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Father Hugh Barbour explains the biblical and medieval roots of the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Is devotion to the Sacred Heart a divine response to an increasingly isolated and lonely modern world?


CK:
Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, our host, and our guest is Father Hugh Barbour, Norbetine priest, former Pryor of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County which is building a new church. You should look it up online. Hello, Father.

FHB:
Hello. Hello.

CK:
It’s very nice to be speaking with you in June, a month of many good things including the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

FHB:
Yes, and so it’s called therefore the month of the Sacred Heart.

CK:
And the Sacred Heart has a pride of place among the devotions of the church in many ways.

FHB:
In many ways, yeah, in a certain sense.

CK:
Okay. So does it start with Margaret Mary, St. Margaret Mary Ala-

FHB:
Alacoque.

CK:
Alacoque. I never know how to say it.

FHB:
Alacoque, yeah. It’s a French name, but if you look at it and say it phonetically, it’s Alacoque.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Yeah, Alacoque. Actually, the devotion has its origin in the Gospels not explicitly, but in fact in John 19, one of the soldiers pierces our Lord’s side with a lance and there flowed there from blood and water. St. John says that the one who is testifying knows his witness is true because he saw it happen. They regarded this as a miraculous event that blood and water would flow from a dead body.

CK:
Yes, right.

FHB:
As we know, blood doesn’t flow from a dead body as though the body were still pumping the blood.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
It’s one of the beautiful elements say of the art of [inaudible 00:01:41] that you see that Christ crucified, the blood is obviously pulsing out of his body to indicate that there’s more there than just a representation of the dead Christ, but actually the living power of the divine Christ whose divine person is united to his precious blood.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
It’s pulsing out. We covered that in our podcast on the precious blood once upon a time. There is one sometime.

CK:
A couple Easters ago, I think.

FHB:
Yeah, sometime. Yeah, there was. It begins there because there always has been in the church a devotion not explicitly to the heart of Christ, but to the wound in his side-

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
… the mystery of that wound in his side. The saints have venerated that and contemplated that to the extent that of course through the wound is of course his heart. That’s why blood and water flowed forth, and what of the blood and water as we’re clearly taught in liturgy and the [inaudible 00:02:36] Catholic Church, the blood and water symbolize the sacramental life of the church. So it’s the inception of the sacraments in their full sense. Christ completes his work on the cross and the sacraments receive their full potency, their full power flowing from his wounded heart which was pierced by the lance.

CK:
Oh.

FHB:
Okay. So people that will say that the Sacred Heart devotion isn’t very liturgical need to understand that no, actually it talks about the very origins and source of all liturgical worship. That’s why even though it was late in the day the church adopted liturgical feasts of the Sacred Heart which is Friday not of this week, but of the next week, I don’t know when this is … Well actually, it’ll be Friday of this week-

CK:
Of the week that we air this.

FHB:
… that we’re airing it so it’ll be Friday this week. It’s the Friday following the … Well that complicates matters because they changed that too. It’s classically the Friday following Corpus Christi, [inaudible 00:03:31] of Corpus Christi, but they changed that to Sunday in the States so that’s complicated. Anyway, simply, Corpus Christi is Sunday. The next Friday, Sacred Heart. That’s easier. Okay. But the church established the feast late in the day. That is in the 1800s. Still her devotion and her awareness that her whole life, sacramental life came from the wounded side of Christ in his perfected work on the cross was quite active and evident from the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, the 4th century deacon and what we would call now the Chaldean or the Syrian Church, any of those churches of Syrian origin before they kind of had splits and various things. He’s a saint for them all. That’s very, very early.

Then the writings of the Fathers, St. Ambrose, of St. Augustine, of St. John Chrysostom, they all talk about that act of the wounding of our Lord’s side in significance for us spiritually, but it really takes off in the 13th century in Europe with the Benedictine nuns, the cloistered nuns who were practically all Benedictines in that time or Cistercians who follow the real Benedict, of the Abbey of [Helfta 00:04:40] like St. Gertrude, the great St. Gertrude-

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
… and St. [Mechtilde 00:04:45] and St. … Who else? There’s another one. Her name begins with an L. Somebody help me out there. You write me and tell me. [Litvina 00:04:54], that’s in another place, but anyway, Mechtilde and Gertrude, very importantly, they had a personal intense devotion to the heart of Christ, specifically the heart of Christ, but always related to that wound in his side. They wrote about it and meditated on it and wrote poetry for it. A great Norbetine of our own order, the order I belong to, wrote also in the 13th century, St. Herman Joseph who was in the Rhineland of Germany, and wrote what is the first known hymn in honor of the Sacred Heart.

