Revelations of the Sacred Heart and the Holy Eucharist
There were all told perhaps forty mystical experiences of which we have some record in the life of St. Margaret Mary. Yet only three of these are properly called revelations in the technical sense, during which Our Lord appeared to the saint as the Sacred Heart and communicated to her some message that she was to transmit to others. These three are known as the “Great Apparitions,” and took place in a period of less than two years, specifically between December 27, 1673 and June 16, 1675. Let us briefly quote the circumstances under which each revelation began, as described by the saint herself.
Regarding the first apparition, on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, she says: “One day, when I was before the Blessed Sacrament, and having at the time more leisure than usual, I felt myself wholly invested with the presence of God.”
The second apparition probably occurred early in the following year, and its beginning is described as follows in the Autobiography: “On one occasion, while the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, feeling wholly withdrawn within myself by an extraordinary recollection of all my senses and powers, Jesus Christ, my sweet Master, presented Himself to me, all resplendent with glory, His five wounds shining like so many suns.”
Narrating the third apparition, she begins: “Being before the Blessed Sacrament one day of its octave, I received from my God signal tokens of His love, and I felt urged with the desire of making Him some return, and of rendering Him love for love.”
In every instance, therefore, the revelations of the Sacred Heart took place before the Blessed Sacrament; the first two when the monstrance was exposed on the altar, the third while Saint Claude de la Colombiere was offering Mass and Margaret Mary was approaching the grille to receive Holy Communion from his hands.
More than just the setting, however, the substance of the revelations is clearly Eucharistic, as may be seen from the authentic memoirs and letters of St. Margaret Mary. Fortunately we need not examine all her writings to arrive at this conclusion because an easier method is available. After the death of Saint Claude, the man chosen by Christ Himself to promote the cultus of the Sacred Heart was Father John Croiset, professor at the Jesuit College in Lyons. Croiset became the fellow worker of the saint. Her extant correspondence with him covers ten letters which she wrote during the last eighteen months of her life, when the revelations of the Sacred Heart were completed. On these letters is based the first book ever written on devotion to the Sacred Heart in its modern form. To avoid obvious complications, Croiset held up the book until after the death of Margaret Mary; he published the volume at Lyons in 1691. Entitled, The Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ, it was written at the request of Our Savior in a message conveyed to Father Croiset by St. Margaret Mary. In asking him to write the book she assured him in the name of the Sacred Heart that he would receive special assistance in its composition, and when it was almost finished she wrote to tell him that the work was so entirely in accord with the wishes of Our Lord it would never have to be revised. Subsequent history has vindicated this promise. Even now after the lapse of more than three centuries, during which time countless volumes have appeared on the subject, it still remains the most practical source book on the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
In the opening paragraph of the first chapter, in answer to the question: “What do we mean by devotion to the Sacred Heart,” we are told:
The particular object of this devotion is the immense love of the Son of God which induced Him to deliver Himself up to death for us and to give Himself entirely to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. The thought of all the ingratitude and all the outrages which He has to receive in this state of immolated victim until the end of time did not prevent Him from operating this prodigy. He preferred to expose Himself each day to the insults and opprobrium of men rather than be prevented from testifying by working the greatest of all miracles to what excess He loved us.
Reflection on this immense love of God, manifested in the Incarnation and perpetuated in the Eucharist, has evoked corresponding sentiments of love in the souls of the faithful;
For when they consider how little the world is moved by this excess of love, how little men love Jesus Christ in return, and how little pains they take to be loved by Him, His faithful friends have not been able to endure seeing him treated with such contempt day after day. They have endeavored to show their just sorrow at such treatment and, by their ardent love, their profound respect. They have also sought by special acts of homage to testify their great desire to make reparation to the utmost of their capacity for this ingratitude and contempt.
Granting, therefore, that the principal motive of this devotion is the Incarnate, Eucharistic love of God, and its proper ends are to make a return of this love by acts of adoration, gratitude and reparation, why should the concentration or focus be on the physical Heart of Christ? The reason lies in the limitations of our composite human nature, which is made up of body and soul:
Just as in the case of even the most spiritual devotions, we have always need of material and sensible objects which appeal to our human nature, act on the imagination and memory and facilitate the practice, so in the case of this devotion, the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been chosen as the sensible object most worthy of our veneration, and at the same time most proper for the end proposed by this devotion.
This correlation is perfectly natural once we realize that, on the one hand, “the heart of man is both the source and the seat of love,” while, on the other, “properly understood, this devotion is nothing else than an exercise of love. Love is its object, love its motive and principle, and love is also its end.”
The problem arises, however, of whether devotion to the Sacred Heart is any different from devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Speaking for Margaret Mary and, we may believe, conformably to the wishes of Christ, Croiset emphatically declares the difference is only a matter of emphasis. He uses a comparison with devotion to the Sacred Passion. The sufferings of Christ, no less than the Eucharistic love of Christ, are spiritual realities and clearly suitable objects of worship by the faithful. Yet to help our life of prayer the Church gives us a sensible object for the sufferings of the Son of God, represented in the image of His Wounds. Consequently devotion to the Five Wounds is in reality only a particular devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ. Croiset then concludes, and his conclusion deserves to be memorized. “In like manner,” he says, “devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a more warm-hearted and ardent devotion towards Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, its principal motive being the extreme love which He shows us in this Sacrament, and the principal object, to make reparation for the contempt and outrages which He suffers in this same Sacrament.”
