Why the Sacred Heart?

When I was a child, a beautiful picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung in my parents’ bedroom. A warm, smiling Jesus lovingly pointed to His heart, pierced and crowned with thorns, in an eternal gesture of invitation. Whenever I looked at that picture, I felt good — embraced, loved, cared for — as if the Lord were inviting me to step into His joy and peace. My mother had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart; every First Friday, we would consecrate our lives anew to His love and mercy.

Each summer — usually in June — we celebrate the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and draw near to the tender mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. Poetically, the heart is a symbol of the human center — our emotions, loves, passions, desires, the force of the will. In his book “The Sacred Heart of the World,” David Richo explains: “Our heart is the soft center of the egoless self and it has one desire: to open. The heart is the capacity to open.… It contains our ability to reach out so it is the antidote to despair.… Contemplation of Jesus’ Heart shows us how deep we really are, how vast our potential for love, how high our aspiration for the light.”

In the Gospels, Jesus’ heart is moved with pity for the crowds (see Mt 9:36) and He tells us that He is gentle and humble of heart (Mt 11:29). The Sacred Heart of Jesus that began beating in the womb of the Blessed Virgin more than 2,000 years ago still beats today in the glorified humanity of the Risen Christ. And it will pulsate forever, pumping out the grace, mercy and life of God to all of humanity. In the Heart of the Lord, we experience the overwhelming mercy of God and His infinite desire to be in relationship with us.

Over the centuries, many Christians developed harsh images of God and Jesus as fearsome judges, distant from human affairs, ready to impose punishment for moral failure. The Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints became the friendly, approachable intercessors who would go to God for us, pleading for sinful and erring souls. Jansenism, particularly prevalent in France in the 16th and 17th centuries, overemphasized the wrath of God, the unworthiness of human nature and fear as a fundamental response to the divine.

Viewed in this context, the apparitions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque manifest a need for a theological correction and a spiritual balance regarding popular perceptions of Christ. Jesus revealed to the saint His heart, burning with love for humanity. Pierced and crucified — offering salvation and mercy — Jesus’ heart longs for us to offer our love and devotion in return. If some distorted forms of spirituality focused only on God’s punishment, the Sacred Heart emphasized mercy. If many believers inordinately feared God, here divine love and joy were manifest. If Jesus had seemed distant and unapproachable before, the Sacred Heart beckons us to enter into the divine furnace of charity.

St. Margaret Mary described her experience of the Lord: “My divine Heart is so passionately fond of the human race and of you, in particular, that it cannot keep back the pent-up flames of its burning charity any longer. They must burst out through you and reveal my Heart to the world, so as to enrich mankind with my treasures.” Following this revelation, Jesus united her heart with His in a fusion of mystical love and joy.

As St. John reminds us, God is love (see 1 Jn 4), the One who empties himself out for others, desiring our eternal salvation, seeking out the lost and carrying the wandering sheep home. The whole Christ event is a mission of mercy, as the Son, in radical obedience to the Father, becomes incarnate in our flesh — preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, healing the sick, forgiving the sinner, feeding the hungry and, ultimately, offering His life on the cross. Every word, action, gesture and attitude of Jesus manifests a perfect, pure and selfless love for each human person. If love means willing the good of the other, completely free of self-interest, we see the perfection of such charity in the burning heart of Christ.

Lest we think that such a love is naive, simplistic or easy, the Sacred Heart shines forth, crowned with thorns, pierced and bleeding. The crucifixion of Christ is the terrifying path through the valley of darkness and evil which God himself walks, embracing everything sinful, broken and dead that ensnares and destroys us. By remaining silent before His persecutors, praying for His killers, loving a dying thief and asking forgiveness for sinners, Jesus shows that the unconditional, infinite and divine love of His heart is the only force that can heal the world of its hatred, sin and rejection of God. By taking upon himself the totality of human evil committed by every person of every time, Christ refracts this overwhelming darkness into the light of the Resurrection.

