As the Easter season comes to a close and Ordinary Time opens, we encounter a slew of feast days during the liturgical “transition” period—Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and finally the feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Church usually celebrates the feasts of the Two Hearts on the Friday (today) and Saturday following the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi).
Both feasts have theological roots and expressions of popular devotion that go back to the earliest centuries, but the feasts themselves were established more recently in Church history. The feast of the Sacred Heart was placed on the universal calendar of the Latin Church in 1856; the Immaculate Heart became a universal feast in 1944.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart focuses on God’s self-sacrificial love for humankind. For God the Son so loved the world that he allowed a spear to pierce his human heart, from which flowed blood and water for the salvation of the world (John 3:16, 19:34). The popular devotions to the Sacred Heart that are commonly practiced today were inspired by the visions of Christ reported by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a seventeenth-century nun. Among other things, Christ asked for reception of Communion on First Fridays and for holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary devotion focuses on the love of the Blessed Virgin Mary for God, and on how our own imperfect love for God, though marred by sin, can become perfected when offered to God in union with Mary’s perfect human love for him. Popular devotions associated with the Immaculate Heart are the Miraculous Medal, which was inspired by visions of the Blessed Virgin given in the nineteenth century to St. Catherine Labouré, and the reparations made for sin on First Saturdays. Interestingly, the Church initially was reluctant to establish a feast day for the Immaculate Heart, rejecting early efforts by St. John Eudes in the seventeenth century to gain approval for the feast.
Protestants sometimes object to Catholic devotions like the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, and not only out of discomfort with Marian veneration. They also tend to see such devotions as accretions that mar the original purity of the Christian faith. They not only ask where such observances can be found in the Bible—they ask why the early Christians didn’t seem to know anything about them. Given the later origins of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts devotions, this objection might seem to have merit.
Sometimes Catholic apologists can get so caught up in trying to demonstrate that non-apostolic traditions—the lower-case “t” traditions that are not part of the deposit of the faith—are in harmony with Scripture and the practices of the early Church that we neglect to challenge the Protestant assumption that later developments in Christian piety are, by that fact, necessarily to be rejected.
One way to demonstrate to Protestants that the development of pious practices throughout Christian history can be acceptable, so long as those practices don’t contradict Christian dogma, is to point out modern Protestant pieties that were unknown in the early centuries of the Church (and that, we may note to ourselves, can appear to be improvised substitutions for lost sacraments). Let’s look at a few of them.
- Infant baptism is one of the theological issues on which Fundamentalist Christians disagree with Catholics. They believe that baptism is only for adults, or at least for those who have reached the age of reason and are able to make “a decision for Christ.” But there seems to be a universal human need for ceremonies that welcome newborns into human society (especially spiritual society) , and thus many Fundamentalist churches offer dedication ceremonies in which new parents present their baby to the Christian community and pledge to raise the child for Christ.
- Altar calls are a staple in many Evangelical churches. At some point during Sunday services, the preacher will invite anyone present who hasn’t yet made a personal commitment to Jesus to come forward to the altar and accept Jesus into his life as his “personal Lord and Savior.” Evangelicals consider this commitment central to the Christian life, to the point that a person’s eternal salvation is in doubt if he does not experience this moment of conversion. For Catholics, the central action of Sunday services is the Mass, and the place for a declaration of a personal need for Christ’s saving power is in the confessional.
- At a Catholic nuptial Mass, the Eucharist is a symbol not just of the congregation’s communion in Christ but also of the newly married couple’s union in Christ. Although many Protestant communities no longer consider marriage or the Eucharist to be sacraments—calling them instead “ordinances,” things that Christ ordained to be done but that don’t actually impart grace to believers—they still feel a need to insert a ritual into the ceremony that symbolizes the couple’s unity. That’s one reason why the unity candle, in which the newly-married couple lights a candle together, has become ubiquitous in Protestant weddings (and, unfortunately, has been imported into many Catholic weddings as well).
Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of Catholicism for Protestants to appreciate is that it is a layered religion that has grown and developed over centuries. Protestant apologists argue that such growth obscures the original purity of Christianity, that the development of pious customs such as devotion to the hearts of our Lord and our Lady are like barnacles on the barque of Peter—something to be scraped away.
But these pious customs are natural growth, as healthy for Christ’s mystical body as height, weight, and new muscles are for a human being who is maturing from infancy to adulthood. Christ told his apostles that his Church would grow in this way, although he used the image of the mustard seed that grows from a seed to a tree, in which “the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19).
The devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, at least in their modern forms, may not have begun during apostolic times, but they are a couple of the “nests” of piety in which Catholics have been spiritually nourished for centuries.