So little by little, this devotion exists in a private, you might say, and monastic context in the life of contemplatives who meditating on the liturgy, meditated on the particular states of our Lord, in his life and particularly in his passion. This was a very strong theme. In fact, it’s not just the 13th century. It goes back to the 12th even. There are examples, amazing examples. So but it really begins to be explicit and begins to be recognized by the church in a universal way as we move towards the 1600s, the 1700s, and the 1800s. First of all, 1600s, there’s a great St. John Eudes-

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
… who founded the Eudist Fathers.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Okay. The Fathers of the Sacred Heart. He promoted very vigorously an explicit devotion to the heart of Jesus. Of course, gloriously risen, having suffered his passion, still beating with love for us as an object of our veneration and devotion. He even wrote a mass in office in honor of … That is [Letter to the Hours 00:06:28] in honor of the Sacred Heart because back then in France in the 17th century, they were kind of easy-going about writing new liturgical texts. That might surprise some people, but they did that back then. Even though Pius V had already-

CK:
I thought it was always the Second Vatican Council that ruined all of this.

FHB:
Well no, there was a lot of free-wheeling writing, but let’s just say the quality was a little higher than what we’re used to nowadays.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Okay. So let’s just say the very least and so it was very common in France to write these offices for local use, and St. John-

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
… composed an office in mass in honor of the Sacred Heart and promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the heart of Mary. It was the two hearts. Now, where did this come from? It came from a meditation a little different from the Middle Ages where they’re actually considering the passion in and of itself. It came from a more modern, in the broad sense of modern-

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
… like post-Descartes modern, 17th century on, modern sense of wanting to participate in the inner states of the life of Christ of the word made flesh. What is He thinking? What is He feeling?

CK:
Right.

FHB:
What are the thoughts of his heart? What are his experiences? What are the secrets hidden in his inner life? That’s a very modern way to approach it.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So not so much gazing at the cross and [compassionating 00:07:50] our Lord in his sufferings and being awed by his immense love for us which is there. Also, [Jugen 00:07:54] of [Norwich 00:07:55] is another one from that period who has our Lord showing his heart very beautifully. That’s another one earlier on, but when we get to the 17th and 18th, 19th centuries, we’re more concerned, especially in the 17th, with that devotion to our Lord’s inner life. This is the whole piety of what is called, in the academic world at least, the French school of spiritually.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
It’s started by the congregation of Saint-Sulpice, the Sulpician Fathers-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… who were very influential in the original formation of the clergy in this country on the East Coast. The Bishop Carroll brought Sulpicians from France to run the seminaries in Baltimore and around there. They had a great influence all the way up to the Sulpician writer [Tanquerey 00:08:46] who wrote a manual, Spiritual Theology and-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… Dogmatic and Moral Theology. He wrote a manual of everything. Now, people always make fun of him because when you write a manual, you don’t make too many … You cover everything and so never satisfies … No point satisfies a person who has gone deeply into any one point.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
That’s way it is for summarizers. That’s what we’re doing here so if you’re an expert on the devotion of the Sacred Heart-

CK:
Except for Thomas.

FHB:
… I’m sure you won’t mind [crosstalk 00:09:11]. Right. No, no. Thomas are never touchy about that sort of thing, but in any case, the Sulpician school, the French school is represented by St. John Eudes, but also by other greats following in the line earlier of St. Francis de Sales, but then a little bit earlier of St. Louis de Montfort. If you notice, St. Louis de Montfort, for example, his consecration, his total consecration to Mary is a consecration to Jesus, the incarnate word at the hands of Mary.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
That is this great focus on the inner life of the incarnate word-

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
… and the inner life of Mary. So there’s a devotion, for example, of her heart. That’s where the heart’s mentioned in the Scriptures quite explicitly, with Mary, that she [crosstalk 00:09:57] ponders these things in her heart.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
So that’s the heart reference. In the Scriptures, we don’t hear a reference to our heart, our Lord’s heart directly, but we hear the event of his piercing of his heart. So that particular spirituality had a tremendous impact and the attractiveness of this devotion to the inner life, the thoughts of the hearts of Jesus and Mary, their love for us, their feelings for us, really had great popular appeal. Then came along our Lord Jesus Christ himself-

