Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque is well known as one of the most ardent promoters of devotion to the Sacred Heart. But it did not originate with her. In fact, we could even say it began with Jesus himself when he invited us to rest in his heart. This invitation to find rest in the merciful heart of Jesus has consoled Christians throughout the centuries.
Many Church writers have spoken about the love of Jesus in reference to his heart. This devotion developed as the Church meditated on the love of Jesus and gradually came to understand it better. In the Middle Ages, saints like Bernard of Clairvaux and Albert the Great preached and wrote about the heart of Jesus. This text from the Gospel of John in particular gave them much to meditate on:
So the soldiers came and they broke the legs of the first one and then of the other who had been crucified with him, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he had already died they did not break his legs, but, instead, one of the soldiers stabbed him in the side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. And the one who saw it has borne witness and his witness is true, and he knows that he is speaking the truth so you, too, may believe. For these things happened so the Scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of his shall be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:32–37).
In the blood and water that flowed from the heart of Jesus, Christian writers saw the symbols of Baptism and the Eucharist. The great gift of the sacraments flowed from Jesus’ heart. Saint John Chrysostom wrote, “Since the sacred mysteries derive their origin from thence, when you draw near to the awe-inspiring chalice, so approach as if you were going to drink from Christ’s own side.” In light of all this, it is clear that devotion to the Sacred Heart is deeply rooted in Scripture and Catholic tradition.
It was through Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), however, that the devotion went viral, so to speak. She was a cloistered nun from the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, France. Jesus appeared to her several times and revealed to her how much he loved her and all people. He spoke of his desire that people would love him in return, and for this purpose, he wanted Margaret Mary to spread devotion to his Sacred Heart.
In the cloister she had little or no contact with the outside world; how was she to do what Jesus asked? The Lord himself gave her the means through a holy Jesuit, Saint Claude de la Colombière, who was her spiritual director. He realized that Margaret Mary’s charity, humility, and obedience reflected true holiness. Convinced that she was telling the truth, he asked her to write an account of her revelations. He himself began to preach about Jesus’ love for us in his Sacred Heart.
Through Margaret Mary, Jesus requested that we honor his Sacred Heart by fervently receiving Holy Communion, especially on the First Friday of the month, and offering reparation for sins. Jesus also requested that a special feast day be established to honor his Sacred Heart. In 1765 the feast was officially observed in Poland, and in 1856 Pope Pius IX extended it to the universal Church.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is more than merely a devotion; it is the essence of the Gospel: to take on the heart of Jesus and live in his love and bring it to others. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
From Sacred Heart of Jesus Prayerbook to be published next January,Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony and his Passion, and gave himself up for each one of us: “The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). He has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, (cf. Jn 19:34) “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that . . . love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception. ( 478, quoting Pope Pius XII, encyclical )
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