The Sacred Heart – Mankind’s Refuge

Given that the June is dedicated to the veneration of the Sacred Heart, I thought of using this Sunday to reflect on this beautiful and important devotion.

May 31, 1985, saw one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in North American history. The storm swept through Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada. There were several deaths and injuries; the damage was estimated at over $600 million. One of the hardest hit was the tiny community of Albion, but it was the scene of an incredible miracle. A number of homes, directly in the path of the tornado survived, standing, as if untouched, among the debris. Even St Lawrence’s, the local Catholic Church had been ripped in half. These homes had not special protection regards their construction. But each of these homes had formally enthroned and consecrated their families to the Sacred Heart. Jesus gave several promises to those who would honour his Sacred Heart. None of them though, give a guarantee that nothing bad will happen to us, like storms. Far from it. But sometimes, God gives signs as we need them. And this was powerful. That Christ’s love is a safe refuge through the storms of our life.  

The devotion to the Sacred Heart has existed throughout Christianity. Its modern form though, arose in 17thcentury France, through revelations given to a nun, St Margaret Mary Alacoque. And it came about as the Church was facing storms, within and without. From outside, it was under attack from the newly formed Protestants. Of particular interest for us, was the Reformers’ denial of man’s free will in relation to God. Luther thought that human nature was so fallen, that man had no possibility, not just of doing any good, but even of cooperating with God’s grace. In this passive condition, it was by sheer power of God’s grace, his merciful choice, that some were saved – but only some. Calvin followed this with what is called, the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’: that Christ died only for some people, not for all. Similar views, unfortunately found a home within the Catholic Church in the form of a complex movement, called Jansenism. The name arose from the Dutch theologian and bishop, Cornelius Jansenius. Jansenism was really a reform movement in the Church. Jansenists wanted greater holiness and rigour in the spiritual life. There were many clergy and even bishops who were won over by this movement. They wanted increased lay participation in the liturgy and also for the Scriptures to be opened to the laity. And they shared the pessimism of Calvin about human nature. They believed man was unable to cooperate with God’s grace and that Christ died only for a few.

France, in the seventeenth century, would become the storm-center of these theological battles. But they had huge repercussions at the popular level. The faithful started viewing God as wrathful and Jesus a severe judge who wanted to send people to Hell. This was also fuelled by the secular Enlightenment, which emphasised a cold rationality over feelings. All these combined to promote extraordinary penance for the faithful, so as to placate an angry God. Jansenists taught that even in a state of grace, most people were unworthy to receive Communion. The Eucharist, was only for those made perfect. The result was that people went to Confession but not Communion, even refusing the Eucharist on their deathbed. Jansenist priests stopped celebrating Mass. 

It was at this time that a frail young nun at Paray-Le-Monial started receiving apparitions of Jesus, as the Sacred Heart. Jesus revealed himself not as an angry Judge but as the loving Shepherd whose heart was being consumed in flames of love for humanity, while being wounded by its sins. No one would believe her messages initially, and it would cause her great suffering, taking her to the point of death. But a holy and learned Jesuit, St Claude la Colombiere would believe her. His approval would open St Margaret’s message out to the rest of the Order, France and then the world. The Jesuits would become its great apostles.

            The Sacred Heart was the perfect antidote to the theological storms tearing the Church apart. The exposed heart of Jesus was a symbol of the fierce and burning love of God, to which even a child could relate, overcoming the cold rationality of the time. But there was much more to this image. The Sacred Heart is a human heart, which, incredibly, contains and burns with the uncontainable, infinite Love of God. It encapsulates the perfect union of the human and divine in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. This was the model and the goal of Christianity. Against the Jansenists, it meant that fallen human nature could be transformed by God’s love made present on the Cross. Our unclean and wounded hearts, in being united to the heart which was pierced for us would begin to burn with this same Love. But this is not something anyone could win through extreme penance. Devotion to the Sacred Heart involves reparation for sin, but it is in being drawn by the love of Christ’s heart, that this transformation begins. In this pierced heart heaven is opened: sinners can find refuge and the lukewarm have their faith kindled. 

Since then, this devotion has been encouraged by successive Popes as something for the whole Church. Jesus gave several promises to Margaret Mary for those who would honour his Sacred Heart. These include establishing peace within the family, blessing every family that enthrones this image, consolation in times of difficulty and all the graces necessary for one’s state of life – and more. Given the attack on (Christian) families in our time especially, this is a great source of grace. Maybe the Enthronement is something to consider for your family, especially this month (see how to, here). Equally, any individual can consecrate themselves to the Sacred Heart (see here). Today, unfortunately, this devotion has grown cold. It is rejected for its apparent sentimentality (which is to do more with our times than the symbol itself). Images of the Sacred Heart are sometimes in bad taste putting yet others off. Men often see it as a ‘feminine’ devotion. But biblically, the heart is to do with the whole person. It represents the depths of one’s being, going beyond psychology or simple feelings. It is the place of decision, as the Catechism says, where one decides for or against God (CCC 368).

            In the Sacred Heart, the depths of the invisible God is revealed. Here, he reveals that his eternal decision is for us, not against us. Here he waits to shelter you and me through all the storms of our life. And whoever finds this refuge will never be lost.

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