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
… who came to ratify this movement of the Holy Spirit among his people in his revelations to St. Margaret Mary, a Visitandine nun, that is a nun of the Visitation, the order founded by St. Frances de Sales, to whom He appeared revealing his desire that devotion to his Sacred Heart be established throughout the world and that a mass be, a feast day be given to the Sacred Heart and various promises associated with devotion of the Sacred Heart and in particular, a mass in devotion in reparation for the outrages by which He’s offended by neglect of the blessed sacrament by clergy, by neglect of the sacrament altogether by Christians who don’t receive the Holy Eucharist, for those who receive the Holy Eucharist unworthily, for the lack of physical external reverence offered, all those things which … Blasphemies uttered against the doctrine itself by heretics, all these things.

So our Lord says … He appears to her and He says, “Behold this heart which is so loved men and in return receives only indifference or contempt.” Well if you lived a life where most people regarded you at beast with indifference or even contempt, you could imagine what a man or woman of sorrows you would be. So our Lord presents himself in this vein.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So consequently, He asks for this devotion to repair and she courageously through her spiritual rector, St. Claude de la Colombiere, the Jesuit Father, began to promote the devotion. Little by little, it grew and grew with lots of opposition, but finally it was recognized by the Popes of Rome. Little by little, the Visitation Sisters got a mass in office and then it was extended ultimately to the whole church on a lower level by Gregory XVI and then later on by Pius IX and so on into the 20th century when, as a supreme act [inaudible 00:12:36] regarding the Sacred Heart, Pope Pius XII had an [inaudible 00:12:40] of the Sacred Heart which gives the most perfect presentation of the doctrine.

Then John Paul II in his [inaudible 00:12:46] on mercy [inaudible 00:12:48]. He gives an outline of the devotion of the Sacred Heart too which is different in tone from Pius XII, but certainly not a different doctrine. So it’s a doctrine which developed over a long period of time, but with great success among the faithful so that practically speaking if you went to Ireland of a certain age, there wouldn’t be a single household without a picture of the Sacred Heart.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
It was one of the things that was promoted, to enthrone the image of the Sacred Heart in the house as king of one’s family. That’s one of the most beautiful devotions. Google enthronement of the Sacred Heart and do it in your own house.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
It’d be a good thing. Then also, the devotion of the First Fridays, our Lord promised that those who received holy communion on nine consecutive First Fridays, hopefully in a few weeks, that’ll be possible to accomplish again-

CK:
Yeah, good luck.

FHB:
Yeah, good luck. Some people aren’t quite as merciful as Jesus. I won’t say who, but anyway-

CK:
Epidemiologists.

FHB:
… communion on … Right. We’ll blame them. Okay. Receive communion on nine consecutive Fridays in reparation of the Sacred Heart would be given the grace as a final perseverance, the last sacraments, dying in Christ’s grace, all that. Also, the blessing given to those who will have an image of his heart exposed and venerated. There are many of these things that are given by our Lord in this devotion.

CK:
I want to move to some of the meaning of this, but before I do that, it strikes me that this in some way, you can almost infer from this a divine response to the loneliness, the alienation, the isolation that the modern world, that is unique to the modern world.

FHB:
Absolutely.

CK:
That’s what this is.

FHB:
This is the answer to the disembodied, isolated-

CK:
Yes, self-

FHB:
… person that comes in after Descartes.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Not to blame him completely because he had a lot of that French spirituality in his formation, but let’s just say things developed in that direction-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… and certainly the 20th century more and more. So we have, for example, the divine mercy devotion which is substantially the same as devotion of the Sacred Heart.

CK:
It’s really remarkable how-

FHB:
It takes it back to the origins because it’s the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s wound in side, but it’s the same thing except expressed more intensely and vehemently. If you think the heart is something and that doesn’t move you, well I’ll just humbly myself even lower and I’ll reduce it to blood and water.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Maybe you’ll understand that.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
It’s an amazing thing-

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
… that our Lord gives us in that devotion as well, but they’re not really different devotions. We shouldn’t be distressed if we have a divine mercy picture up and we don’t have a Sacred Heart picture. Don’t worry about it. Just pick one or the other. Okay?

CK:
They’re the same.

FHB:
You’re not going to make Jesus mad if you don’t have a divine mercy picture and you only have a Sacred Heart picture. Don’t be silly.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Say, if you’re Byzantine and your priest doesn’t like Sacred Heart pictures which is probably the case, don’t worry about that either. You can have the icon of our Lord appearing to St. Thomas in the room and placing his hand-

CK:
The hand.

