Devotion to the Sacred Heart
Christopher Findlay Wilson
Return to Sacraments and Prayer
A treasure both ancient and modern
Open an old Catholic prayer book and it's more than likely that you'll find it crammed with various prayer-cards. In particular, the distinctive hallmark of Catholic spirituality was the devotion to the Sacred Heart. It inspired saints and religious communities. It lent its name to hospitals, schools and universities. No Catholic home was without a picture or statue. Yet thirty years ago a new broom swept away much of this devotional life. We are all familiar with stories of the removal of statues and ending of pious practices, as though inappropriate for the truly modern Christian. Devotion to the Sacred Heart suddenly became embarrassing to many - an apparently mawkish accretion to the Church at prayer. Yet it has never disappeared.
In fact our present Pope, whose pontificate has been wholly focussed on the new millennium, has expressed his approval and encouragement to "all who in any way continue to foster, study and promote devotion to the Heart of Christ in the Church with language and forms adapted to our times".1 A survey of the devotion - and in particular one form "adapted to our times" should show why the Pope is justified in assuring that the devotion to the Sacred Heart continues into the Church of tomorrow.
Up to three or four decades ago, the practice of devotion per se was taken for granted by Catholics. It had of course sprung from the early Church. St Paul's own pious ardor (2 Cor 5:14; 2 Tim 3:13) seems to have engendered the use of the term "devotion" even amongst present day evangelical Christians. For St Thomas Aquinas, devotion "appears to be nothing else save a willingness to give oneself readily to what concerns the service of God".2
The value of devotions
St Francis de Sales in particular treated the subject with such pastoral insight in his Introduction To The Devout Life. He describes devotion as "that spiritual alertness and vivacity which enables us to co-operate with charity promptly and wholeheartedly" and as a "spiritual sugar which sweetens mortifications and makes consolations unharmful."3 Despite the opinions of some, the Second Vatican Council itself did not discourage popular devotions, but recommended them highly, provided they conform to the laws of norms of the Church.4 The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes popular piety as "a storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life".5
Devotion to the Heart of Christ sprang up in the ancient mists of the Church's life. We can trace the pious tradition of meditating on the wounds of Christ to the first centuries. In particular the wound in his side was seen to be the source of the Church's life - as Eve was taken from the side of Adam. But it was not until after the close of the first millennium that we see the unmistakable indications of devotion to the Heart of Christ itself. It seems to have welled up within Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. The famous Vitis Mystica attributed either to St Bernard or St Bonaventure contains one of the most beautiful prayers to inspire the devotion. The first two saints to be associated with it, St. Mechtilde (d.1298) and St. Gertrude (d.1302) were already familiar with certain prayers that had been composed for the devotion. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it continued as a private practice amongst religious communities, but was gradually formulated into more precise spiritual exercises such as those recommended by St John of Avila and St Francis de Sales.
The Jesuits used Christ's heart as an emblem. Around this time there were many great names associated with the Sacred Heart, such as St Peter Canisius, St Aloysius Gonzaga and St Alphonsus Rodriguez. It fell to St John Eudes to make the devotion more public with an office and a feast. This all took place even before the famous revelations to St Margaret Mary.
St. Margaret Mary and promotion of the Sacred Heart
Although she seemed ignorant of the devotion itself, let alone its history, Our Lord appeared to this young Visitandine nun from 1673 onwards, asking that he be honoured under the figure of his heart of flesh. He also requested Communion on the First Fridays, the observance of holy hours and a feast of reparation on the octave day of Corpus Christ. This form of the devotion spread and became officially recognised and promoted by the Church - even before the Church recognised the supernatural origin of St Margaret Mary's revelations.
It was not, however, until 1856 that Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the Universal Church. Finally on 11th June 1899, again under the inspiration of a further private revelation, Pope Leo XIII consecrated all mankind to the Sacred Heart. He described it as the 'great act' of his pontificate. So the devotion had finally made its way into the life of every ordinary Catholic, beating a new life and fervour into the practice of the faith by drawing fresh attention to the true motivating love behind all of Christ's actions.
A time of both loss and renewal
Nevertheless, the move to renew and modernise the Church's life several decades ago seemed to have had a pretty drastic effect on devotion to the Sacred Heart. Admittedly, it didn't suddenly vanish from the titles of institutions and religious communities, but it swiftly became a relic of the older generations.
