Doctrinal Foundation of Devotion to the Sacred Heart

by The Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Sacred Heart - TurgisMost of us know that Devotion to the Sacred Heart is part of our Catholic religion. We have known from childhood about the nine first Fridays. We often recite the Litany of the Sacred Heart. Annually we celebrate the solemn feast of the Sacred Heart. I am sure that we know several aspirations, like: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee.” Over the years, every time I pick up the telephone, before I talk to whoever called, I make an aspiration to the Sacred Heart. It helps; you never know who is on the other side. There are pictures and statues of the Sacred Heart. I would like to recommend that every home have at least a picture or a statue of the Sacred Heart. Some of us, I dare say, have memorized the twelve promises of the Sacred Heart. There is the daily morning offering to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. All of this belongs to the practice of the Catholic religion and is part of the living out of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. However, where devotion is part of Catholic piety, the doctrine is part of our Catholic faith.

Catholic Doctrine

I would not hesitate to say that devotion to the Sacred Heart is a synthesis of Catholic doctrine. One thing I have learned from our ecumenical age is that we should be very kind, understanding and gracious towards those that are baptized but are not Catholic. However, we should also understand that as Catholics we are distinctively Christian. Indeed the Catholic Church is normative for the whole Christian world. I can say this with a certain amount of security. My father died when I was about a year old. My mother took in boarders to keep the two of us going. Our first two boarders were two Protestants that stayed with us for years. When I was four years old I complained to my mother; I thought they were my sisters. “How come,” I asked her, “my sisters do not abstain from meat on Friday like we do?” So she took Judith and Susan aside and said, “My boy is asking questions. Would you ask your minister if you can abstain from meat on Fridays, or I will have to ask you to leave.” They abstained from meat on Fridays. Over the years I have taught in six Protestant divinity schools, and published three books on Protestantism that have been used in Protestant seminaries. I understand and, I think I can say, I love Protestants. Although I also know that a Catholic is not a Protestant! It is this stress that I would like to bring out in our conversation. I believe that the devotion to the Sacred Heart (on its doctrinal side) most clearly distinguishes Catholicism from all other forms of Christianity; certainly from the four thousand nominally Protestant denominations throughout the world. The historical origins of the devotion to the Sacred Heart and its doctrine go back to the dawn of Christianity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was revealed to us by Jesus when He told us, in the only direct mandate he gave, to imitate Him, by telling us “Learn from me that I am meek and humble of Heart.” But the doctrinal foundation of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart was revealed on Calvary when the heart of Jesus was pierced by the soldier’s lance and we are told there flowed out blood and water. For the next fifteen hundred years some of the Church’s greatest saints and mystics were specially devoted to the Sacred Heart.

Origins of the Modern Devotion

As Timothy O’Donnell shows in The Heart of the Redeemer, the devotion to the Heart of Jesus goes back to the Gospels and remained unchallenged until the rise of Protestantism. I usually refer to it as the “Protestant Revolution” in contrast with the “Catholic Reformation.” That is why St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus—to provide the Church with a Catholic reformation. In the sixteenth century, the most drastic division in Christian history occurred. Five nations that were Catholic were lost to the Church and large parts of three other countries. Division in Catholic unity came once the doctrinal foundations of what we casually call devotion to the Sacred Heart were undermined. Since then, not only has there been a massively divided Christianity but also a globally disunited humanity. The restoration of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the only real hope we have of restoring unity within the Catholic Church. And the hope of this unity lies in the doctrinal foundations of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart. What was the source of this division in Catholic unity and consequent division in humanity? It was the rise of a chain of errors about God, man, morality, spirituality and human destiny. But there is one basic link in this chain of errors. It is the false belief that we do not have a free will with which we can lovingly respond to God’s mysterious and unfailing love for us. What I am saying is worth repeating. The most fundamental error that divided the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and has since been the most divisive element in the Western world is the denial that we have true internal human freedom by which we can either freely serve God or willingly refuse to serve Him. This error penetrated the Catholic Church through the heresy known as Jansenism. It was named after the French Bishop Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638). At one time fifty dioceses in France were administered by Jansenist bishops. It is important to bring out the “seed bed” of the errors which have divided the Catholic Church and Christianity for five hundred years; and which have occasioned the rise of the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart. Among the champions of Catholic orthodoxy who fought against Jansenism was St. Francis de Sales. At times he even risked his own life. He was a bishop like Jansenius and explained, “A bishop created the error; my duty as a bishop is to correct this error by teaching the truth.” The two masterpieces of the writings of St. Francis de Sales are Introduction to the Devout Life and his classic work On the Love of God. Both of these works are indispensable for a correct understanding of the meaning of true love. In His providence, God had given the Church a St. Francis de Sales who founded the Order of the Visitation, one of whose members was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. It was therefore not coincidental that Christ revealed the mysteries of His Sacred Heart in the Order of the Visitation whose founder was the outstanding defender of God’s universal love for the human race. In my forty-two years in the priesthood I have dealt with many souls and have been involved in many problems. I believe the hardest mystery we are called on to believe, when everything is against it, is that God does love us. He loves everyone! The men that I visit at the Queen of Peace in Washington are dying of AIDS. Does God love them? Yes! God loves everyone and He loves always. “Do you mean that when I have problems God is really loving me?,” one of the men asked. I told him, “You’ve got your vocabulary wrong. In the dictionary of the Holy Trinity the word ‘problem’ does not occur. What we call problems are acts of God’s loving experience.” I know how hard it can be to believe that God loves us when we experience pain or have been rejected by someone who is near and dear to us. Margaret Mary was chosen by God to provide the Church and through the Church all mankind with a deep and clear understanding of God’s love for us and the love we should have for Him. In spite of the trial and tribulation, including the reputation in her community for being out of her mind, she never wavered in her loving trust in God. Love is mainly proved by suffering. No wonder Margaret Mary could ask in one of her letters, “What can keep us from loving God and becoming saints, since we have a body that can suffer and a heart that can love?” Margaret Mary became the catalyst whose mission was to restore to the Catholic Church what some had lost and to strengthen what was so weakened — the mystery of human freedom in responding to the merciful love of God. Devotion to the Sacred Heart can be pathetically cheapened by treating it as just another devotion. On the contrary, it contains in its doctrinal foundation what the popes have reminded us are the seven cardinal mysteries of our Faith, which the world denies but we accept. These seven cardinal mysteries are:

  • God created the human race out of love. He did not need to create anything or anyone. Moreover, He elevated the human race to a supernatural destiny, nothing less than the vision of the Holy Trinity for all eternity. All of this not because He had to, but only because He loves.
  • God became man out of love for the sinful human race. He became a mortal man to die to prove how much He loves us. He assumed a human will that He might freely suffer. Do all humans suffer? Yes. Do all humans suffer willingly? No. The essence of love is to suffer willingly for the one you claim to love. God became man to suffer with a human will.
  • Christ, the Son of God who became the Son of Man, suffered and died not just for the predestined elect, but for all mankind.
  • God gives everyone enough grace to be saved. Is everyone saved? No. God wants all men to be saved yet gave us a free will with which we can choose either to love Him or love ourselves even to the contempt of God.
  • We have a free will by which we can really choose to love God. When we want what God wants then we are loving Him. Love unites two wills: the will of God, by which He offers us His grace; and our will, by which we correspond with the graces we receive.
  • We have a free will that can go beyond the call of duty. We can do more than just cooperate with God’s grace to avoid sin. We can also love God more than we have to … more than we must. Read the letters of St. Margaret Mary. After twenty pages you will have to brace yourself. This loving God more than we have to means loving the cross. Christ joyfully chose the cross, and invites us to do the same, out of love for Him.
  • We believe that Jesus Christ gave us Himself in the Holy Eucharist, by which He remains now on earth, in the fullness of his humanity and with his living human Heart. In every Mass, He freely offers Himself to his heavenly Father, and through the Mass confers the graces He won for us on the cross. In Holy Communion, we receive Him with his Heart into our own hearts, to sustain our selfless love of Him by our enduring love for everyone whom He places into our lives.

Lord Jesus, we believe you are our God who became man so that you might have a human heart, so that you might evoke in our hearts a corresponding love for you. Strengthen our weakness and protect us from ever running away from the cross. Help us to love you here in this valley of tears by faith, so that we can continue loving you in that everlasting embrace for which we were made.

(source: library)

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7 Responses to Doctrinal Foundation of Devotion to the Sacred Heart

  1. yohananclimacus says:

    Reblogged this on The Ladder to the Paradise of God and commented:
    A great article on the Catholic devotion to the the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  2. Toad says:

    “Our first two boarders were two Protestants that stayed with us for years. When I was four years old I complained to my mother; I thought they were my sisters. “How come,” I asked her, “my sisters do not abstain from meat on Friday like we do?” So she took Judith and Susan aside and said, “My boy is asking questions. Would you ask your minister if you can abstain from meat on Fridays, or I will have to ask you to leave.” They abstained from meat on Fridays.”

    Does this strike anyone else as being absurd?


