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Defending Devotion to the Sacred Heart | Timothy T. O'Donnell, S.T.D. | Introduction to Heart of the Redeemer

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I have attempted not so much to speak with authority of things that I know, as to seek to know them by speaking about them with reverence. -- St. Augustine, De Trinitate, I v. 8

In our inquiry into the devotion to the Sacred Heart and its perennial value, it is best to begin with a proper understanding of what is meant by devotion. St. Thomas Aquinas defines devotion as a willingness "to give oneself readily to what concerns the service of God" (Summa, II-II, q. 82 a. 1). Accordingly, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus appears essentially as a worship of and a response to the Person of Christ as viewed from the perspective of His divine and human love which is manifested through His sacred humanity and is symbolized by His wounded physical Heart. In his masterful encyclical, Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII gives the following definition of this devotion:
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, by its very nature is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our love by which we are related to God and to other men.
From this definition it can be seen that authentic devotion to the Sacred Heart is not merely an optional set of pious practices (which may be very helpful) but an essential element of the Christian way of life. All Christians are called to the comprehension of certain truths concerning God and to a response in love to them. In living a life in imitation of Christ, as found in the Gospels and taught by the Church, the Christian should use all the spiritual aids offered to him by God. He should fill his life with an ever growing and deepening love for God and his fellow man. Every Christian will build his own unique spirituality upon this common foundation, which should include a response to the Heart of Christ that gives honor to the divine love and is offered for the sake of that love.

It would be accurate to say that by the middle of the twentieth century the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus had universally triumphed throughout the Church. Everywhere in the world, churches, monasteries and congregations were to be found dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In virtually every Catholic church one would find a statue of our Lord revealing his Heart. Large numbers of the faithful gathered on every continent for First Friday devotions, the Holy Hour and other pious practices associated with the devotion. This triumphal procession, however, was not welcomed in all quarters and the devotion began to draw criticism from some Catholic theologians who began to question certain aspects of these devotional exercises. Some outside, and even within, the Church questioned the theological foundation of the devotion.

Pope Pius XII was well aware of the objections which some were making to the devotion. It is because of these objections that the Holy Father wrote his encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and in it he exhorted the faithful to "a more earnest consideration of those principles which take their origin from Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians," which form the solid foundation for the worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Pope went on to call for and stress the importance of "a profound study of the primary and loftier nature of the devotion with the aid of the light of the divinely revealed truth" so that we may "rightly and fully appreciate its incomparable excellence and the inexhaustible abundance of its heavenly favors." The Holy Father ended his appeal by requesting a "devout medita- tion and contemplation" upon the benefits of the devotion.

After the publication of Haurietis Aquas, many books were written on the devotion. These works varied tremendously in size and quality. They included pious or devotional works, popular pamphlets, and mystical writings which described extraordinary supernatural experiences.

There is still a need for a systematic theological exposition and defense of the devotion which will lead to a deeper penetration and understanding of it, as was requested by Pius XII and subsequent pontiffs. It is my most earnest hope and prayer that this book will help in some way to answer the call of the Holy Father and will contribute to a greater understanding of our Lord's Heart, which is "so full of infinite majesty and compassion."

The encyclical and devotion both, unfortunately, seem to have been down-played or overshadowed, if you will, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Many today object to the devotion for a variety of reasons, some manifestly superficial and others quite serious. Despite the objections, there are presently strong signs of a widespread reawakening of interest in the devotion and the contributions which it can make toward the renewal of the Church.

Some have criticized the devotion for the language used in many of the prayers addressed to the Sacred Heart. Phrases such as "prostrate before thy altar" seem to many a bit archaic and not in keeping with our modern idiom. Often times prayers and the lyrics of hymns to the Sacred Heart are considered excessively sweet and sentimental. Artistic representations of the devotion are criticized for being too saccharine and effeminate.

None of these criticisms touch what is essential to the devotion as it has been taught by the Church. They deal with external aspects; and yet we must remember that man derives his knowledge through the senses, and therefore poor art and unsuitable language may form obstacles to a deeper understanding and love of the devotion. We shall discuss some of these problems in the final section of this study, where we deal with questions of renewal and adaptation.

The more serious objections which have been raised against the devotion cannot be brushed aside but must be dealt with clearly and honestly. Critical questioning is a good thing, since it may open both the mind and heart to a deeper reflection and understanding of this "priceless gift which our Savior has given to his Church." I have formulated here what I believe to be the four major objections which have been raised to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

1) The devotion to the Sacred Heart rests upon a weak doctrinal base and threatens to overemphasize the humanity of Christ. This position is espoused by theologians such as Karl Barth, who places the devotion on the same level as modern Protestant biographies of the historical Jesus that have abandoned belief in the reality of the Incarnation of the Word. In his book, Church Dogmatics, he characterizes both forms as attempts to "find an approach to Jesus Christ which circumvents his divinity," offering an "approach to a revelation which is generally understandable and possible in the form of human judgments and human experiences. In the Heart of Jesus cult... it is blatantly a matter of finding a generally illuminating access to Jesus Christ which evades the divinity of the Word. Therefore both Neo-Protestant faith in the religious hero Jesus and the Catholic devotion to the Heart of Jesus, are to be rejected as the deification of a creature." [1]

2) There is no scriptural reference to the devotion. This criticism is frequently heard from our separated brethren and even some Catholics, who demand proof of scriptural authenticity. This is especially important since the Second Vatican Council emphasized Sacred Scripture as the foundation of theology and spirituality.

