the cloisters. The Franciscans and the Dominicans had devotion to the five wounds of Christ: their disciples discovered the Heart of Jesus through the wound in his side. Although devotion to the Sacred Heart was first connected to the Passion of Jesus, some saints wrote about the glorious Heart of Christ still burning with love for us after His resurrection.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was spread by the example of the saints who practiced and preached it. After the introduction of the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, devotion to the Sacred Heart was associated with Eucharistic worship. By 1540 the Society of Jesus was approved, and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius increased devotion to the inner life of Jesus and asked for total surrender to Christ in love and trust.

By the 17th century the French School (an expression used to describe a spirituality that began and developed in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) saw that the love of Christ penetrates not only all the Gospel, but all aspects of Christ’s extended life in the members of the Mystical Body. Pierre de Berulle, fathered the French School and also founded the Oratory. Charles de Condren, Jean Jacques Olier, St. John Eudes, St. Vincent de Paul, and, later, Bossuet and St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort were all associated with the French School. They saw the Incarnate Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ at the center of the universe, at the center of human history, and at the center of each person’s life. The emphasis placed on the inner life of Jesus, especially his love, encouraged devotion to the Heart of Jesus. St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal introduced the devotion to the Heart of Christ into the Visitation Order which St. Margaret Mary Alacoque would later join.

St. John Eudes, founder of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, obtained permission in 1672 to celebrate a special feast of the Heart of Jesus; The Mass Gaudamus (Inner Joy) and Office in honor of the Sacred Heart was composed for this feast. A year after this Mass and Office in honor of the Sacred Heart was sanctioned, St. Marguerite-Marie received the first of her four “great revelations” made to her by Our Lord between the years 1673–1675. These revelations would influence devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus throughout the world.

Marguerite-Marie Alacoque was a humble Visitandine nun in Paray-le-Monial, France, when Jesus first appeared to her and allowed her to recline on his breast. The second vision had the symbol of the disembodied Heart burning with love and surmounted by a cross. This wounded Heart was encircled with a crown of thorns. In the third apparition, Jesus spoke of the ingratitude of so many and their lack of love. He asked Marguerite-Marie to receive Him frequently in Holy Communion, to make a Communion of Reparation on the first Friday of every month, and to make a Holy Hour every Thursday night. In June of 1685, Jesus again came to Marguerite-Marie and said,

“Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing even to exhausting and consuming itself in order to show them its love. And in return, I received from most men only ingratitude, by their irreverences and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt which they show me in the sacrament of love. But what wounds me even more deeply is that this is done by souls who are consecrated to me.”

The great difference between the visions at Paray-le-Monial and the French School was that now the physical heart itself was seen as the symbolic focus of the person of Christ. It was the Heart of Jesus, the risen, glorious Christ, who still retains the marks of his wounds. The term “Sacred Heart” became a beloved name of Jesus.

St. Madeleine Sophie Barat founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800. Her devotion to the Heart of Christ was based on scripture and the Fathers of the Church, influenced by the medieval tradition and the theologies of the French School with its emphasis on the interior dispositions of Jesus, and animated by St. Marguerite-Marie’s visions of Jesus’ showing her his Sacred Heart. St. Madeleine Sophie felt the most perfect devotion was that which consecrates us and conforms and unites us with the Heart of Christ. Her favorite title for Christ was “Heart of Jesus” by which she meant the whole person. The words “Heart of Jesus” recall all the depth and mercy poured out for us from the Cross. Devotion to the Heart of Christ focused on the love and interior life of Jesus manifested by the symbol of His Heart. In 1818 she sent St. Philippine Duchesne to bring the Society of the Sacred Heart to North America. Soon schools of the Sacred Heart were founded in many cities and countries and continents spreading the devotion far and wide as indeed the Jesuits were also spreading it especially by the Apostleship of Prayer with the morning offering of all “prayers, works, joys and sufferings” to the Sacred Heart.

In 1765 Pope Clement XIII approved the Feast of the Sacred Heart and granted a proper Mass and Office, Miserabitur (lamentations), to the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome and the Kingdom of Poland. In 1794 Pope Pius VI in the Bull “Auctorem Fidei” (the ancient Doctors) gave universal approbation to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by which the Heart of Jesus is seen to be the symbol of God’s love made known to us in Christ; every pope since has approved of the devotion. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and issued his encyclical “Annum Sacrum” (sacred year). In 1929 Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical “Miserentissimus Redemptor” (compassionate redeemer) in which he asked for a solemn act of reparation to the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was to be shown by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical “Haurietis Aquas” (you will draw water) to be based on scriptural (in particular John 7:37–38 and 19:34), patristic, and liturgical authority. He offered the devotion as a most perfect way of professing the Christian religion. While the specific forms of the devotion may have changed several times in Church history, as this new book documents, the essentials never will as they are based on God’s love for us revealed to us in Christ and call us to respond to that love.

Helen Rosenthal, RSCJ
Coordinator of Spirituality Studies
School of Theology and Ministry
St. Thomas University
Miami Gardens, Florida

September 29, 2009