Take heart

The Feast of the Sacred Heart puts Jesus’ love at the centre of faith
and views God through the lens of his human love for sinners.

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 
Consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services

The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was born out of a vision by a 17th-century French Visitation Sister. Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque heard Jesus asking for devotion to his Heart, and that a feast be named on the first Friday after the Feast of Corpus Christi. That led the Visitation Sisters and Jesuits to promote the devotion. 

The feast and the devotion, however, had a longer history. In the medieval Church, people were fascinated by the stories of the saints and by the human details of the Gospels. Many contemplatives dwelt on John’s account of the soldier piercing Jesus’ heart with a spear. They saw in it Jesus’ total gift of his life on the Cross and Jesus’ call to share in his life. In their prayers, many people focused on Jesus’ heart as the symbol of his love.   

St Margaret Mary had visions of Jesus speaking of his unrequited love, asking for a feast to be celebrated, and that the first Friday of each month be set aside to make reparation. He promised to be with those who practised the devotion. Together with the support of her spiritual director, the French Jesuit St Claude la Colombière, she promoted the devotion to the Sacred Heart and enlisted her own congregation and the Jesuits into the cause.  

The devotion to the Sacred Heart spoke to the needs of the times, particularly in France. A more severe vision of Christian faith had spread from the disciples of Cornelius Janssens, a scholar who published his book on St Augustine shortly before Margaret Mary’s vision. Augustine had emphasised the overwhelming gift of God’s grace and forgiveness for our salvation. That joyful conviction led to a darker controversy about those who had not received this gift and so were not saved. God could then be seen more as judge than as lover.  

Janssen’s followers emphasised this negative slant, preoccupied with what they saw as mediocrity in the Church. They saw Jesuit preachers as peddlers of what would later be called “cheap grace”, and so ignoring Jesus’ call to radical conversion. Their vision, however, emphasised the justice of God often at the expense of the love shown in Jesus’ life and death. In a related debate they claimed that Christians should refrain from communicating unless they were totally and honestly sorry for their sins because they had offended God. The Jesuits, who opposed this rigorism, urged communicating frequently as a help to living more generously. For them the best could be the enemy of the good. 

The devotion to the Sacred Heart put Jesus’ love at the centre of faith and saw God through the lens of his human love for sinners. Its practices were simple and heartfelt, offering comfort for the overwhelmed and neglected. It encouraged Catholics to see Christ’s love for us as the heart of the matter.  The pictures of the Sacred Heart that were seen on the walls of the poorest families in Australian homes a century ago testify to the power of the message.   

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association. 

Banner image shows the stained-glass window in the 19th-century Sacred Heart Cathedral in Punta Arenas, Chile. Photo: Deposit Photos