Radical Act

In this radical act of redemption, the Lord serves like an aikido wrestling artist. Aikido is a form of martial arts in which the goal is to leave one’s opponent disarmed, unhurt and lying on the ground laughing! By absorbing and deflecting the aggressive negative energy of the attacker, the aikido wrestler disarms the other by turning violence into a gentle yet firm force that hurts no one, but stops the aggression. Is this not what Jesus did in His passion and death? He absorbed all the violence, evil, hatred and sin of the world into himself, letting it kill Him and seemingly destroy His vital force of love, healing and peace. But by taking in all of the darkness, Jesus conquered its power in one supreme offering of self to the Father on the altar of the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ is the gentle yet powerful absorption, deflection and transformation of violence into love, sin into grace, hatred into forgiveness and death into life. The triumph of the Sacred Heart is the ultimate victory of love.

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In an address to Italian bishops, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once put it this way: “What Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, He now does; He does not offer violence against violence, as He might have done, but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love. The act of killing, of death, is changed into an act of love.”

Facing the endless and fearful violence of terrorism, mass shootings, abuse of all kinds and a profound disrespect for the sanctity of human life, our contemporary society will only find hope, healing and peace through the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

What does devotion to the Sacred Heart consist of? How do we understand it today? Formal consecration, a daily offering, celebration of the Eucharist and reconciliation on consecutive First Fridays, displaying and honoring an image of the Sacred Heart all comprise some of the specific practices linked to this profound devotion.

Like any religious consecration, one made to the Sacred Heart is an extension of our baptismal commitment. In the waters of baptism, we put on Christ — anointed with the Holy Spirit to live as a new creation in the life of the Blessed Trinity — to embrace the goodness of the Gospel. Consecrating ourselves to the Sacred Heart is a personal and loving way to renew and live our baptismal vows. We acknowledge Jesus’ sovereignty in our lives, pledging our love back to Him who has so graciously and sacrificially loved us. Every First Friday, when my family verbally renewed our consecration, I was reminded of Jesus’ presence, protection and power in my life. That prayer inspired me to try to treat others as I would treat Christ himself. If you have not already done so, consider consecrating your marriage, family, home and life to the Sacred Heart in a formal way. It makes a big difference.

The daily offering is a simple prayer in which we give God our day: its prayer, work, joy and sufferings. This oblation of the heart renews our consecration and reminds us to live in holy mindfulness that what we do, say, value and embrace should be a worthy return to the Lord who has done so much for us. I remember praying the Morning Offering in grade school; this daily ritual reminded me that what I did in school, at home, on the playground, with family and classmates mattered to God — inspiring me to want to offer my very best.

Coming at a time when the faithful received the Eucharist infrequently, Jesus’ request that we confess our sins and receive Communion every First Friday points to the Eucharist and the sacraments as the fundamental way to encounter the love of the Lord. In the Eucharist, Jesus completely gives himself to us, literally entering into our bodies, souls and lives. We enter into the One that we eat and drink, deeply united to Christ. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we experience the mercy and forgiveness won for us on Calvary — we receive the tender embrace of the Lord and the healing power of the paschal mystery. Through these sacraments, Jesus draws us into His heart and allows us to experience in this life the love and joy of heaven. All of the riches of God’s inner life are manifest in the Heart of Christ and offered to us in the Mass and in confession.

In honoring and displaying images of the Sacred Heart, we invite others to experience Jesus’ love for themselves. The power of visuals is clear — I can still remember every artistic detail of that picture in my parents’ bedroom! We cannot contemplate such a holy and merciful image with indifference or ingratitude. One look at Jesus’ heart should melt us, convert us and inspire us to give our hearts in return.

Sacred Heart devotion is not magic or some automatic ticket to heaven; it is a sacred way for us to encounter the fullness of the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving love poured out for us in Jesus Christ. As we steadily progress in our knowledge and communion with the Lord, we will fall ever more deeply in love with Jesus and live out that transforming and redemptive relationship in every detail of our lives. This devotion unites our minds, hearts and wills in one great act of oblation — a total gift of the self to the One who has first offered himself completely to and for us.

Most Rev. Donald J. Hying, D.D., was installed as fourth bishop of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, in 2015. A native of Wisconsin, he was a former seminary rector and auxiliary bishop in Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter @bishophying.