In a 2006 letter addressed to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Superior General of the Jesuits marking the 50th Anniversary of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, Pope Benedict XVI said that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus “remains indispensable for a living relationship with God…It cannot be considered as a passing form of worship or devotion.” Not one prone to hyperbole, the Pope Emeritus was simply drawing upon the tradition of his recent predecessors. For example, when faced with some of the fallout from the Second Vatican Council regarding the devotional life of the Church, Blessed Paul VI spoke about the Sacred Heart often. He said that “it is absolutely necessary that the faithful venerate and honor the Sacred Heart in the expression of their private piety as well as in the services of public cult, because of His fullness we have all received” (Investigabiles Divitias Christi, 1965) and also reminding the Faithful that “the cult rendered to the Sacred Heart is the most efficacious means to contribute to that spiritual and moral renewal of the world called for by the Second Vatican Council” (Address to the Thirty-First General Congregation of the Society of Jesus,1966). Clearly the Popes of the last 60 years are unanimous in their assessment of the importance of devotion to the Sacred Heart, but it is in reading the aforementioned Pius XII’s encyclical that we are able to see that it should hold a certain primacy. He speaks of the obligation that Christians have toward devotion to the Sacred Heart, cautioning against treating it as we do other private devotions: “There are some who, confusing and confounding the primary nature of this devotion with various individual forms of piety which the Church approves and encourages but does not command, regard this as a kind of additional practice which each one may take up or not according to his own inclination.”
In order to fully grasp why this devotion is obligatory, Pius XII challenged us to a “more earnest consideration of those principles which take their origin from Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians and on which, as on solid foundations, the worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus rests.” Before looking at the devotion itself, it is instructive to consider two of the most important principles, namely the Biblical notion of Heart and the Hypostatic Union.
Because the heart was viewed as the vital center of life in the body, it was also used as a metaphor for the very core of a person. It is considered the seat of the soul where intellect, will and passions meet. It becomes synonymous with the interior of the person so much so that Scripture repeatedly speaks of judging man’s heart. Even a secularized understanding of the heart captures its connection to love. It is so closely associated with love that when we love a person and long for a response to that love, it is their heart that we want to call our own.
There has often been a criticism of devotion to the Sacred Heart (increasingly so even inside the Church) that it is a subtle form of idolatry or worshipping of an image. But once we recall the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union we can quickly set those objections to rest.
The early Church was confronted with a number of heresies regarding the Person of Christ. There was a need to adequately explain how the man Jesus Christ was both human and divine. It was the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) that declared that the two natures of Christ are joined “in one person and one hypostasis.” What this meant was that the Divine Person of the Son took a complete human nature. Because this union is in the Person, it is the closest possible union between the human and divine. What this means that all the parts of that human nature were also united to the Person so that even His human heart is united to Him. What this means is that devotion to the Sacred Heart is based on the fact that where the human heart of Christ is, God is found. In other words, the worship that we give to the Sacred Heart is directed to God Himself. In this regard there is certainly a biblical foundation. When St. Thomas the Apostle puts his hand into the side of Christ and touches the Sacred Heart, he worships Him as “my Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
While devotion to the Sacred Heart is directed to the Person of Son because of the Hypostatic Union, it is also as a symbol that it merits the greatest of devotion. This is particularly true for our times in particular because many Christians trapped in a world dominated by various “isms” see Christianity as just one potential worldview (even if they think it to be true). But Christianity is not primarily about embracing a form of belief or accepting a doctrine but accepting and receiving a Person. It is first and foremost about having a real encounter with a man who was once dead and is now alive—Jesus Christ. Ideas don’t have human hearts, but Persons do. Devotion to the Sacred Heart always protects us from falling into this dangerous trap. It serves to remind us that what we are to study is not primarily a doctrine, but a Person. What makes this devotion so powerful is that in studying the Sacred Heart, it not only reveals the Person but also all we know about Him. You can tie almost every doctrine back to the Sacred Heart (the Incarnation, the Resurrection in His own body, the Church, the Sacraments, etc.) Pope Pius XI seems to summarize it best when he calls devotion to the Sacred Heart “the summary of our religion.”
While the Heart of Jesus is the ultimate symbol of God’s love, it is unlike any other symbol used in popular piety. It is no imaginary symbol but a real symbol, which represents the source from which love for all mankind gushed forth. It is like a sacrament in that it brings about the two things it symbolizes, namely the love of God for mankind and mankind’s love for God.
When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque He invited her to “”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.” The Sacred Heart reveals to us the extreme depth of God’s love for each one of us. It is a Heart that was emptied of all that was in it through Christ’s outpouring on the Cross. It is a love not just of giving, but like the greatest loves it leads to communion. When His Heart is pierced by the lance, He gave us the power of adoption in the water. But unlike any merely human adoption where the child’s blood is different than the rest of the family, He transfused the same blood that flowed out into our veins. In this way the Sacred Heart is the source of the Sacraments.
All too often people speak of love as an act of the will, as though it should be detached from our feelings. But love that is only in the will is somehow incomplete. It is not loving with our entire soul and the person who only loves in the will is often very scary. In order to be complete, human love must be both in the will and the emotions. And this is the love that is made possible by the Sacred Heart. God loves us with a human heart and this realization helps us to avoid seeing God’s love as somehow detached and impersonal.
It not only signifies the love that God has for each one of us, but also it is representative of mankind’s perfect love of God. God now is loved most perfectly by a human heart. Not satisfied with a love that is closed in on itself, He empowers each of us (through the blood and water) to love God with His Heart. It brings about what it symbolizes. Summarizing, Pius XII says: “It is altogether impossible to enumerate the heavenly gifts which devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has poured out on the souls of the faithful, purifying them, offering them heavenly strength, rousing them to the attainment of all virtues …Consequently, the honor paid to the Sacred Heart is such as to raise it to the rank — so far as external practice is concerned — of the highest expression of Christian piety. For this is the religion of Jesus, which is centered on the Mediator who is man and God, and in such a way that we cannot reach the Heart of God, save through the Heart of Christ.”