Hearts are everywhere in our culture. We use the emoji in texts: “I ❤️U,” or on bumper stickers: “I ❤️NY.” Instagram and Twitter let you click a heart to ‘like’ a post. And let’s not forget the ‘hand heart.’ Notre Dame’s Domers, of course, love the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the central place of worship on campus. So what is this Sacred Heart? And what does it mean? In my work with teenagers and young adults, I sense this devotion is poised for a great renewal.
We’re all craving connection, community, communion, and love in our broken and virus-wrecked world. We seek a heartfelt relationship with something, or rather Someone, bigger than ourselves. This is the power and attraction of the Sacred Heart. The heart of our Catholic faith is not an idea, but a person: Jesus. And he has a living, beating human heart right now. He has a risen Body and his Heart is filled with love for you and me.
In the Gospels, the risen Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side” (John 20: 27). It’s as if Jesus invites the disciple—and us—“Touch my heart. Know my love for you.” We might be anxious, quarantined, or sheltered in place, but Jesus is not. He is risen. Not ‘was,’ IS. On that first Easter day, Jesus passed through a locked door to be with his friends. He comes to us today and makes the first move. “Peace be with you,” he says (John 20:19, 21, 26).
The Holy Cross founders of the University of Notre Dame chose the Sacred Heart as the patron of its church. These priests rode a broad tide of French devotion to the Sacred Heart, which began almost 350 years ago. In the 1600s, a young French religious sister experienced a series of powerful prayers and visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This was an era of division, discord, and isolation in the wider culture, much like our own. Some of her friends thought she was crazy. A young priest, her spiritual director, became convinced that her visions were real, and that they came from Christ himself. Today, the entire Church honors St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, and her spiritual director, Fr. Claude la Colombière, SJ, is also a saint. Fr. Claude helped spread devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout France; from there, the Congregation of Holy Cross helped spread it to the Americas and beyond.
My own devotion to the Sacred Heart has grown over the years, like a steadily growing flame. I have a heart. So does Jesus. Mine is wounded. So is his. And he heals my wounded heart through his. When I preside at Mass, Christ speaks to other hearts through my heart. When I preach about Sacred Heart of Jesus at Mass and on retreats, I sense an immediate intensity and connection. People are drawn to his Heart, and this is what Jesus wants.
“Behold the Heart that has loved you so much!” Jesus told St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In her journal, she writes, “I could plainly see his Heart, pierced and bleeding, yet there were flames, too, coming from it and a crown of thorns around it. He told me to behold his Heart which so loved humanity.” The power of the Sacred Heart, then and now, is rooted in relationship. Jesus loves us and is passionately seeking relationship with us.
The center of our faith is not an idea, but a person: Jesus Christ (see Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1). In fact, we believe in a Trinity of Persons. God is relationship, and God seeks relationship with us. Believing the truth, living a moral life, and doing justice are all important aspects of Christianity. These things are possible only through a close friendship with Christ. “Behold the Heart!” His passionate, beating Heart—fully human and fully divine. This Heart was pierced by the soldier’s lance as Jesus hung on the Cross, and out flowed blood and water, symbols of the Church’s sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Amid wars, violence, and turmoil, the Sacred Heart remains an image of life and love. In a world of distraction, division, and loneliness, we need Jesus at the Heart of our lives, to behold his Heart as he beholds us.
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was centered in the Heart of Jesus. By her prayers and witness, his love can shine through us, too. St Margaret Mary, pray for us!
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Featured image: "Christ Appears to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque" (Covington Cathedral) by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.