How Jesuits spread devotion to the Sacred Heart
A Pillar Explainer
The Jesuit superior general Fr. Arturo Sosa will dedicate the order to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Sunday.
He will recite an act of consecration during a live-streamed Mass on July 31 in Loyola, the Spanish birthplace of St. Ignatius, at the end of the Ignatian Year marking the 500th anniversary of the Jesuit founder’s conversion.
The act, which will also be made by Jesuit communities around the world, is just the latest expression of the order’s commitment to promoting one of the best-known Catholic devotions.
But how did the world’s largest male religious order come to be associated with the Sacred Heart? How did the Jesuits help to bring the devotion into mainstream Catholic life? And is the devotion in danger of disappearing today?
The Pillar takes a look:
The birth of a devotion
On Dec. 27, 1673, the French nun Margaret Mary Alacoque received the first of her visions of Jesus. Kneeling before the grille in the chapel at the Visitation convent in Paray-le-Monial, she heard Christ telling her that he wanted her to spread his heart’s “burning charity” around the world.
After 18 months of intense mystical experiences, the nun tried to share the messages she had received but encountered skepticism. In difficult moments, she recalled that Jesus had promised to send her someone he described as “My faithful servant and perfect friend.” She found him in the figure of Fr. Claude La Colombière, a Jesuit who served as the community’s confessor.
Fr. Colombière, an electrifying preacher mysteriously assigned to the quiet provincial town, listened carefully to the nun’s testimony. Through prayer and discernment, he concluded that Jesus wanted to spread devotion to his heart through her.
After just a year and a half at Paray, the priest was sent to England. He would be imprisoned there on false charges and return to France with his health shattered.
But devotion to Christ’s heart - which already had deep roots in the Church - gradually became established at the convent, which began to observe the feast of the Sacred Heart privately from 1686.
St. Ignatius and the Sacred Heart
The reason why devotion to the Sacred Heart captured Fr. Colombière’s imagination lies in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, first published in 1548. The French priest was known for his diligent practice of the exercises, which offer guidance on discerning God’s will and seeking union with him.
Fr. Frédéric Fornos, S.J., the international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, told The Pillar that the Spiritual Exercises pointed to the heart of Jesus.
“St. Ignatius invites us to contemplate Jesus in the Gospel, following him along the roads of Galilee, as if we were at his side, listening to him and watching him act, ever closer to him so that one day we might be like him,” he said.
“In the times of contemplation which St Ignatius invites us to each day, we are encouraged to ask for the grace to have ‘an intimate knowledge of our Lord, who has become man for me, that I may love him more and follow him more.’”
The French priest continued: “The Spiritual Exercises lead to a deep love for Christ that culminates in what we call the ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God,’ where by recognizing all the good we have received, from gratitude, the desire ‘to love and serve God in all things’ grows in us. And this to the point of total self-offering, asking only for the grace to love him.”
“The Spiritual Exercises lead to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, even if the word ‘heart’ does not appear in them. All the height, length, breadth, and depth of Love is seen in Jesus. The apostolic availability of Jesuits, in docility to the Spirit, is rooted in a deep personal love for Jesus Christ.”
From Fr. Colombière’s spiritual notes, it seems that when he practiced the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God,” the final meditation of the Spiritual Exercises, he perceived that the heart of Jesus was a symbol of his love.
Reflecting on the relationship between the Spiritual Exercises and the Sacred Heart devotion, Fr. Fornos said: “Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has a long history. From the ‘pierced heart of Jesus’ in the Gospel of St. John, through the revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century, as well as from later devotion to the Sacred Heart in the 19th century.”
“Over the centuries, there have been various inculturations of this devotion, with various forms and terminology, but always as a means for the Father to reveal the mystery of His Love to us in all its depth, through a privileged symbol: the living heart of His Risen Son.”
“St. Ignatius spent a year on the outskirts of the small town of Manresa contemplating Jesus Christ in the Gospel and the Eucharist, and discovered the dynamics of Love in the universe and the cosmic dimension of God’s design.”