The tragic reaction against the teaching of formal prayers in schools had its obvious consequences. Undoubtedly there were tendencies in artistic representation that would be considered by most today as saccharinely sentimental: perhaps it was no bad thing that these have disappeared. Yet devotional practices in schools seem to have bowed to the pressures of the social gospel, as if the two were exclusive.
Onto this scene, however has grown up a whole new crop of devotions. There appears to have been a quite phenomenal outpouring of charismatic gifts through apparitions and locutions to individuals throughout the world. Granted that a percentage of these will be discovered as at worst fraudulent and at best the wishful imaginings of devout minds, the Church has nevertheless already found several quite worthy of credence. It is as though the Holy Spirit has reacted vigorously to the quasi-official dampener on popular spirituality.
Divine Mercy: renewal and development of the devotion
Perhaps the most famous of all these new devotions has been the Divine Mercy. Our present Pope has made it his personal mission to further the cause of Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun who died in 1938. He reversed the Church's original position of doubt concerning her message. On 30th April 2000 he canonised her and declared that from henceforth the Sunday after Easter would be Divine Mercy Sunday. It is quite remarkable how this devotion has spread. There is barely a Catholic Church today where one does not encounter the image of Christ with its white and red rays issuing from his heart:- the white cleansing water of baptism and confession and the red nourishing blood of the Eucharist.
It is of course only a re-energising of devotion to the Sacred Heart, as some of the integral prayers testify. Its message of mercy has been, as the Pope himself has declared, a true antibiotic for our modern world so diseased by sin. It has proved powerfully effective in drawing people back to sacramental confession when it was becoming almost extinct. It has doubtless restored a profound hope to so many otherwise despairing casualties of our 'culture of death'.
If the Divine Mercy focusses an aspect of the Sacred Heart devotion for an age in which sin has spread to unprecedented proportions, there may be another aspect that is yet more salutary. For the crisis in the Church that the Pope alludes to in his letter for the third millennium6 has surely touched every Catholic community and devastated many institutions.
The very rationale for the practice of the faith has been insidiously undermined. We are resigned to the true nature of love being misunderstood in secular society -and so often equated merely with sexual pleasure. But in the Church itself, love has frequently been reduced to a vapid promotion of third world charities. The institution of the Church - hierarchy, sacraments and all - has become a rather irrelevant relic to be rationalised by ever more anodyne humanist models. Needless-to-say, devotion to the heart of Christ then just ends up appearing as a sentimental and irrelevant peculiarity from a bygone age, with nothing essential to contribute to the world of tomorrow. It may just as well be the heart of Buddha or Guru Nanek.
Devotion more than just sentiment
This, of course, is not the orthodox vision of spirituality. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi; we know the Church at prayer does meditate on Christ's love as the ultimate expression of God's most wise plan for us all, the plan for which human beings came into existence - to be swept up to the life of God. This is the theme of the great Solemnity of Christ the King, for example. It is also the focus of the central mystery of the Rosary, the crowning with thorns; the tragedy of Divine kingship is rejected, the all wise plan of love is spurned. We move from heart to head.
For in popular symbolism as well as biology it is the head that regulates the heart. The Sacred Heart is thus emphatically not just to do with sentimental 'feel-good'; it is the outpouring of goodness from the Head of Christ-the-Word, through whom the Cosmos was formed. It took St Faustina to draw the world back to the mercy of his heart. Why should God not raise up another mystic to remind the world of the wisdom of Christ's Sacred Head that directs that heart?
The spirituality of Teresa Higginson
Before the drastic pruning back of devotional life in the Church, the name of Teresa Higginson was commonplace in England, especially in the North-West. Her cause for canonisation went to Rome in 1937. A series of letters in The Tablet from November 1937 to March 1938 evince an incredible display of devotion to her. She was rather like a female version of Padre Pio; by all accounts she possessed the stigmata, performed healings and miracles, made prophecies and attained to the mystical marriage.
