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Vol 38 No 4

God–Lover or Judge?

Leslee Sniatynskyj

Cormac Nagle OFM

Brian Lewis

Frank Fletcher MSC

Brendan Byrne SJ

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


Introducing Heart Spirituality


The year 2004 marked the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). The year 2005 is the Centenary Year of the Australian Province of the Society. We are currently paying special attention to the things that are important to us and to the future of our mission, especially by reflecting in depth on the spirituality which we have inherited from a long tradition in the Church.

IN 1969 I WAS SENT to New York for further theological studies. I took the oppor-tunity of an introductory week of a live-in course in counselling. There I met the prioress of the Visitation convent in Brooklyn, the first Visitandine I had ever met. I thought immediately of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitandine contemplative who received the apparitions of the Sacred Heart. She was the propagator of the popular forms of Sacred Heart devotion. So I told the prioress that we had studied the life of St Margaret Mary in our novitiate. Further, I had read a bit on the Visitandines’ founder, St Francis de Sales.

When I said Margaret Mary was at the origin of Sacred Heart devotion I noticed the prioress seemed somewhat discomfited. I hastened to add: ‘I am afraid we have no Visitation Sisters in Australia’. The prioress replied, ‘Well, you must come and visit our convent.’ After the course, then, I presented myself at the Brooklyn Convent where the prioress and a companion showed me around. Everywhere I noted paintings and carvings of the heart of Jesus. Again I spoke of Margaret Mary,  ‘She certainly had an impact here’. And again the prioress seemed puzzled. She quietly stated, ‘The Sacred Heart is the emblem of our order. It was given to St Jane Frances de Chantal by our founder, St Francis de Sales, well before the time of Margaret Mary.’ My head spun as I realised the implications. The Sacred Heart apparitions had not come to St Margaret Mary ‘out of the blue’. She had lived for years surrounded by the symbol of the wounded heart; the Sacred Heart was deep within the tradition of her order. Moreover, Francis de Sales is honoured by the Church as so profound a theologian that he carries the title, rarely given, doctor of the church. He was a man who knew the scriptures intimately and the Catholic tradition especially the mystics. This gifted man chose the symbol of the pierced heart to crystallise his understanding of the mystery of Christ-in-us.

That realisation recalled to my mind Pope Pius XII’s 1956 Encyclical on the Sacred Heart (Haurietis Aquas). The Pope insisted that the spirituality of the Sacred Heart should not be based on St Margaret Mary but on the whole Christian tradition: the scriptures, the fathers of the church, the mystics. Heart spirituality was not a little side altar in the Christ mystery: it stands within the central depth of the Christ mystery. So, when Pope Pius XII called for a renewal of Sacred Heart spirituality he insisted that the spirituality be grounded on the mainline tradition. That call of the Pope brought much creativity: one thinks of the interpretations of theologian Karl Rahner and of priest-scientist Teilhard de Chardin. In Australia a young Jim Cuskelly began to take it up as a spirituality for the times. When he was elected Superior General of the MSC he promoted the term ‘spirituality of the heart’. To indicate what spirituality of the heart meant I find it helpful to begin by examining the extraordinary word, heart.

It is a word sometimes over-used in gushy contexts. Does this matter? For a period in my life I wavered—until I read a statement by the revered anthropologist professor WEH Stanner. This man spent some time with the MSC among the Aboriginal people of Port Keats NT, now called Wadeye. Stanner spoke of the traditional Aboriginal languages of that area. He noted that, in contrast to modern European languages where a word is generally identified with something (some thing-ness if you like) but in those Aboriginal languages a being is never just a thing. Every being has an inwardness, a mystery. The language has a mystical or poetic spirit which preserves this inwardness of reality. If one comes to awareness of the inward mystery of every being, including ourselves, then we are not just creatures of a material world. Rather, we are beings of mystery and our living is a walk within mystery: we relate to other beings through the depths in which we share.

This sharing in mystery expressed in those languages is not absolutely absent from our own, but it lies hidden by the heaviness of the everyday. We need keys to unlock this sharing: and the key word is heart. Some scholars have registered the ancient character of the word heart by calling it a primordial word. Even in the seemingly everyday usage of the word, heart points to mystery. For example, you may remember that Cathy Freeman declared her decision to resign from world competitive athletics came from her heart. Do we know what she meant by ‘came from her heart’? We say, yes. But if we are pushed to say precisely how the decision came from her heart we may be struggling. That is the paradox of the word heart: we feel we know but at the same time its meaning is obscure. It works strangely. How, then, can we approach this word so as to appreciate what it is expressing? The answer is wondrous: if we are attentive at the level of heart it voices the depth of existence; not just the depth of personal existence but the depth of the sea of existence.

I should mention that there are other primordial words such the holy, the sacred, spirit, etc. Of course such words are in every language. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, Aboriginal artist and teacher of Daly River, NT, wrote of dadirri. This word means ‘deep inner springs’ —a beautiful phrase for ‘heart’.

Now I want to tell you three brief stories: they complement one another as elements of the spirituality of the heart.

