Devotion to the Sacred Heart

October 1, 2014

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.

19 Responses to “Devotion to the Sacred Heart”

  1. Janet Says:

    The Sacred Heart is at the very center of my spirituality. I agree completely about the iconography, although there are statues that I love. I can,t stress too strongly, however, that it all flows from there. It’s almost two a.m., I’m writing on my kindle which is horrid, and I’m afraid I’m ll be autocorrectd into ridiculousness. But more later. AMDG

  2. Janet Says:

    Do you say, “I offer Thee all my prayers, works, and sufferings in union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus . . .?


  3. cburrell Says:

    Not quite: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”

  4. Janet Says:

    I say, “through the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the end.” 😉


  5. cburrell Says:

    The version I have actually says, “for the intentions of the Holy Father this month”, but that sounds too officious to me.

    It is interesting to hear that you are also not very fond of all those images of Jesus exposing his chest cavity. Of all the people to whom I’ve spoken about this in the past few months, I think only one said that she liked the images. Their prevalence strikes me as odd.

    Apart from a Morning Offering and the statuary, are there any other prayers or devotional objects that you rely on to help express your devotion to the Sacred Heart?

    • Janet Says:

      Craig, I’m having a bit of trouble determining what to say because there is so much more that I would like to say than ought to be said in a combox. It’s more like a blog post, but while I have actually been planning on writing a longish blog post on just this subject in a couple of weeks, I’m not ready to do it now, so part of what I do say here may end up in the blog post. I was going to just write you a long email, and I might still.

      I think that if I had been sitting at that table with you, the first thing I would have said was that this reminds me of that quote from Fulton Sheen about there not being 100 people in America who really hate Catholicism but millions who think they do. And I would have said that it’s just so much broader than what I think you had in mind when you said that. So, it’s really nice that Pius XII was nice enough to say it before I did.

      Judging devotion to the Sacred Heart from those “individual forms of piety” that the Holy Father speaks of is like listening to one genre of music, or even a wide variety of music all produced in a 50 year period, and deciding you don’t like music. It really is all-encompassing because it is just as Pius XII said, “devotion to the love of God,” that burning abyss of charity that is, hopefully, our final destination.

      I’m pretty sure that anything I’ve ever written that was any good is about the Sacred Heart in some way, although I may not even think about it by that name. The Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, in many ways, the Eucharist itself–Himself–are all the same thing.

      For instance, the last post I wrote about the anteroom. The anteroom IS the heart of Jesus.

      Well, that’s probably enough for now.


  6. This is very interesting to me, as I’m pretty much of the same mind as you, Craig. I can entirely understand the abstract rationale for this devotion, but that doesn’t make it personally attractive or congenial.

    At the level of personal taste, it isn’t even so much the art as the language that is unappealing to me, although that one short prayer you quote is fine. Unless they’re too far gone in kitschiness, images of the heart surrounded by thorns actually seem fairly potent to me.

    • Janet Says:

      I wish I understood, Maclin, what you mean when you say “this devotion.” Do you mean that you think what Pius XII said is unattractive and uncongenial or just those “individual acts of piety” that he talks about? I’m not trying to be smart-alecky or anything, I just want to be clear what we’re talking about.


      • I meant what Craig meant in references like “the devotion”. Which I guess doesn’t mean the pope’s broad description. I wasn’t replying to you, btw–my comment appears after yours but was actually posted before.

  7. Janet Says:

    Well, my first comment was long before, but I knew you weren’t.


  8. Janet Says:

    I have been meaning to say, Craig, that the reason the Morning Offering words the part about the Holy Father’s intentions that way are that he does, indeed, have monthly intentions which can be found here:


  9. Janet Says:

    When I first read this post, it was about 2:30 am and I could not sleep, so I thought that since I was going on retreat in 9 days, I ought to get up and find some sort of novena to pray in preparation. I was thinking, “Let’s see who we should pray to,” and then I saw this post and thought, “Of course, the Sacred Heart.” So, I looked around and found this one.

    It does not suffer from the flowery language one so often finds in novenas and then when I saw that Padre Pio used to recite it every day, I figured that should be good enough for the likes of me.

    I’m leaving at 6 in the morning and any prayers would be appreciated.


  10. cburrell Says:

    Sure thing, Janet. I hope you have (had) a good retreat. Thanks for both of those links.

  11. Janet Says:

    Very excellent.


  12. Grumpy Says:

    I have no devotion to the Sacred Heart.

    When I was being received into the Church I got a very large card with a picture of the Sacred Heart from one of those Catholic charities that are always writing to ask for money. It really guilted me out but it was so ugly I binned it. In the kitchen bin. It guilted me even more throwing tea bags onto it.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be irreverent. This unpleasant experience is my first and only contact with the Sacred Heart devotion. I read a piece by Ratzinger about it, but even he sounded desperate.

  13. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Grumpy. You’ve given me a good laugh. I’d probably feel bad throwing tea bags on the Sacred Heart too. I’m going to hunt for that piece by Ratzinger.

  14. Grumpy Says:

    It’s in the little book called ‘Behold the Pierced One’. It’s probably the only thing Ratzer wrote that I find really unconvincing

  15. Janet Says:

    I wonder if this is mostly a problem for converts.

    Let me know, Craig, if you read it and what you think. I haven’t read that encyclical yet, even though I downloaded it to my Kindle the day you posted this, so I doubt I’ll find time for anything else.


  16. cburrell Says:

    I don’t have that book, and neither does my library, so I’ll have to buy it. It could take me a while to get around to it, but I am definitely putting it on my list.

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