Her spiritual director for the last twenty-two years of her life, Canon Snow, declared that he believed that she was not only a saint, but "one of the greatest saints Almighty God has ever raised up in his Church." Yet her cause was shelved - for apparently no other real reason than that there were many claims being made for devotions to Our Lord - and Rome couldn't cope with them. Perhaps, as with St Faustina and the Divine Mercy, she was being saved for a later time.
Teresa was born at the shrine of Holywell, North Wales on May 27th 1844, to a devout convert mother and a Stonyhurst-educated father.
She was brought up with five sisters and three brothers in their home in Gainsborough. The house possessed an oratory which was used as a Mass centre for all local Catholics. Fr Ignatius Spenser and Blessed Dominic Barberi sometimes visited. Teresa's life was one of extraordinary dedication to God from a very early age. She practised some severe penances and yet to the outside world she appeared just a normal, rather bold spirited tomboy. She was sent away to board at a convent at the age of 10, which she found very hard. When she left, aged 21, Fr Ignatius Spenser prophesied that she would not be a nun - though she would live in a convent for many years, and that she should be very faithful to God since He had a special plan for her.
At this time her father lost his money and Teresa took in sewing to help the family. But a little later, a smallpox and cholera epidemic broke out and she was able to step in to help the parish priest in Bootle who needed a teacher in his school. She proved to be an excellent teacher and would later work in schools in Orrell, Wigan, Sabden and Eccleshall. She fulfilled Fr Spenser's prophecy by living in an Edinburgh convent for 12 years, helping out in local schools there. Her final teaching post was in Chudleigh in Devon where she died in 1905.
Vision of the Sacred Head
There were periods in her life when - to her utter mortification - the supernatural side to her life became very obvious to those around her. She would fall into ecstasies and her lodgings would occasionally be plagued by the devil. But it is through her own letters, written in obedience to her two spiritual directors that her extraordinary inner life is known. Many of these letters are now being collated. They reveal the progression of her spiritual life through the states of the mystical espousals and mystical marriage, and most importantly God's plan for devotion to the Sacred Head.
On the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1879, Teresa retired to her room some time after attending Mass. She wrote:
"I was considering the excessive love of the Sacred Heart and offering to my Divine Spouse this same love to make amends for our coldness, and His constancy and Infinite riches to make up for our poverty and misery, when our divine Lord suddenly represented to me the Divinity as a very large bright crystal stone in which all things are reflected or are, past present and to come, in such a manner that all things are present in Him.
This immense precious stone sent forth streams of richly coloured lights brighter beyond comparison than ten thousand suns, which I understood represented the Infinite Attributes of God.
This great jewel also seemed to be covered with innumerable eyes, which I understood represented the Wisdom and Knowledge of God Our Blessed Lord showed me this Divine Wisdom as I was saying as the guiding power which regulated the motions and affections of the Sacred Heart, showing me that it had the same effect and power over its least action, and raising it, as the sun draws up vapour from the ocean. He gave me to understand that an especial devotion and veneration should be paid to the Sacred Head of Our Lord as the Seat of divine Wisdom and guiding power of the Sacred Heart, and so complete this heavenly devotion."
The Head as Seat of Wisdom and shrine of the soul
Teresa's whole life came to be infused with a love for the Sacred Head of Christ. It would seem that the many extraordinary graces she received were given so as to prepare her to reveal, explain and further this devotion.
On April 27th 1880 she wrote:
"It is the Will of our dear Blessed Lord that His Sacred Head be adored as the Seat of Divine Wisdom: not the Sacred Head alone, (I mean as we worship His sacred Hands and Feet) no, but the Head as the shrine of the powers of the Soul and the faculties of the Mind and in these the Wisdom which guided every affection of the Sacred Heart and motions of the whole Being of Jesus our Lord and God. It is not His divine Will that the attributes or abstracts of the soul or mind, or that divine Wisdom which guided governed and directed all in Him, (the God Man) should have a distinct worship, but that they should all be specially honoured and His Sacred Head adored as their Temple. And our dear Blessed Lord has shownme too how the head is also the centre of all the senses of the body, and that this devotion is the completion, not only of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, but the crowning and perfection of all devotions."
Our Lord requested a feast-day of reparation on the Friday after the Sacred Heart. He showed Teresa the extraordinary honour it would give him and also the graces it would draw down - that it would raise individuals to great heights of sanctity. It would be the one great means for the conversion of England, which would indeed 'more than repair' the damage done by the Reformation.
