Several months ago while at dinner with a group of Catholics whom I did not know very well, the topic of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus came up. I remarked that, though I was aware of this devotion, for whatever reason it had never made a strong appeal to me, and it did not have a significant place in my own devotional life. Nor, I continued, had I often heard any of my friends speak of the importance of the devotion to them.
To my surprise, my remarks were met with wide eyes and some astonishment. Our wonderful priest, who was present, gently outlined for me the importance of the devotion, and in the days that followed several people gave me reading material, including Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Haurietis Aquas (On Devotion to the Sacred Heart), all of which I appreciated, and all of which I have been reading.
Prior to this encounter, my basic attitude to this devotion had been more or less as follows: the Catholic Church is replete with devotional practices — rosaries, novenas, pilgrimages, expositions and benedictions, offerings, devotions to particular saints, and so forth — and there is no obligation for each person to participate in all of them. Rather, each person practices those which make a special appeal to him or her, and holds the rest in fond regard. There is an ecosystem of devotion here, and each of us finds our niche. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was one of those devotions which, for me, was held in fond regard, but not more.
To be quite honest, part of my ambivalence toward this devotion has been due to the iconographic tradition associated with it. The devotion originated — at least in its specific contemporary form — in the early modern period, in France, and in particular in a set of revelations to a female religious, St. Margaret Mary. To my mind most of the artistic elaboration surrounding the devotion has borne those origins with it: it has been, at best, rather saccharine and effeminate, and, at worst, tipping over into kitsch, as so much modern Catholic art is prone to do. Since, in my ignorance, I assumed that the devotion was more or less a specifically iconographic one, and since most of the visual representations of the Sacred Heart that I had seen more or less repelled me, I concluded that this devotion was not for me.
As I read Pius XII’s encyclical, however, it was my turn to have wide eyes. Some of the things he says about devotion to the Sacred Heart are quite startling. For instance, writing more or less directly to me, he says:
There are some who, confusing and confounding the primary nature of this devotion with various individual forms of piety which the Church approves and encourages but does not command, regard this as a kind of additional practice which each one may take up or not according to his own inclination. (10)
I’ll say more about what I think he means by “the primary nature” of the devotion, as contrasted with “individual forms of piety”, in a moment. He stresses at several points that this devotion has, or at least deserves to have, a special status in the life of the Church:
The honor to be paid to the Sacred Heart is such as to raise it to the rank — so far as external practice is concerned — of the highest expression of Christian piety. (107)
And again, a little later:
Can a form of devotion surpassing that to the most Sacred Heart of Jesus be found, which corresponds better to the essential character of the Catholic faith, which is more capable of assisting the present-day needs of the Church and the human race? (119)
In one section (para.71-2) he even argues that both the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin, two incontestably central elements of Catholic piety and devotion, are themselves “gifts of his Sacred Heart”, which seems to imply that the Sacred Heart is even more foundational, and presumably even more worthy of devotion.
One of the principal arguments Pius XII makes is that this devotion, which is at root really a devotion to the love of God, is one which has been present, latently, in the Church’s life from the beginning, and which only came to particular prominence, and found a particular expression, in the early modern period. Among those whom he lists as making particular contributions to the flourishing of this devotion, for instance, are St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great, both of whom lived centuries before our contemporary form of the devotion took shape. That made me feel quite a lot better; I always feel more at home among those medieval folks.
As to what this means for my own devotion to the Sacred Heart, I’m not sure that I can say. I have begun to say a daily “Morning Offering”, which makes explicit reference to the Sacred Heart. I have been talking to friends about their own views on the subject, and have discovered that the devotion is dearer to some of them than I had known. I am myself more interested in, and more open to, the devotion than I was before, but I cannot say that I have, as yet, warmed much to it. I am happy to know that participation in this devotion in no way obliges me to enjoy or approve of disagreeable art.
In closing, I would be very interested in hearing from fellow Catholics who have a special devotion to the Sacred Heart, or from those who, like me, have not heretofore made much of it. Comments welcome.