3) The devotion sprang from a mere private revelation given to a cloistered nun in 17th century France. It is therefore a new devotion and is not sanctioned by Christian tradition.

4) The devotion may have been beneficial for a particular age and cultural outlook but it is no longer suited to modern times and has become obsolete.

Although some objections are of greater importance than others, all must be answered. If any of these objections should prove true, the validity and perennial value of the devotion would be seriously shaken, if not shattered. This work shall be divided into four sections in which we hope to achieve four goals.

First, we shall examine the dogmatic foundations for the devotion as found in Sacred Scripture and the Church's teachings concerning Christ as it took shape in the great Christological controversies in the 4th and 5th centuries. This is absolutely essential to demonstrating the perennial validity and value of the devotion.

Second, we shall then proceed to trace the historical development of the devotion which culminated in the great revelation given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Here we shall glimpse the Holy Spirit at work in the dynamic living tradition of the Church. It will be a thought-provoking study which will reveal the theological richness of the devotion, its evolution and the multiple forms which it has taken throughout two Christian millennia. This investigation will probe into the patristic roots of the devotion, its flowering in the era of medieval mysticism, and developments up to the present day.

Third, we shall then examine the contemporary importance of the devotion in the life of the Church in the light of magisterial teaching. In the 19th and 20th century there is a large amount of papal teaching on the devotion. The See of Peter has given the devotion a unique position in the Church. This wealth of papal magisterial teaching will have much to say regarding the timeliness and timeless value of the devotion.

Last, we shall discuss questions of renewal and adaptation of the devotion according to the guidelines of Vatican II.

It was only after a great deal of serious reflection that I decided to write this book which is an outgrowth of studies begun at the Angelicum in Rome in 1978.1 chose to write on the loving Heart of our Lord because I believe the devotion to be of vital importance today. I offer here to the reader, for his prayerful reflection, three quotations from three popes of the 20th century concerning the importance of devotion to the Sacred Heart in our age:
[Devotion to the Heart of Jesus] is the extraordinary remedy for the extraordinary needs of our times. (Pius XI, Caritate Christi Compulsi, May 3, 1932)

Devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is so important that it may be considered, so far as practice is concerned, the perfect profession of the Christian religion .... It is no ordinary form of piety which anyone at his own whim may treat as of little consequence or set aside as inferior to others. (Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas, May 15, 1956)

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. (Paul VI, Address to the Thirty-First General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Nov. 17, 1966)
These three statements are well worth pondering for all those who would sentire cum Ecclesia.

The veneration of our Lord's Heart, insofar as it honors Christ as the source and substance of our redemption, is no ordinary devotion. It is truly latreutical--a devotion which is rendered to God alone. For the Heart of Christ occupies a central position, as the focal point through which everything passes to the ultimate center in the Father--per Christum ad Patrem. It is a devotion of tremendous theological richness, containing a complete synthesis of faith, or, as Pius XI put it "summa totius religionis." The devotion is at once theocentric and anthropocentric, Trinitarian and Christocentric; it emphasizes love of God and calls eloquently to the fraternal apostolate. It may also lead to that sound eucharistic piety so greatly desired by the Second Vatican Council. This is especially true since the Eucharist, as Pope Paul VI observed, is the "outstanding gift" of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

I firmly believe that the spirituality fostered by this devotion can best meet the spiritual needs of our age. It is a practical form of spirituality which emphasizes famlliaritas cum Christo and therefore is marvelously suited to aid priest, religious and laity alike in their journey of growth in holiness. If practiced in the family, devotion to the Heart of Jesus may greatly help to counter those pagan elements of culture which all too often work their way into the sanctuary of the home.

The devotion should be made available to all. Unfortunately, the widespread ignorance throughout the Church of the devotion's rich theological foundations has greatly hindered its full appreciation and practice. It is only by returning to these sources as found in Sacred Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church's magisterium that we can hope to renew the devotion and thereby allow it to play a central role in the larger effort to renew the Church.

Our Lord, in his apparition to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, communicated to her that the revelation of his Heart was "a final effort" to enkindle the fire of love in a world in which "charity had grown cold." Such is the age in which we live. William Butler Yeats foresaw the crisis of our era in a prophetic poem written at the turn of the century:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Coldness and hatred can be melted and overcome only by the fire of love. Certainly, in an age which is characterized by an increasingly hostile secularization, a spirituality which centers on love and aims at setting the world on fire is precisely what is needed to instaurare omnia in Christo.
I have come to cast fire upon the earth,
and what will I but that it be kindled?
-- Luke 13:49
Timothy T O'Donnell, S.T.D.
October 16, 1989
Feast of St. Margaret Mary


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol. Ip.2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1970) pp. 137.138.

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Timothy T. O'Donnell received his doctorate at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He is Chairman of the Department of Theology at Christendom College.

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