To appreciate the doctrinal significance of this assimilation of the Eucharist and devotion to the Sacred Heart, we have to examine the meaning of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We might take as the basis of our analysis, the very technical definitions of the Council of Trent directed against the Protestant Reformers. More suitable to our purpose, however, are the expressive statements of the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, in his Encyclical Mediator Dei, where he declares that by their devotion to the Real Presence, “the faithful bear witness to and solemnly avow the faith of the Church that the Word of God is identical with the Son of the Virgin Mary, who suffered on the Cross, who is present in a hidden manner in the Eucharist, and who reigns upon His heavenly throne.”
The all-important word to be analyzed in the Pope’s declaration is the term “identical.” What does he mean when he says that Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the Christ of history are identical? The answer to this question has to be given in several stages; but once clarified, it will greatly enlighten our concept of devotion to the Sacred Heart.
If we therefore examine the various ways in which the historical and Eucharistic Christ can be the same, we have, first of all, these two possibilities. The Eucharistic and historical Christ is identical: (1) in having the same divine nature; and (2) in having the same human nature.
Evidently it would not be saying much to claim that He is identical in having the same divine nature, because the Word, as God, was already on earth before the Incarnation, and would have remained on earth, as God, even though there had been no institution of the Blessed Sacrament. So the first significant fact is that, in virtue of the Blessed Sacrament, thanks to the flesh which the Son of God received from the Virgin Mary, Christ as man is still on earth in His human nature, even though He has ascended into heaven.
Christ in the Eucharist, therefore, is identical with the Christ of history in possessing the same human nature. But this presents two more possibilities. Having the same human nature may mean: (1) that in both cases He has only the same human soul, or (2) that He also has the same human body.
Orthodox Catholic doctrine teaches, of course, that the identity of human nature covers both body and soul. However, it is less of a strain on one’s faith to conceive of Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist, not as something material and bodily, but only as something spiritual. Even Calvin, who denied the real bodily presence, was willing to admit that at the moment of reception the spirit of Christ nourishes the soul of the communicant. And the French Modernist, Loisy, while strenuously opposing a material conception of the Real Presence, claimed that “faith in the spirit of Christ and faith in Jesus Christ present in the Holy Eucharist are one and the same faith.”
Consequently we find a stress in the documents of the Church on a bodily presence in the Blessed Sacrament, as a counterpoise to the error of spiritualizing Christ in the Eucharist to the exclusion or at least the oversight of His body. Thus in the Encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, Pius XII explains that, “Christ,” and not just the soul of Christ, “is present under the Eucharistic species.” Moreover, the Sacrifice of the Mass is the same as the Sacrifice of the Cross because “the Victim is the same, namely, our Divine Redeemer, in His human nature,” whole and entire, “with His true body and blood.”
“The Word of God,” we are told by the Pope, “is identical with the Son of Mary, who suffered on the Cross, who is present in a hidden manner in the Eucharist, and who reigns upon His heavenly throne.” But how far can we extend this identification? In relation to the humanity of Christ, does it mean only: (1) an identity of nature and substance, or (2) does it also include an identity of physical properties, down to the smallest details of stature, texture, and disposition of bodily parts? The answer of the Holy Father is that it means the second type of identity. To illustrate this truth, he quotes a memorable passage from St. John Chrystostom, telling us how we should react when we appear in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. “When you see the Blessed Sacrament exposed, say to yourself: ‘Thanks to this body, I am no longer dust and ashes, I am no more a captive but a free human being. Hence I hope to obtain heaven and the good things that are there in store for me, eternal life, the heritage of the angels, companionship with Christ; death has not destroyed this body which was pierced by nails and scourged . . . this is that body which was once covered with blood, pierced by a lance, from which issued saving fountains upon the world, one of blood and the other of water . . . This body He gave us to keep and to eat, as a mark of His intense love.’”
We are now in a position to draw a simple but very important conclusion. Since Christ Our Lord is present in the Eucharist not only as God but as man; not only with His human soul but also with His body; not only in the substance of His body but with all its physical components and parts — it follows that the Blessed Sacrament contains the living Heart of Christ: the same that was formed by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, that was moved to compassion over the sins of Mary Magdalen and the sorrow of the widow of Naim, that was pierced on the Cross for our salvation and abides, in a glorified state, at the right hand of His heavenly Father.
The most valuable consequence of this doctrine for the spiritual life is the fact that it removes the barrier of space and time between us and the Incarnation. Historically we seem to be twenty centuries away from the time when Jesus walked the streets of Galilee and Judea, and geographically thousands of miles from the scenes of His temporal life and death. Yet all this means nothing, really, when we reflect that the same Jesus Christ, in all the perfection of His human nature, is still with us, and right in the midst of us, in the Holy Eucharist.