Story One: Leo Tolstoy
The first story is from the Russian count Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace. He wrote a memoir called My Confessions. In it he described how, at age thirty, already famous and wealthy, a darling of upper class society, he fell suddenly into a dread emptiness. He felt the hollowness of the values by which he lived. It was as if he were disconnected from real life. He began to think of suicide. At the same time he had an intimation of a true life which he tried to seek, but he got nowhere. He tried to pray but nothing happened. He knew he lacked religious faith, but which religious faith could he genuinely adhere to? The emptiness came from a deep place within him. It would have to be met at the same depth. Tolstoy became terrified he would never connect at that level. Then, in that moment of terror something within him cried out to God. It rose up from a depth beyond reason. He responded: ‘Teach me!’ And immediately to his mind’s eye came the image of a fledgling bird fallen out of its mother’s nest. In that tiny bird whimpering for its mother, Tolstoy recognised himself. He recalled the love of his own mother and that led on to the thought of God as a mother who had brought him into existence through love. A new existence became possible for Tolstoy.

In Tolstoy’s story it is the heart which enabled him to ‘see’ the one he was longing for, the one whose love he craved. We humans are so much in love with the mothering mystery that life without an awakened heart is empty. Faith is a matter of the heart before it is that of the ego or of the mind. This is clear in the scriptures and in the theology of St Augustine. Augustine expressed this prayerfully: ‘You made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee’ (Confessions, ch. 1). In the western world many need some kind of Tolstoy experience before their hearts can find rest.

Story Two: Baptism Of Jesus (Mk 1)
Tolstoy’s story is 19th century; it supposes much of the modern outlook. In contrast Mark’s Gospel account of the baptism is from the first century; it supposes not only a context of the ancient world, but a quite different understanding of story.

Tolstoy’s story is based primarily on the everyday world where another deeper reality is endeavouring to break through, signalling by means of emptiness and disconnectedness. Perhaps it is not so much that the deeper world is looking in but that there is some genuine desire in Tolstoy’s heart. That heart desire for true life loosens the grip of his egoistic outlook.

The baptism of Jesus story, on the other hand, moves within the mystery of the heart from the very beginning of Chapter 1 in Mark’s Gospel. It warms us up by the prophetic foretelling of the messiah and by the numinous presence of John the Baptist. Then, without external fanfare, Jesus comes up from Nazareth. But, if his baptism appeared outwardly without incident, inwardly it was marked by an extraordinary experience: the heavens opened and Jesus heard the voice of the Father claiming him as the Son in whom he delighted. These words immediately echoed certain poems in the prophet Isaiah, poems known as the songs of the suffering servant. They sang of a figure who would reconcile the sinful world to God, beginning with his own people. He would suffer many kinds of violence, withstanding it all with love. In a moment of enlightenment Jesus knew that he himself was the suffering servant. Thus the love passion of the divine Trinity, found expression in the Heart of Jesus. He was willing to respond with trust in the Father. However, at the same time, Jesus would have shuddered humanly at the prospect: he knew what the suffering servant would undergo. He would be the scapegoat for human sin, the lamb dragged to the slaughter, evil would be allowed its way with him. Later, the agony in the garden depicted his vulnerability as a human being paying this price.

When I saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, I found it helpful. But the necessity of the awful suffering was not sufficiently indicated. It needed Chapter One of Mark’s Gospel and the revelation of the suffering servant.

Many Catholics would be confused by my insisting on the shuddering in Jesus’ breast at the prospect of being the suffering servant. Would not Jesus as divine Son know exactly who he was and what would happen? We have to keep remembering that the divine Son has become a human being in Christ Jesus. He is the Word made human flesh; therefore he had a human heart and a human mind. As a human being he had to live with life¹s uncertainties, step by step. It is through the uncertainties and the breakdowns of love that our heart is constantly tested. Jesus carried the divine passion to heal the world, yet at the same time he carried the world’s pain. The human pain and the divine passion worked in concert. Heart spirituality invites us to live with the struggle in Jesus¹ heart between terror and passionate love. Likewise Heart spirituality invites Jesus to live out his mission as suffering servant within the struggles of our lives.

At his baptism, then, the vocation to be the suffering servant stretched his human heart to a total surrender. And, as the story of Jesus unfolds in Mark¹s Gospel, we see him using every means to prepare his disciples for his fate, not as a triumphant messiah but as the suffering one.

Moreover, Jesus had another reason to get this message over to the disciples. In the Hebrew tradition the suffering servant was not just one person: it included also all those who were open to the divine plan of reconciliation. At the baptism, therefore, Jesus knew that he must gather a movement of disciples around him. He began to do this almost immediately after the baptism. He searched for those whom the Father had already called in their hearts, usually without their knowing. He roused them to awareness of the divine love so that he would continue his mission in them, even after he had endured the way of the suffering servant. Paul gave witness to this continuing presence of the saving one with the depths of himself: ‘I live now, no longer I; the Christ lives in me’. (Galatians Chapter 2, v. 20)
Through this presence, heart to heart, we are given some awareness of what is happening in Jesus during the various moments of the Gospel drama. This is crucial because, as noted early on, the instinct of contemporary heart spirituality is that we recognise his story in our lives and our lives in his story as portrayed in the Gospels. This recognition enhances the inner dignity of our life and offers some meaning in our humiliations and even in our failures. Many are seeking for this spiritual light.

