THIS YEAR MARKS the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart by Jules Chevalier, a young priest of the diocese of Bourges in France. As is only right, we are celebrating, and our celebrations are acknowledging our story as it was and is, warts and all.
We came into this world as a Society canonically established in order to specialise in the Good News of the love of God revealed in the human heart of Jesus. Our ‘thing’ is ‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart.’
‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart’ triggers memories of the pre-Vatican II era, an age of devotions, of framed pictures of the Sacred Heart in Catholic homes, small ‘holy pictures’ of the Sacred Heart in Catholic prayer books and Sacred Heart medals on neck chains, rosary beads and key rings. Statues and images of the Sacred Heart are still mandatory stopping places for those who do prayer rounds in church, and devotees still want to burn votive candles before them, a desire that is more difficult to satisfy in these days of nervous insurance companies.
This devotion has traditionally been one of the most devotional devotions, enjoying enormous popularity. Apart from the rosary, it is difficult to name any other devotion that has been such a staple of Catholic piety.
It is a devotion that begins and ends in the heart. It is founded on passion. The passionate love of Jesus is portrayed in the iconography: Jesus displaying his pierced heart, pointing to it on fire, surmounted by a cross and ringed by a crown of thorns. Alternatively, Jesus is holding his heart in his hand, showing it to us, offering it to us. The terminology of the devotion is equally passionate: ‘burning love’, ‘ardent desire’, ‘infinite compassion’, ‘infinite treasures of Jesus’ heart’, and much more.
The devotion originated in the Middle Ages, especially with Sts Mechthilde (1241-1299) and Gertrude (1256-1302). In modern times it is linked especially with St Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). It has been especially popular at times when Catholics at the grassroots were religiously undernourished, not hearing much about the Good News of their salvation by Christ, and deprived of outlets for religious self-expression. The devotion allowed them to practice their religion with more heart and passion.
As Pius XII taught in his Encyclical Haurietis Aquas (1956), the foundations of the devotion are rock solid, in Scripture, old and new testaments, in the Fathers of the Church and in the mystics. It is a devotion that focuses on the person of Jesus in all his mystery. ‘Sacred Heart devotions’, meaning the devotional practices and prayers, have been popular aids to contemplate and respond to the love, compassion and mercy of God. They emphasise the attractiveness and approachability of God, of Jesus. They open the way into the mystery of our salvation by starting with the Jesus we know—personal, close, loving and lovable, gentle and challenging, our Jesus, my Jesus.
Devotion to the heart of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, is nothing less than a mystic path to a deeper contemplation of and participation in the mystery of God’s own self in the life of the Trinity, the heart of God, where Father, Son and Spirit live in an eternal ecstatic dance of reciprocal love. We are invited to enter into that Trinitarian life, to be joined with Christ and enlivened by the Spirit in his self-offering to the Father. The devotion keeps us in touch with the human Jesus as he shows us more of his mystery as our Saviour and leads us further into the heart of God. The term ‘devotion’, then, is used in the strongest sense imaginable, as commitment of one’s whole self, person-to-person, heart to heart—in a word, devotion to the Sacred Heart is true worship.
Intimacy with Jesus at that level is transforming—one will undergo a change of heart. Changed in heart, made more like the heart of Jesus, we take to heart the things that he has most at heart. We are affected by his love and tenderness for all people, and his special passionate concern for the neglected, the marginalised, the exploited.
Dennis Murphy MSC, founding editor of Compass, now working in India, was for a number of years based in Rome as a member of the MSC General Administration. While there he studied material in the General Archives that throw new light on the convictions of Jules Chevalier concerning devotion to the Sacred Heart. He has now published some of the fruits of his researches in a book entitled The Heart Of The Word Incarnate (2003, Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore, ISBN 81-7086-300-7, obtainable in Australia from the MSC Mission Office, PO Box 177, Kensington NSW 1465, $15.00 + postage).
The booklet is well timed. As I browse through it—it is written in a form that encourages browsing for relaxation or meditation—I am impressed by the theology from which Jules Chevalier was working, and how solid it was according to our standards. For Jules, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was no opium for the masses. He wrote, for instance:
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the entirety of God’s gift of himself. The Word comes from the unfathomable depths of the Heart of God, who engenders him equal to himself. God is love itself, but this infinite love, which belongs essentially to his nature, is contained in a human heart, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, God’s living sacrament, his true Heart with which to love us. It is through the Heart of Christ that the love of God, God himself, has overflowed on to the world. It is by grace that God communicates and gives himself to us. This gift is not a metaphor, but real. The Holy Spirit descending personally into the just soul brings with him the divine persons, Father and Son, for he cannot be separated from them. (Jules Chevalier, as quoted in Murphy 2003, p. 147.)
Jules Chevalier insisted often that this devotion was ‘the remedy for all the world’s ills’. The world’s ills were for him those that were most obvious to religious persons of the nineteenth century, such as ‘[religious] indifference and selfishness’. Since Vatican II we have identified a long list of social, economic and environmental ills that are often global in their reach and effects. Jules’ focus is easily expanded to incorporate the signs of our times. He wrote:
If we follow Our Lord in his public life, we see his Heart go out to every misfortune, to every need, moral or physical. From where comes that tender compassion for those who suffer? From his Heart, always his Heart. (Cf. Murphy, p. 114.)
Once we know the love of God revealed in the heart of Jesus we cannot remain indifferent to God, and cannot remain indifferent to the evils that are perpetrated against our fellow human beings. God is passionate…we, too, must be passionate in response to God and in our concern for our brothers and sisters. If we are devoted to the heart of Jesus, we will be.
Jules Chevalier was a man of the nineteenth century, but his message and dream belong in every century. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a rich lode; that God loves us so much is not a difficult message to convey—everyone needs to hear it. We Missionaries of the Sacred Heart have accepted Jules Chevalier’s leadership and responded to his challenge to make the Sacred Heart of Jesus loved everywhere.We have been searching for the best ways of doing it in more recent times when the signs of the times and the spirit of the times and the best ways of responding to them have been changing rapidly.
We ask Compass readers to bear with us as we include an article or two over the coming year that deal with MSC matters; we hope they will have interest for all our readers. In fact we will be indulging ourselves in similar fashion in 2005 as well, as that year will mark the Centenary of the foundation of the Australian Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
—Barry Brundell MSC, Editor