FHB:
… in his side. Don’t get … Don’t worry about it. The Lord wants you to look at the essence of the devotion, not its particular forms. Usually, the really picky liturgical types, and I’m one of them, just kind of shy away from the more modern devotions. They like the pure liturgy. So an image of the Sacred Heart means that it definitely is … When they start appearing everywhere, it’s already the 18th century, the 1700s. So people with those kind of Medieval tastes go, “Oh, no. No, that’s far too late, far too modern for us.”

CK:
Right.

FHB:
So they tend to react against it. Of course, it is hard to find really high quality images of the Sacred Heart in my opinion, but-

CK:
Sure.

FHB:
… they are there. The Jesuits commissioned the most famous one which is the one by Pompeo Batoni which you find, the great 18th century portrait artist, which we find in the Church of the Gesu, the Jesuits [generalit 00:16:45] church in Rome. That was kind of the model for everything else. There’s a beautiful one in the Cathedral of Vienna. There’s several that kind of give a model of what the image is supposed to be according to our Lord, but many others. But the image is very important because our Lord wants to attract us by the thought and the awareness of his real beating physical-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… risen heart-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… which leads to another question.

CK:
Okay. I will get to that question.

FHB:
Okay.

CK:
It’s hard for me to get past this personal love that’s being expressed in this devotion because I think it’s very, very moving and very much needed, this personal, human even, love that Jesus has for each individual and that it’s … It is such an antidote to the isolation, to the awful isolation-

FHB:
Absolutely.

CK:
… of modern life.

FHB:
But it has to be interpreted to modern people because our Lord when He says to us, “Behold this heart which has so loved man is only repaid by ingratitude and contempt,” we hear a guilt trip. We’ve gone a step further.

CK:
Oh, I see.

FHB:
We’re not happy that he’s telling us that we’ve been bad.

CK:
Yeah, I see.

FHB:
What we understand is our Lord’s perfect. He’s not trying to scold us or shame us. He’s saying, like a perfectly upright and simple saintly person would say, “Just don’t … Stop doing this to me. I love you.”

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
“I love you and I’m going to love you anyway.”

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
“But just love me back. That’s all.”

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
“That’s all. I’m not trying to … I won’t give you any guilt trip or shame or anything, but just love me back.”

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
That’s the important thing to make clear. Just like when we correct our children, we don’t want them to please us just because they fear our displeasure-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… which some people don’t express it by anger and wrath. They express it by guilt trip. We need to avoid all of that. Our Lord simply wants us to turn from our indifference and our sin and begin to love him in return-

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
… because He can take the hurt. He’s big. He can take it, but He doesn’t want to take it from us because He loves us. He loves us and He wants our love in return.

CK:
So-

FHB:
Is that a sufficient answer for you?

CK:
That is. I just didn’t mean to suggest an insufficiency on your part.

FHB:
No, I did not imply that you did.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Rather, I just want to make sure that you yourself go away consoled-

CK:
I do feel that way. I do. I find this extremely consoling. Yes, thank you, Father.

FHB:
There’s nothing that Jesus wouldn’t do for us.

CK:
Right. Right.

FHB:
Yet, He does it in his own way and his own measure because He’s a real lover. He’s not just trying to satisfy our momentary emotional-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… state.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
He’s there for the long run.

CK:
Right. Yes.

FHB:
So He’s not going to suddenly make us feel all warm and fuzzy. He’s going to give us some time to reflect, but He really and truly only and solely wants our love because that’s the only thing in us that’s completely and totally worthy of him. Your love is worthy of Jesus. It’s worthy of him. That’s why He wants it because it’s-

CK:
I hope it gives me the grace to give it to him constantly. I hope so.

FHB:
He does.

CK:
I got a problem with you Catholics here though.

FHB:
Oh, okay.

CK:
Are you worshiping a body part? Are you worshiping a physical organ? What are you doing, you Catholics?