Story Three: Jules Chevalier
The third story is that of another European whose life-time paralleled that of Tolstoy, a French priest named Jules Chevalier, the founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. Since my youth this man’s spirituality has both attracted me and defeated me. He endlessly praised, wondered at and recommended to our contemplation the passionate nature of God in the heart of Jesus. The touch of divine love was his starting point for everything: it shaped his spirituality, his pastoral ministry, his hope for the church. For years I found his vision too big for my mind and heart. It was because of an immaturity in myself. It may surprise you that I came to some grasp of it from reading an anthropologist, Deborah Rose who was attempting to describe the Aboriginal dreaming. From her I received a sense of the dreaming as like a rolling ocean beating up against a thin strand of sandy beach on which we stand. In other words, we are on the edge of fathomless mystery. I get the same feeling from Chevalier¹s words except that for him the ocean is a mystery of divine passion and desire, and we are tiny fragmentary beings. Yet this passionate ocean of love longs for our fragmentary hearts, seeking an exchange of love.

Chevalier delighted in the Gospel of John and in sections of the farewell discourse of Jesus to his disciples. Another area where I had felt daunted! But the ocean image for the passionate God has allowed me some understanding of Jesus’ mysterious words about eternal life. We have eternal life now because in our exchange of hearts we are beyond ourselves in love. It follows that we must love one another, the new commandment is demanded by love. We are heart beings.

Chevalier’s historical context is significant for understanding his religious vision. He grew up in that whirlpool of cultural change which followed the French revolution, the enthronement of secular reason and modernity’s love affair with the machine. Secular reason and the machine stood for Progress. Religion was considered a childish clinging to the past. Many dropped away from the Church.

To compound the Church’s problems sectors of the French Church were infiltrated with tendencies of Jansenism. They preached severity and fear. Chevalier and fellow seminarians were confused by this deterioration. They prayed for guidance. Enlightenment came when a theology lecturer introduced them to the doctrine of the heart of Jesus. ‘It went straight to my heart’, Chevalier wrote, and in that enlightenment he became convinced that the heart of Jesus was seeking to overcome the crises of Church and culture. He offered a way. And Chevalier responded to the task.

Thus Jules wrote in an early formula for the MSC Constitutions 1877: ‘We must take a stand against the destructive spirit of fear and severity which has wrought so much havoc in the Church.’ What upset Chevalier so muchwas that this severity pictured God as a judge aloof from his people, angry at their unworthiness as if they must earn divine love. This was anathema to what Chevalier understood from the Heart of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The passionate lover gives himself freely, cares for us as friends, loves us as the Father loves him. The Father and the Son delight to come into our hearts.

The loving nature of the Father and Son relationship is revealed in the tenderness of the Heart of Jesus. Chevalier wrote: ‘He was happy to pour out the tenderness of his heart on the little ones and on the poor, on those who suffer and on sinners, on all the miseries of humanity. The sight of any misfortune moved his Heart with compassion’. (MSC Constitutions n.6). For Chevalier compassion became the key to understanding the divine love in the Heart of Jesus.

Chevalier did not found a social movement but he dreamt of a movement of compassionate people focussed upon the mission of the Heart of Jesus, devoted to prayer and to the poor and to justice. He believed that many were already called in their hearts to live out this spirituality and that these people would be heartened to find a movement to support them. This movement would be open to all: lay people would be an essential part of it. The words of John¹s Gospel Chapter 17, resonated with Chevalier’s dream: ’All those that the Father gives me I shall not turn away’.

Focusing on the Pierced Heart
At the beginning I reflected on Mark’s Gospel chapter one, the baptism of Jesus. I will conclude with a key Gospel passage on Jesus’ showing of his wound,  John Chapter 20, vv. 19-28. It recounts Jesus’ meeting with his disciples on that day, the evening of the third day after the crucifying of Jesus. For fear of their enemies the doors were bolted tight. Yet here was Jesus standing among them saying, ‘Peace be with you’. Then he showed them his hands and his side.

The disciples were still traumatised by his violent death. Jesus appeared with a word of peace and, without any words, showed them his hands and his side. What did this silent showing of his wounds mean?  It seems that Jesus meant his wounds to speak for themselves.
Then the scene concludes. The disciples, having looked upon the pierced hands and side of Jesus, are filled with joy!   Their hearts were spinning; their hope renewed.

An Aboriginal family member took me to be with her grieving relatives after a tragedy involving a mother and her small children. The relatives were in shock. It seemed to me their hearts were pierced through. They nodded their heads. With a blessed oil I anointed them in the name of that Heart which was pierced through for our sake. In his wounded body he carries the wounds of the world.
The suffering servant calls us to participate in his healing mission. It is a heart work.

Fr Frank Fletcher MSC has lectured in theology and spirituality in Australia and Canada. For sixteen years he has ministered to Aboriginal people in Sydney.