“Devotion to the Heart of Jesus does not complement the teaching of St. Ignatius, but rather his spiritual experience led him to the heart of the Gospel, the Heart of Christ, from which the Spiritual Exercises are born. What today we call devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has in St. Ignatius his own style and color.”
The Jesuits’ ‘gentle burden’
After Margaret Mary Alacoque’s death in 1690, Rome slowly began to encourage the devotion, which was assiduously promoted by the Jesuits. In 1765, Pope Clement XIII formally approved a Mass of the Sacred Heart. Pope Pius IX extended the feast of the Sacred Heart to the whole Latin Church in 1856.
The feast was established on June 16 because on that day in 1675, Jesus had told Margaret Mary that he wanted “a special feast to honor My Heart.” Catholics began to associate the whole month of June with the devotion. Many took up the First Fridays Devotion, derived from Margaret Mary’s visions, going to confession and receiving Holy Communion on the first Fridays of nine consecutive months.
When the Belgian priest Fr. Peter Jan Beckx was elected as the Jesuit superior general in 1853, it was a time of upheaval within Europe and also the order, which had been restored about 40 years earlier after being suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773.
On Jan. 1, 1872, Beckx stood in the Church of the Gesù, the Jesuit mother church in Rome, and read an act consecrating the order to the heart of Jesus. The event was also marked in Jesuit houses around the world.
In 1875, work began on the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, high on a hilltop in the French capital Paris. One of the best-known churches dedicated to the Sacred Heart, it would be located next to Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, where St. Ignatius and his early companions made their initial commitments in 1534.
As builders toiled away in Paris, participants in the Jesuits’ 23rd general congregation met in Rome in 1883. They approved a decree declaring that “the Society of Jesus accepts and receives with a spirit overflowing with joy and gratitude, the gentle burden (according to the Latin expression munus suavissimum) that our Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted to it, to practice, promote and propagate devotion to His most divine Heart.”
In 1915, the Society of Jesus said that the devotion should be promoted through the Apostleship of Prayer, a burgeoning movement founded at a French Jesuit house of formation in 1844. The organization, known today as the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, would reach countless people through its journal, Messenger of the Sacred Heart, published in more than 40 languages.
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The centenary of the Jesuits’ consecration to the Sacred Heart fell during the turbulent tenure of Fr. Pedro Arrupe as the order’s superior general. The Spanish priest is associated with the Jesuits’ embrace of social justice. But Arrupe was also an ardent promoter of the Sacred Heart devotion.
In April 1972, he wrote a letter explaining why he was preparing to renew the order’s consecration to the Sacred Heart. He noted that Jesuits were sharply divided over the devotion.
Setting out the opposing positions, he wrote: “Some maintain that the spirituality which they unabashedly insist on calling Devotion to, or Cult of the Sacred Heart, is something so distinctive of, so essential to the Society, that it should be the characteristic mark of every good Jesuit.”
“For them, the Sacred Heart Apostolate, that ‘munus suavissimum,’ should be an essential feature of our pastoral activity, its inspiration and soul. The Sacred Heart, symbol of the divine and human love of Christ, is for them the most direct path to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.”
“Then there is a second position, that of those who feel a certain indifference, even some kind of subconscious aversion, to this type of devotion, and who will not speak of it. They hold that it consists merely of certain obsolete and anachronistic devotional practices.”
“They find no inspiration in the symbol of the heart, because the word ‘heart’ for many is charged with sentimentality; it excites distaste, even repugnance. The fact that in at least some cultures the heart is not considered a symbol of love except in a grossly sentimental context may contribute to this attitude.”
Arrupe sought to reconcile the two camps, arguing that, “in the light of sound discernment,” they were actually complementary.
“We find ourselves then in an historic moment of contestation; of criticism, even of rejection, of traditional attitudes,” he wrote. “This entails great dangers, but it also has the advantage of compelling us to go to the very heart of things.”
