Friday, 25 April 2014

Sacred Heart/Divine Mercy: Different or the Same?

By John D. O’Brien S.J. 

The Sacred Heart by Michael O'Brien

Editor’s note: Catholic devotions: why do they matter, what are they made of, what are they are not. In a strong and prescriptive phrase in his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote “we ought to praise not only the building and adornment of churches, but also the images and veneration of them according to what they represent.” He seemed to press the point even further, writing “we should show our esteem for the relics of the saints by venerating them and praying to the saints. We should praise visits to Station Churches, pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusade insults, and the lighting of candles in churches.” For some, these devotions are the spiritual life-blood of the believing Church; for others they may seem simplistic or quaint. But in the spirit of our founder, we, too, seek to explore and understand the powerful role of devotions in the Church today. 

There is no Catholic devotional image more widespread world-wide today than the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Statuary, prints, holy cards, even graffiti and tattoos – the iconic representation of a pierced heart on fire has captured the religious imagination of all strata of society and cultures. And with reason. The burning heart of Christ is an aptly powerful symbol of the God who is Love, the Christian God.

Ever since St. Claude de la Columbière, S.J. counselled St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th Century, Jesuits have continuously promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This continues today through the Apostleship of Prayer and Hearts on Fire young adult retreats. We promote discovery of the heart of God because it is an essential part of the mission of the Church, and here’s why.

According to the popes of the last 100 years, there is no devotion more important than the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the entire world to the Sacred Heart, and called it “the greatest act of my pontificate”. Pius XI wrote that the devotion was “the summary of our religion”. In 1956, Pius XII wrote an encyclical named Haurietis Aquas on the Sacred Heart and was even more effusive:
It is altogether impossible to enumerate the heavenly gifts which devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has poured out on the souls of the faithful, purifying them, offering them heavenly strength, rousing them to the attainment of all virtues. Consequently, the honour 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.
After the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI urged the Church not to forget this devotion, which perhaps had suffered from association with a more saccharine piety, writing “it is absolutely necessary that the faithful venerate and honour this Heart.” Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul II in 1994, contained the following statement:
The Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that… love with which the Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception. (CCC 478).
In the 20th Century, another devotion has arisen that has taken the believing Church by storm, perhaps even eclipsing the other. The newer image of a full-length standing Jesus, with one arm raised, and two dramatic streams of light, one red and one white, issuing from his heart, is now seen in countless churches and homes. Known as the Divine Mercy, the phrase “Jesus I Trust in You” is often written at its base. Believers will often pause at three o’clock in the afternoon and pray what known as the Divine Mercy chaplet, which simply repeats these words on each rosary bead: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion/Have mercy on us and on the whole world.” I have seen the Divine Mercy devotion in countries as diverse as Canada, Italy, Jamaica and Venezuela; clearly, it has gotten widespread traction across the world.


The Divine Mercy devotion originated in Poland through private revelations given to a religious sister known as St. Faustina, who was a contemporary of Karol Wojtyla (future John Paul II) and Maximilian Kolbe. Although they did not know each other, the three Polish giants of holiness lived relatively close to one another. Together they would impress upon the world the essential importance of God’s mercy in our time. It was a much-needed message to a century so characterized by horrors, traumas and disbelief. It is no accident that John Paul II will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday – the feast that is always the first Sunday after Easter.

A frequent question is whether Divine Mercy has rendered the more traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart obsolete. After all, they seem similar, although the Divine Mercy has become much more today’s devotional cause célèbre. What might be the relationship between the two “heart-streams” of spirituality in the Church today? Are they in competition with each other, or is there room for both?

I believe they are inseparable. St. John Eudes (1601-80), a pioneer in the liturgical worship of the Sacred Heart wrote: “Of all the divine perfections mirrored in the Sacred Heart of our Saviour, we should have a very special devotion to divine mercy.” John Paul II, in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (1980) wrote: “The Church seems in a special way to profess the mercy of God and to venerate it when she directs herself to the Heart of Christ. In fact, it is precisely this drawing close to Christ in the mystery of His Heart which enables us to dwell on… the merciful love of the Father”.

In other words, the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy are inseparable because Jesus only has one heart! And God’s love always takes the form of merciful love. As the Psalmist writes: “His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps 144:9). Let us recall that “the heart” is that hidden centre of our being, our core where our deepest thoughts, feelings and desires are, almost beyond reason, and known only to the Spirit of God. If God is love, he wants us to know that his heart is passionately aflame for his people, and this is why he revealed himself to both St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Faustina as a heart on fire and alight.

In short, devotion to the Heart of Jesus is simply devotion to the person of Jesus, who saved us and continuously saves us from our sins, and draws us to fullness of life. This is why God wants us to have “hearts of flesh” and not “hearts of stone”. In the final analysis, the devotion to the Sacred Heart and to the Divine Mercy is about our hearts being transformed to resemble the heart of God.

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