  3. Tom Fisher says:

    I don’t think it is absurd Toad, but with reference to this:

    “How come,” I asked her, “my sisters do not abstain from meat on Friday like we do?” So she took Judith and Susan aside and said, “My boy is asking questions. Would you ask your minister if you can abstain from meat on Fridays, or I will have to ask you to leave.” They abstained from meat on Fridays.

    The story is told to illustrate the point that the Catholic Church is normative for the whole Christian world.

    But it is a cruel story. It is a story about two girls who were told they would be turfed out of their home unless they followed a custom they knew nothing about.

    It is a story that is full of denominational pride and devoid of human feeling. An utterly un-Christian, and thus un-Catholic story


  4. Toad says:

    Nicely and succinctly put, Tom.

    One of the (several) ludicrous aspects here – seemed to me that the Protestant girls would apparently need to ask their spiritual boss for permission not to eat meat on a Friday.
    Is eating meat on Fridays mandatory for certain varieties of Protestant? Do they go to Hell for not eating a bacon sandwich on Friday?
    Who Knows? Who cares, in fact? Muggletonians, possibly.

    None of this is anything except utterly dopey, of course – but it does cast a certain cloud of sceptical doubt over the veracity of the rest of the tale.
    (In my opinion, of course – not everyone’s.)

    However, of the undoubtedly and spectacular vulgarity, and saccharine sentimentality, of every single known image of the “Sacred Heart,” there can be no debate.
    The one above is a case in point. (Why is Jesus stuck on a lace doily, anyway?)
    I notice that none of those excrescences existed in Romanesque times.
    …Though we can extrapolate anything we like from that.


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    An interesting extract about Fr Hardon from Wikipedia:

    “While teaching at St. John’s, Hardon reacted to a woman’s question about his thoughts on the Enneagram of Personality. He responded with an article listing his objections to the concept, viewing it as a New Age process dangerous to the Catholic faith. Soon after he was summoned to appear before his Jesuit superior to speak on the matter, at the conclusion of the meeting he was informed he would be forbidden to teach at any Jesuit run institution. At the time of his death Hardon had not been allowed to teach at a Jesuit school for sixteen years. He viewed this as persecution for teaching the faith and saw it as “white martyrdom” and when recalling it would advise his listeners that they should be willing to suffer for the true doctrines of Catholicism. Hardon was also rebuffed by the chancery of the Archdiocese of Detroit who refused to use any of his books in their catechetical materials and he was never invited to their conferences and seminars – though he was in high demand across the rest of the nation. The conservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer reported that Fr. Patrick Halfpenny, vice-rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit had a standing order at The Michigan Catholic (the diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit) that Hardon’s picture was not to be printed and also that if his name was to be mentioned at all it would be in the smallest font possible, due to Halfpenny’s belief that “He’s divisive.”The Wanderer also pointed out that at the Mass celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination at Assumption Grotto in Detroit, though attended by many friends, not a single Jesuit other than Hardon was there.”

    I have a first edition of Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary beside me, purchased quite sometime before I converted. It had a significant and happy influence upon me (lots of arcane info of interest to amateur historians), so he can’t have been all bad, although I wonder if the most famous living Jesuit in the world would urge me to burn the book? As for Fr Patrick Halfpenny, I’d give him my two cents worth (groan!) about his “standing order” if he was still alive. Is he?


  6. marcpuckett says:

    I met Fr Hardon on a couple of occasions when I was working for the Missionaries of Charity in DC. He gave me good advice that, alas, I didn’t follow. The MCs revered him as a doctor ecclesiae– although if, as the Wikipedia entry says, he was ‘given’ to them by Pope St John Paul through Cardinal Ratzinger, that would partially explain that. I thought, as I recall, that he was simply a friend of Mother Teresa’s work.

    It sounds to me– the ‘controversial’ story about the two boarders– as if Fr Hardon was repeating a story he had heard at a young age from his mother. As an adult (a priest, a Jesuit) he would of course realised that it has… the rough edges, but filial piety compelled him to re-tell the ‘authentic’ story, taking it’s good lesson. Who knows.

    Happy feast!


  7. kathleen says:

    The story of the two girls might sound harsh in the way Fr. Hardon tells it – I agree – but I think the underlying point he is trying to make is what is important. His mother was concerned that her small boy was being influenced negatively by those he considered were part of his family, and that this might undermine his incipient faith. (Good Catholic that she surely was, she probably asked the girls to refrain from eating meat on Friday in a far more charitable way than recorded here.) Guarding the innocence of one’s offspring, and teaching them the treasures of their Faith is something that all parents should be extremely careful about: these precious little souls have been lent to us by God to guide their steps towards Heaven.

    The rest of the article is beautiful and inspiring. The Sacred Heart of Jesus = God’s burning love for Mankind. How can we not respond?


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