“It follows that the Society, if it is to remain faithful to its tradition, has the duty of reflecting seriously on what is essential in the Sacred Heart devotion and of finding ways to channel and present it to the world of today.”
The superior general urged Jesuit theologians and experts on spirituality and pastoral care “to study the most effective way of presenting this devotion today, so that we may reap in the future the plentiful harvests of the past.”
Arrupe said that his recommendation would be a “great service to the Society,” because “the more perfectly we comprehend the love of Christ the more easily shall we find the authentic way to describe it and to express it.”
Fr. Fornos told The Pillar that it was unsurprising that there were conflicting opinions among Jesuits.
“There have been various inculturations of this devotion over the centuries, which have taken different forms and languages. So there are various ways of understanding devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, sometimes full of misunderstandings and hardly compatible with the approach of the Spiritual Exercises, which open and lead to the heart of the world, to men and women in our world,” he said.
“These distorted images and understandings can prevent one from seeing and hearing the depth of this devotion. However, when the starting point is the spiritual experience proposed by the Spiritual Exercises, through ‘an intimate knowledge of Christ’ to the ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God,’ there is no ‘conflict of opinions,’ but the same love of Jesus Christ that makes us companions of Jesus.”
On June 9, 1972, Arrupe renewed the order’s consecration to the Sacred Heart during a Mass at the Church of the Gesù.
In his homily, Arrupe connected the devotion to a formative experience in the life of St. Ignatius: his mystical experience in 1537 at an abandoned church in La Storta, on Rome’s outskirts. Ignatius said that he saw God the Father together with Jesus, who carried the Cross and told him that he would receive favor in Rome. Ignatius went on to be ordained a priest in the Eternal City and receive papal approval to establish a religious order.
Arrupe said: “La Storta helps us to penetrate more profoundly into the true Ignatian meaning of our consecration: it is meant to be a public confirmation that our life will be an unflagging service of God and of our brothers.”
“Our Consecration to the Heart of Christ, in its turn, helps us to penetrate more deeply into the message of La Storta; it makes us know more intimately the person of Christ, makes us steep ourselves into the import of our mission, and finally it makes us more Ignatian and better and more authentic ‘socii Jesu’ [companions of Jesus]”
A fading devotion?
Catholic writers have detected a decline in devotion to the Sacred Heart in recent years.
The English journalist Damian Thompson has suggested that the generational transmission of the devotion broke down following the “cultural revolution” that swept through the Catholic Church in the 1970s and 80s.
“For centuries, Catholics found new cultural expressions of love for the Sacred Heart,” he wrote in 2019. “Then we skipped a generation. And look what happened.”
The devotion may remain stronger in the Spanish-speaking Catholic world than in the Anglosphere.
Fr. Fornos told The Pillar that the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network was redoubling its efforts “to propose the devotion to the Heart of Jesus, in an apostolic perspective” through a formation program called “The Way of The Heart.”
“This itinerary, which unites our heart to the Heart of Christ, as close as possible to his joys and sufferings for the world, leads us to commit ourselves with him to meet the challenges that confront humanity and the mission of the Church, expressed in the pope’s prayer intentions,” he explained.
He added that Pope Francis’ teaching that “the Heart of Jesus is the ultimate symbol of God’s mercy” could also offer a fresh way of presenting the devotion in a different style of language.
Will the renewal of the Jesuits’ consecration to the Sacred Heart also prompt its rediscovery more widely?
Perhaps. Jesuit superior general Fr. Arturo Sosa certainly hopes that it will invigorate the order.
In a letter on the consecration that he sent to all Jesuits last month, he recalled that the motto of the Ignatian Year ending on Sunday is “To see all things new in Christ.”
“We wish that our view of ‘all things’ may be similar to that of the Lord, and that our behavior and decisions may be inspired by the same will of the Father that Ignatius tirelessly sought and found,” he wrote. “We ask, therefore, in our consecration that the Heart of Christ may enlighten and sustain our journey.”