by Alec Gany, Franciscan University of Steubenville
The Sacred Heart devotion is one that tends to go overlooked. Sure, the image is well known: Christ staring intently at us, revealing to us a heart with what seems like a burning furnace on top, being pierced by a crown of thorns and bleeding from its side. However, few Catholics really take the time to find out the message behind it. It’s a shame, too, because it’s a message our world that both the scrupulous and the lax desperately need: one of mercy, compassion, consolation, and friendship. Because for most, the only thing keeping them away from the Catholic Church is fear.
The Sacred Heart devotion was popularized in its modern form after Jesus Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century. This was a time when the world was plagued with Jansenism—the idea that man must attain heaven by his own effort. This heresy spread violently like a virus throughout the Church, to the point where bishops would brag that no one in their diocese received communion because they all felt unworthy. Such acts caused the Heart of Christ to ache: few dared even approach the Sacred Host, afraid that the wrath and vengeance of God would be unleashed upon them for their failed attempts at perfection.
Christ expressed this pain and sorrow to St. Margaret Mary, coming to her, not in fury and rage but in sadness and agony: “Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament of Love.” His Heart is not a furnace of anger but of jealous Love for mankind. He explained that the fires of His Sacred
Heart burn so furiously because His Love is so rejected in the world, and He earnestly who will accept His Love and Mercy.
He promised that those who consoled His Sacred Heart would be granted all necessary graces, peace in their families, consolation, and refuge in all their troubles, and His infinite mercy. He also proposed what is now called the First Friday Devotion. He stated that if one received Holy Communion on nine consecutive Fridays in honor and reparation to His Sacred Heart, “my all-powerful love will grant to [them]…the grace of final repentance: they will not die in my displeasure, nor without receiving the sacraments; and my Heart will be their secure refuge in that last hour.”
Christ then recalled the agony he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, which he described as, “a kind of agony harder to endure than death itself.” He now asked her that humanity console Him for the sorrow He endured then and endures now. We need not do so with flagellations, rigorous fasting, or other self-inflicted harm. All He wishes of us is that we would spend an hour with Him in Adoration, that we would make an effort to spend time with Him. All He wants is our love, someone to whisper in His ear that they are grateful for what He did for them. Someone who consoles Him for the pain He went through.
Isn’t our Lord so beautifully relatable? So many in this world yearn for that same love. They find a void in their hearts that they attempt to fill with money, sex, drugs, else the world throws at them, and nothing truly sticks. They yearn for someone who understands their inner pain, and yet they will never truly be satisfied until they meet the “man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3). When a Catholic truly encounters the Eternal Friend they have in Christ, a burning love for Him is natural.
Such love is what saints are made of. What we as Catholics struggle to realize is that the saints were human. They did not rely on their own merit, but fully and entirely surrendered themselves to God. They did not obey His commands not out of fear of punishment but out of love, trust, and gratitude. Their secret formula to attaining heaven, ironically, was realizing that attaining it on their own was impossible.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux spoke of this often, devising what she later called the Little Way. This way consisted entirely of trust—humbling yourself to the state of a child before God and allowing Him to bring you to Heaven Himself. She compared this to a toddler standing before a set of stairs, with her father at the top. The toddler, incapable of fully scaling the staircase, falls back down repeatedly. Finally, the father, full of pity for the poor child, comes down and brings her up the stairs himself. If the father, in His mercy, brings the child up the stairs, how much more will the infinitely merciful Father bring us to heaven who fall repeatedly yet have unyielding trust in Him?
Such love and trust are what Christ wanted mankind to have in His apparition to St. Margaret Mary. And such a desire is just as relevant today as it was four centuries ago. In this world of mankind unwilling to approach our Lord out of the fear of appearing defective before Him, we fail to realize that our God is a God of gentleness and mercy. Christ speaks to us today as much as He did to her: “If only they would make Me some return for My Love, I should think but little of all I have done for them and would wish, were it possible, to suffer still more.”
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all of my trust in You.
Edited by Rachel LeMelle