The Sacred Heart of Jesus in a stained-glass window. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Sacred Heart continues its steady beat

  • June 21, 2019

Canada’s Jesuits have decided to consecrate their Toronto offices to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 25, during the month traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart. 

Jesuit spirituality has been intimately tied to the idea and image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus ever since the Jesuit St. Claude de la Colombiére defended St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s claims to have seen visions of the Sacred Heart over a long period through the 1670s. Her own community at the Visitation convent in France had not believed Alacoque until the Jesuit spoke up in defence of her visions.

The idea of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had a long history before Alacoque’s visions, but those visions mark the beginning of the modern devotion. 

Today both the Jesuits and the Visitation Sisters continue to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart and celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart on June 28. 

Despite the dedication of these religious orders, devotion to the Sacred Heart — along with its associated statues and paintings — is not well understood today.

Sr. Bernadette Therese Lash doesn’t blame anybody who finds Sacred Heart statues a little too precious or sentimental or just plain weird. For a long time, she didn’t get it either.

“I did not care for the imagery of hearts,” said the Visitation sister from Tyringham, Mass. “I never liked all the heart stuff at Valentine’s Day and all that. I never cared for that. When I first came here on my first visit and I saw what is called the ‘Mount of the Two Hearts’ (a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the Immaculate Heart of Mary) I thought ‘Oh, no. Here we go with that heart stuff.’ I just thought, ‘Ughh.’ ”

In part, Lash’s problem was that she was a cardiac nurse.

“I thought of the heart in a very scientific way,” she said. “And I loved everything cardiology.”

It took time and an essay in the book Divine Intimacy by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene to show Lash what devotion to the Sacred Heart is really all about.

“It started to fall together. It’s not the cute little hearts that they want us to look at,” she said.

A real experience of closeness to Jesus, combined with a conviction that the love of God in Christ is real, is hard to put into words or to depict in art. But that doesn’t mean devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is irrelevant, said Jesuit Fr. Gilles Mongeau.

“Interior conversion and intimacy with Jesus, solidarity with the whole of suffering humanity and overcoming violence with love — these are, for me, the key meanings of the devotion for today, and the Christian response to our present cultural situation,” Mongeau wrote in an e-mail.

Like Lash, Mongeau came to his devotion to the Sacred Heart gradually and only after he entered religious life.

“I remember praying, as a young Jesuit, with some of the darker parts of my personal history — particularly events that had left me scarred and hurt and unfree,” he said. 

“I was asking for the grace of healing. I remember imagining these hurts as scars on my heart and then looking up at Jesus and seeing the exact same scars on His heart.”

For many Jesuits over the last three centuries, devotion to the Sacred Heart constitutes “a kind of digest or summa of Ignatian spirituality,” said Mongeau.

“It promotes intimacy with Christ through service of the neighbour — contemplation in action — and it calls us to overcome violence with love,” he said.

Almost 20 years ago, as a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto, Mongeau led a group of parishioners through a novena to the Sacred Heart as a way of responding to a growing problem of gang violence in the neighbourhood. For the novena, the group came up with a “prayer for a disarmed heart.”

“I seek not to harm others in word or deed. Help me to overcome the violence in my own heart, that I may help You overcome hatred and violence in the world,” said the prayer.

As her Visitation community prepares for the June 28 solemnity, Lash isn’t worried over whether people are moved by Sacred Heart statues or stained glass windows.

“That was the mindset back in the 16 and 1700s. That was simply how people thought. That was how they expressed themselves,” Lash said. “That’s not how people express themselves now. That’s not how they think.”

But in a world that seems lonelier, Lash is convinced devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is needed now more than ever. “I think it really is needed, but everybody goes about it in a different way,” she said. 

June 28 will be an important day for Lash and her community.

“It’s a very big deal for us and in our whole Visitation order,” she said. “The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity celebrated with robust joy, you could say. We really love it.”

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