By Joel Padgett
“Behold this Heart which has loved mankind so much!” These words, engraved upon a simple stone plaque, are set into the wall of a small chapel in east-central France. The humility of the chapel bears witness to the humility of the great saints who have graced it by their presence, and to our Lord himself, “gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29), who appeared therein. The chapel is that of the Visitation Monastery in Paray-leMonial, and two of the holy men and women who have filled it with their prayers are St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombière, her spiritual director. The apparitions are those of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose solemn feast we celebrate June 28.
The words engraved upon the wall are those that the Lord spoke to St. Margaret Mary in 1675, and they are words that we would do well to engrave upon our own hearts. Pointing to his heart, Jesus declared, “Behold this Heart which has loved mankind so much, that it has spared nothing, even to the point of exhausting and consuming itself to bear witness to its love. In return, I receive from the greater part of mankind only ingratitude, by the irreverence, sacrilege, coldness, and contempt they show me in this Sacrament of Love. But what I feel still more keenly is that even souls consecrated to me treat me like this. Therefore, I ask of you that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special feast in honor of my Heart, by receiving Holy Communion on that day and by making an act of reparation for the indignities it has received during the time it has been exposed on the altars. I promise you that my Heart will open wide and pour forth in abundance the influence of its Divine Love upon those who show and procure for it this honor.” These words are the origin of today’s feast, but the devotion has its roots in the very mystery of the Incarnation.
On May 15, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a short letter about authentic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His letter marked the 150th anniversary since the Feast of the Sacred Heart was extended to the entire Church. Only now, as I write this article, do I realize that just the day before, on May 14, 2006, I myself had made my first pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial and spent time in prayer in the same place where Jesus had appeared to St. Margaret Mary.
Devotion to the Heart of Jesus reaches far beyond any specific image or prayer that one may have seen or heard. In his letter, Pope Benedict expresses that this devotion is meant to help believers “open themselves to the mystery of God and of his love and to allow themselves to be transformed by it.” It should aid them “to deepen their relationship with the Heart of Jesus, in such a way as to revive their faith in the saving love of God and to welcome him ever better into their lives.” Devotion to the Heart of Jesus is devotion to God’s love, and it allows us to live out God’s twofold commandment of love of God and neighbor. Coming to a deeper understanding of God’s love requires both careful consideration and a personal experience of it. Ultimately, it is “the experience that God first gave us his love that has enabled us to respond to his commandment of love.”
In this deeper understanding and experience of God’s love for us, our hearts are moved to greater trust and fidelity, and our wills yearn to love God more completely and to give ourselves more fully to others. We seek to be transformed more and more into him. We desire that our hearts be molded ever more perfectly into the image of his Heart. “Fixing our gaze on the Lord, who ‘took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ (Mt 8:17), helps us to become more attentive to the suffering and need of others.” The experience of love “protects us from the risk of withdrawing into ourselves and makes us readier to live for others.” In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “From the Heart of Christ, man’s heart learns . . . to unite the filial love of God with love of neighbor.”