Why Devotion to the Sacred Heart is the Soul of Christian Belief
Hearth and Home
Those of us of a certain age will remember the pictures of the Sacred Heart prominently displayed in every Catholic household. These images weren’t just hung up along with the family photos and a framed picture of a Scottish landscape, they were ‘enthroned’ by the local priest as part of a first pastoral visit to the newly-moved-in.
‘The Sacred Heart Messenger’ was founded in France in the 1840s. The ‘Irish Messenger’, started by Fr. James Cullen in 1888, reached peak distribution in the 1930s of around 250,000, and was staple religious fare for my parents’ generation. It is still published today and continues to be, even in largely secularised Ireland, a popular read.
When I left home for seminary and breathed in the heady mix of philosophy, theology, and argument, not to mention the odd glass of Castelli Romani, these saccharine images of a gentle bearded Jesus seemed just part of a childhood I was leaving behind. This was less than twenty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, which opened the windows to blow away the remnants of dusty superstition and usher in a new age of religious enlightenment.
Returning to Scotland in 1989, with ‘all the answers’ to the crisis facing the Catholic Church in Scotland, I found my parish priest and parishioners open to anything I had to say. They were interested – or were very good at feigning interest – and often kindly commented that my sermons had given them something to think about. They also wanted to continue with devotional practices. Looking back, we had quite a good blend of the old traditional Catholic parish, with social and devotional life, wall-to-wall confessions (at a time when that sacrament was drifting into reminiscence), outreach and action for the poor, and a very healthy and engaged RCIA programme. It may have been the flourish before the end, but it all taught me a very valuable lesson: the heart and head had to be in sync not just for individual faith to prosper, but for the community to grow. The whole person must be engaged, if we are truly to be saved, and it is beauty that appeals to every aspect of our nature, first and best, as Bishop Robert Barron is constantly reminding us.
The heart of love
To read John’s Gospel is to read God’s love poem. We hear of the unfolding of God’s love for us, yes, but also of the revelation of the eternal love triangle of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, we encounter the metaphors ‘gate’, ‘way’, ‘light’, ‘shepherd’, ‘bread’. I was reminded recently that the word metaphor meant in ancient Greek, to transfer or to transport. Obviously, for us it usually means that attributes are applied from one object to another, which are seemingly quite different, to bring out some deeper meaning by encouraging us to see that the two have in fact something in common.
It is no accident that the symbols that Jesus uses for himself refer to life’s journey: being guided and nourished, passing through barriers, making decisions, all with himself at the centre of this activity. From the Wedding at Cana to the Washing of the Feet, Jesus shows not only that he came to serve, love, and transform humanity, but that how he does that is precisely by showing who he is, God’s Son, the one who does the Father’s will, and who co-sends the Spirit to inform, energise, and focus our hearts. Through this means, we know that he loves the Father, and knowing this we take the decision to follow the same path to life through him.
Love is more than a feeling (to quote an old song from my youth); it is knowledge, understanding, awe…sound familiar? It is a decision made from the core of our being because we have allowed ourselves to be transferred (‘metaphored’) from this realm to the Father’s by the divine human heart that beats for love of God and love of neighbour. This same heart can beat within our being because we have been created and graced by the one who is at the same time pure love and exemplary human being.
I often meditate on the statue of the Sacred Heart in my main parish church, St Fillan’s, Crieff. As statues of a certain era go, it is a rather nice example; not too sweet, and not too ‘disturbing’ (some of us will recall those pictures of the Sacred Heart with the eyes that followed you round the room – or was that guilt?). Devotion to the Sacred Heart has evolved into various forms over the years, from meditation on the five wounds of Jesus, through the messages given to St Margaret Mary Alacoque, down to the Divine Mercy Novena. No matter the differing types of images that accompany these devotions, or the sermons and sage reflections upon them, it is by fixing my eyes on the images themselves that I am reminded of what is most important. I am carried, directed, nourished, and reassured that if Christ is at the centre of my life, I cannot lose my way. When I do, it is the sound of his beating heart that guides me back, and his loving gaze that meets me when I return.