This month of June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The love of God made manifest in the crucified Christ has been a focus of devotion and piety since the very beginning of Christianity. But particular devotion to the heart of Christ first appeared in the Middle Ages.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart, as we know it today, arose in earnest in 17th-century France through the revelations received by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque with the assistance of her spiritual director, the Jesuit St. Claude de la Colombière.
By the 18th century, devotion to the Sacred Heart – and formal acts of consecration to the Sacred Heart – had spread across France and beyond. During the French Revolution, the Sacred Heart became an emblem of Catholic loyalists opposed to the anti-clerical, atheistic forces of the revolution. Catholic counterrevolutionaries in the Vendée wore insignia bearing the image of the Sacred Heart.
In 1856, Pope Pius IX established the Feast of the Sacred Heart for the universal Church. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, Annum Sacrum, declaring that, in the “principal church of every town and village,” the faithful of the whole world should be solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Leo desired that the unified devotion of the Church to the Sacred Heart of Jesus would be a powerful reminder, to the faithful themselves and the world at large, of Christ’s kingship over all creation – a kingship he holds both by right as the Son of God and by virtue of the terrible price he paid to redeem it.
Also among the reasons given by Pope Leo for exhorting the Church to this consecration was his abiding concern over rising godlessness, particularly among Christian nations. He saw religion being increasingly excluded from public life, a “sort of wall being raised between the Church and civil society.”
Such disregard for the authority of sacred and divine law in public life, Leo wrote, “almost tends to the removal of the Christian faith from our midst, and, if that were possible, of the banishment of God Himself from the earth.” He went on to describe a state of affairs which bears an uncanny resemblance to our own turbulent and anxious times:
When men’s minds are raised to such a height of insolent pride, what wonder is it that the greater part of the human race should have fallen into such disquiet of mind and be buffeted by waves so rough that no one is suffered to be free from anxiety and peril? When religion is once discarded it follows of necessity that the surest foundations of the public welfare must give way, whilst God, to inflict on His enemies the punishment they so richly deserve, has left them the prey of their own evil desires, so that they give themselves up to their passions and finally wear themselves out by excess of liberty.
This is one of the great themes, perhaps the great theme, of the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII. When man, in his pride, attempts to “free” himself from God, he instead becomes a slave to his passions. When man forgets God, he loses sight of himself.
Pope John Paul II would sum up the Leonine position, almost a century later, “freedom which refused to be bound to the truth would fall into arbitrariness and end up submitting itself to the vilest of passions, to the point of self-destruction.”
It is not difficult to hear in those prescient words of Pope Leo, the echo of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever.”
This is the same story of prideful rebellion we discover throughout salvation – from the stiff-necked Israelites rebelling in the desert, to the tower of Babel, to the Fall itself, when Adam and Eve were promised their disobedience would make them like gods.
This is the story of the human race, in its exasperating simplicity and stubborn stupidity: Tempted in our pride to be like gods, we rebel against God, who created us to be like Himself.
And yet, for all that, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” in St. Athanasius’ famous phrase.
For this reason, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is no less worthy and important in our own day than it was in 17th-century France, or the Middle Ages, or at the foot of Calvary. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the perfect antidote to the pride in our hearts. God loves us with a human heart so that might learn to share in his divine love.
“In that Sacred Heart all our hopes should be placed,” Pope Leo wrote, “and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought.”
In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we discover the humility of God that overwhelms and destroys pride. In his Sacred and Suffering Heart, our own hearts are moved to contrition. In his Sacred Heart, our own selfishness is burned away in the consuming fire of his love and mercy. In his Sacred Heart, we encounter the love that created, ordered, and sustains all things. In His Sacred Heart, we find the strength and grace to love as he loves.
In his Most Sacred Heart we find refuge and peace even in the midst of – especially in the midst of – the trials and tribulations of the age.