The Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most popular feast days in the Roman Catholic Church. A movable feast, it is celebrated each year on a Friday in the spring on the nineteenth day after Pentecost.
The proper name of the feast is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which in Latin is Sollemnitas Sacratissimi Cordis Iesu. Solemnity feasts are of highest importance in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus liturgical celebration has its roots in the devotion to the Sacred Heart, a widely appealing and long-practiced Roman Catholic devotion to the physical heart of Jesus Christ as the visual representation of God’s divine love and compassion for the world.
The devotion is based primarily on two passages in the Gospel of John. John 19:34 speaks of blood and water that flowed from the spear wound Jesus sustained on the cross: “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” And in John 7:38 Jesus declares, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” The physical heart of Jesus as the center and source of Jesus’ infinite and passionate love for humankind became a specific object of adoration within Catholicism.
In its initial stages, as far back as the eleventh century, this devotion developed from private, mystical contemplations of monks and nuns on the wounds in Jesus’ side. Some of the earliest known meditations are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), abbot of a Cistercian monastery in France; and Gertrude the Great (1256–1302), a German Benedictine nun.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart spread informally until it was popularized by Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), a nun in the Salesian visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial in Burgundy, France. Under the influence of her convent adviser, Jesuit priest Claude de la Colombière, Margaret Mary practiced fervent devotions to the Sacred Heart. In them, she experienced visions and revelations that were reported to result in ecstasy.
In June 1675, while praying about the devotion, Margaret Mary had a vision known as the “great apparition” in which she claimed to have seen Christ “showing to her his heart on a flaming throne, surrounded by thorns and surmounted by a cross; and he told her it was his will that a special devotion should be offered to his Sacred Heart in reparation for irreverences committed against him in the most holy sacrament, and that the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi should be set apart for this devotion” (The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Jackson, S. M., ed., New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1908–1914, Vol. 10, pp. 146–147).
In her visions, Margaret Mary supposedly received twelve promises from Jesus for those who honor His Sacred Heart. Some of these promises are that Jesus will give devotees comfort, peace, holiness, and “all the graces necessary for their state in life.” In addition, Jesus allegedly promised that He would “bless every place where an image of My Heart shall be exposed and honored” and that “all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Friday of nine consecutive months” would receive grace and the pleasure of the Lord at the time of death.
After Margaret Mary’s death, the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus continued to grow in popularity, and many faithful claimed to experience miracles while practicing the devotion. The Roman Church, however, still had doubts regarding the validity of Margaret Mary’s visions. Requests to grant a proper Mass and office for the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were repeatedly refused by the Congregation of Rites.
Sovereign rulers and Roman Catholic devotees continued to beseech the Pope to give the festival official status on the church calendar. Eventually, the first official feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was celebrated in 1765 in France. Nearly 100 years later, in 1856, Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the entire Western Church. Since that time, devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus have spread universally, with novenas, litanies, and Holy Communion.
On Sunday, June 5, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in his Angelus: “In biblical language, ‘heart’ indicates the center of the person where his sentiments and intentions dwell. In the Heart of the Redeemer we adore God’s love for humanity, his will for universal salvation, his infinite mercy. Practicing devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ therefore means adoring that Heart which, after having loved us to the end, was pierced by a spear and from high on the Cross poured out blood and water, an inexhaustible source of new life.”
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is typically rendered in Catholic artwork as a bright red anatomical human heart with flames and a halo of divine light. The heart is pierced and bleeding, alluding to the manner of Jesus’ death. The heart is surrounded by a crown of thorns, symbolizing His passion. Atop the heart is a cross, representing redemption, suffering, and faith. The heart is aflame, signifying purification and spiritual power. The whole symbol shines with rays of light, showing the holiness and splendor of the Lord. In some depictions, the heart is seen radiating from within the chest of Jesus Christ as He points to it and invites worship. Representations of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are often displayed prominently in Catholic homes. However, the practice has become decreasingly popular since the 1960s.
Promotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a means to receive grace is yet another example of the ritual, extra-biblical tradition, and superstitious trust in objects and images prevalent in the Catholic Church. The Bible nowhere instructs anyone to meditate on or honor the physical heart of Jesus. More importantly, grace is by definition a gift that cannot be earned. The blessings of salvation, security, and peace are ours on the basis of faith in Jesus’ finished work, whether or not we observe certain Fridays, pray certain prayers, or meditate on a certain painting. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3)—blessings that are already ours, without the help of rituals or images.