FHB:
Well that’s an interesting question. In a certain sense, we worship our Lord’s body because it’s substantially united to God the Son, the word of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, so much so that even in his death, his divinity, his godhead was not separated from his body or his blood. They remained adorable. They remained God.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So we can adore his body and his blood as we do at holy mass, and that’s a further layer of the sacrament, but as far as the parts of his body go, we consider those parts which are symbolic or reflective or are the focal point of the whole person-

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
… as particular objects of devotion. That is when we adore our Lord, we’re thinking of his heart, we’re thinking of his face, his eyes. Basically, we’re thinking of his intellect and his will, but shown forth in a body. A heart expresses both thoughts and a disposition of will so that He both knows us and loves us with his heart, not only with his mind, but he looks upon us with his eyes and his face so that we will receive consolation and confidence to approach him. So in a certain true sense, we do adore his Sacred Heart in so far as it is the representation of his person, his divine person and his human nature, but the church is sensitive enough to this issue that, something little known, she forbade that there should be in churches a veneration just of an image of the heart without the whole body being there or at least from the waist up.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
That is for an altar to the Sacred Heart, you need a statue or a painting of our Lord there with his head and his hands and his arms-

CK:
Right.

FHB:
… as He appeared to St. Margaret Mary. He didn’t just appear as a disembodied heart.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
He appeared as a man holding forth his heart. Now, all the way out of his body to show how much He wanted to give it to us, but still-

CK:
Yes.

FHB:
… all there to be interpreted. So we can use the Sacred Heart as a symbol as, say, a decoration on a pious prayer book or whatnot, but we don’t in a church. If we’re going to dedicate a church to the Sacred Heart, we don’t put up a big heart-

CK:
Giant heart. Man.

FHB:
… and venerate it, but if we have an image of our Lord showing his heart, we venerate that. Right? Well we venerate all of that, but I mean the point is that the church’s guidance regarding iconography is that He has to be represented along with his heart, not simply the heart by itself unless it’s simply a decoration. A vestment with a Sacred Heart on it is no problem, but an altar to the Sacred Heart needs a statue or a painting of him.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
So that kind of shows the fine point there. Yes, it is.

CK:
It’s a person we’re worshiping.

FHB:
A person. Just like you say, you know in your heart. It means you know-

CK:
Yeah, right.

FHB:
… with my heart, I love you. Well it means I love you.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
The heart is a symbol of the person. It’s the focal point of the person’s knowledge and emotions.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
Especially if you follow the Oriental tradition, that’s the whole tradition of the heart, it’s very, very clear in their tradition even though there’s a bit of an aversion to the Sacred Heart at least among the Byzantines. The Chaldeans, Syrians, the Coptic Christians, and the [Malankar 00:23:32], all this, they don’t worry about that so much. They’ve kind of adopted the image of the Sacred Heart, but the Byzantine is a little more … Since it’s more in competition with the Roman rite, that’s the East Roman rite as opposed to the Western Roman rite-

CK:
Yeah, right.

FHB:
… they’re a little more touchy-

CK:
We’ve got to maintain that distinction.

FHB:
Also, that devotion was adopted by them, but with forms that were alien to their liturgy-

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
… back in the 18th century.

CK:
Right.

FHB:
So there’s a reaction against it, but that needs to be properly explained and I’m sure their clergy and bishops can do that.

CK:
I’m really grateful to get to talk about the Sacred Heart with you. I want to just … You mentioned art and I’m going to look up that painting that you suggested that’s in the Gesu, but I feel like as a Boston Irish Catholic kid, I feel like still at 55, I’m recovering from some of the art that was in some houses.

FHB:
Yeah.

CK:
It actually kind of scares you as a kid. It puts you off and you’re like, “What?”

FHB:
Yeah, the [inaudible 00:24:31] girl is revered.

CK:
Yeah. I mean some of that does not engender love and affection towards the Lord and his mother, but a kind of, “Who are these people? This is freaky to me.”

FHB:
Right. Because it comes from a culture which was very much at home with sentimental expressions of emotion and we live in a culture that’s not [crosstalk 00:24:56]. Right. Well yeah, it is a different kind of sentiment, but let’s just say there are images which are … There’s a very beautiful Mexican one by an artist called [Ibarra 00:25:08] that’s very nice.

CK:
Yeah.

FHB:
Of course, there’s Pompeo Batoni who’s kind of like the model, but that’s 18th century so you might not like that too much.

CK:
Okay.

FHB:
But there are various ones if you look around, you’ll find the one that you’ll be able to respond to better, but the fact is right now in heights of heaven and in the blessed sacrament, the heart of Jesus is just beating with love for you and wants only a return of his love no questions asked. “Just come to me.”

CK:
Thank you, Jesus.

FHB:
Thank you, Jesus.

CK:
Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Father.

FHB:
Thank you.

CK:
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