If we are honest, the devotion to the Sacred Head can sound a little strange to begin with. Somehow the imagery of the heart is more immediately accessible. On reflection, however, it makes profound sense. The love of Christ should be recognised as the wise expression of God's plan in the Incarnation, not just some unanimated affirmation of human weakness as a sort of afterthought on God's part. The love of Christ's heart seems yet more overwhelming when we consider that it is guided by the divine wisdom enshrined in his Sacred Head.
The time for devotional synthesis
Our Lord revealed to St Margaret Mary that he had saved the revelation of the Sacred Heart for a time when love had grown cold in the Church. Interestingly, despite her longing to know exactly when the devotion to the Sacred Head would come into its own, Teresa was never shown; she only knew that it was to be the antidote to intellectual pride and confusion which was erupting even in her own day.
Once, during the Forty Hours Exposition in her parish, Our Lord brought before her very clearly how he wished to have the mystery of the Incarnation preached and the Rosary said. These were to be a means of teaching the people better the mysteries of the Incarnation, so that the Church could prepare the world for the practice of the Devotion to the Sacred Head.
Now we might say that the deeper understanding of the Incarnation has now finally arrived in the Church for those with eyes to see, especially in the writings of Pope John Paul II, for whom Jesus is 'Lord of the Cosmos and Lord of History'.6 It is the vision of so many contemporary theologians - that the Incarnation is no troubleshooting addendum on the part of God's Son. It is in fact the climax of twelve billion years of creation.
This is, of course, the vision of the Faith movement and a vision that the Catechism corroborates.7 So the love of the Sacred Heart is of one economy with the wisdom enshrined within the fabric of our ancient universe, but most especially in Scripture, the institution of the Church and sacraments, and above all the Holy Eucharist.
Love ordered through Wisdom
Only Christ can show us how to love perfectly since that was his mission before the ages began. Most importantly, his love is witness to the wisdom behind all true loving - that there are 'rules' in loving which our disordered modern world has dismissed or lost sight of. The devotion to the Sacred Head would seem to be truly the crowning of devotion to the Sacred Heart and to have come at a most apposite time. Although she may have never known the exact time of its acceptance by the world, Teresa wrote to her spiritual director: "Oh my father do we not see the depth of that divine Wisdom in the time that He has reserved for the manifestation of His adorable Will in this respect?"
Perhaps to the surprise of many, devotion to the Sacred Heart is not the invention of the seventeenth century. One might not trace its source explicitly back to St John and St Paul, but it certainly became plainly manifest a whole millennium ago. Through the vicissitudes of human history it has encouraged ordinary men and women to become heroic followers of Christ when love might otherwise have died down in prevailing culture. In our own time no one can deny that great new energies of love are to be found.
Rekindling the flame of both Love and Truth
But if we are to avoid the turmoil of confusion that has crept into the motivating philosophies of so many, we must turn to the wisdom of Christ's Sacred Head that guides all the loving of his Heart. And it seems clear that honouring that Sacred Head would be the perfect way to rekindle the age-old devotion to the Sacred Heart.
Far from being some vestige of an out-dated spirituality, it may rather prove effective in inflaming future generations with apostolic zeal. Perhaps the last word should go to our Pope who is such a loyal son of the Sacred Heart:
"In facing the challenge of the new evangelisation, the Christian who looks upon the Heart of Christ and consecrates himself as well as his brothers and sister to him, the Lord of time and of history, rediscovers that he is the bearer of his light. Motivated by this spirit of service, he cooperates in opening to all human beings the prospect of being raised to their own personal and communal fulness."8
Further information about Teresa Higginson and the devotion can be found at www.sacredhead.org
1 Pope John Paul II, "Centenary of Consecration of Human Race to the Sacred heart", Osservatore Romano (23rd June 1999), 1.
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q.81a 3, ad 3m.
3 St Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans Michael Day Cong. Ort. (Wheathampstead: Anthony Clarke, 1990), 7, 9.
4Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 13.
5 CCC, 1676.
6 John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 36.
7 CCC, 280.
8 Pope John Paul II, "Centenary of Consecration of Human Race to the Sacred Heart", 1.