In His revelations to St. Margaret Mary, Our Lord repeatedly asked for acts of love and adoration, thanksgiving and reparation to His Sacred Heart. Given a deep faith in the identity of the historical and Eucharistic Christ, these acts of piety become the spontaneous reaction of a soul on fire with the love of God.
Acts of love are inevitable when the soul realizes that it stands before its heavenly Spouse, present in the tabernacle in the glorified humanity which arose from the grave on Easter Sunday. We are familiar from the Scriptures with the profession of love which this humanity educed from the disciples after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalen was beside herself with joy when she cast herself at the feet of Jesus and had to be told not to keep clinging to the feet of her Master. St. Peter threw himself into the Sea of Tiberias, when he heard that it was the Lord who stood waiting on the shore. Arrived there, he made his triple protestation of love, ending with, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”
There is one occasion especially when these acts of love are most efficacious: during the time after Holy Communion when the Sacramental Species have not yet disintegrated. The writings of the saints are filled with praise of the blessings that come to a soul that is properly disposed while in physical contact with the Sacred Heart. “The time after Communion,” says St. Teresa of Avila, “is the best time for negotiating with Jesus Christ; for then He is in the soul, seated, as it were, on a throne of grace, and saying, as He said to the blind man: ‘What wilt thou that I should do to thee?’” But more authoritative is the exhortation of Pope Pius XII in the Mediator Dei, where he devotes a full six paragraphs to this single subject. “When Mass is finished,” he directs that, “the person who has received the Eucharist should recollect himself, and in intimate union with the Divine Master hold loving and fruitful converse with Him.” If this seems like stressing the obvious, the Pope does not think so. He complains there are some teachers who discourage such private intercourse between the soul and the Eucharistic Christ “because this pertains to a private and personal act of piety and not to the good of the community.” Hence it is not liturgical. In America we have not seen much speculative defense of this aberration; but in practice how many people, except priests and religious, ever spend any time in prayer after Mass at which they received Holy Communion? Yet Pope Pius XII insists that this is not a mere spiritual luxury, but “such personal colloquies are very necessary that we may all enjoy more fully the supernatural treasures that are contained in the Eucharist and, according to our means, share them with others, so that Christ Our Lord may exert the greatest possible influence on the souls of all.” Addressing himself to the bishops, and through them to us, the Pope asks, “why should we not approve of those who, when they receive Holy Communion, remain on in closest familiarity with their Divine Redeemer even after the congregation has been officially dismissed.” There are three reasons for this: “. . . for the consolation of conversing with Him, also to render Him due thanks and praise, but especially to ask help to defend their souls against anything that may lessen the efficacy of the Sacrament and to do everything in their power to cooperate with the action of Christ Who is so intimately present.”
Acts of adoration are equally spontaneous as we recognize that Christ in the Eucharist is the Christ of history, the same before whom the Apostle Thomas knelt in worship and pronounced the most explicit profession of Christ’s divinity to be found in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God.” Once again we appeal to the authority of the Vicar of Christ to remind us of a truth that some have tried to obscure in the minds of the faithful. “It is the Church’s tradition right from the beginning,” he declares, “to worship with the same adoration the Word Incarnate as well as His own flesh. And St. Augustine asserts that: ‘No one eats that flesh, without first adoring it,’ while he adds that ‘not only do we not commit a sin by adoring it, but we do sin by not adoring it.’” Consequently it was on this doctrinal basis that the practice of adoring the Eucharist was founded and gradually developed as something distinct from the Sacrifice of the Mass. True the Eucharist is a Sacrifice, but as such it is transitory, lasting only during the time of the actual celebration of Mass; it is also a Communion, but again, as such it is transitory. Besides being a Sacrifice and Communion, however, the Eucharist differs from all the other channels of grace, since “it contains in a permanent manner the Author of grace Himself. When, therefore, the Church bids us adore Christ hidden behind the Eucharistic veils and pray to Him for spiritual and temporal favors of which we ever stand in need, she manifests a living faith in her divine Spouse who is present beneath these veils.”
There is an extant letter of St. Ignatius Loyola that perfectly illustrates this faith in the adorableness of the Eucharist. In 1540, a few weeks before the Institute of the Society of Jesus was formally approved by Paul III, he wrote to the citizens of his native town of Azpeitia, exhorting them to a greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. “I beg and entreat you,” he said, “by the love of God and by the respect which we owe Him, to apply yourselves to serve Our Lord Jesus Christ with all the fidelity of which you are capable, and to venerate His Divine Majesty with the deepest respect, above all in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in which He is hidden in all the greatness of His divine and human natures, wherein He is present as entirely, as powerfully and as infinitely as He is in heaven.”
Acts of thanksgiving follow naturally from a moment’s reflection on the goodness of God in prolonging His Incarnation through the Eucharist. Every new year of the calendar adds another twelve months to the length of time, ordained from eternity, during which God, once become man, remains on this planet of ours in the humanity of His own creation. Pope Pius XII gave eloquent expression to this conviction shortly before he was elevated to the papacy. As Cardinal Pacelli, he was commissioned by Pius XI to preside at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest in 1938. In the opening address he preached to the assembled multitude on the motive that should prompt them to worship Christ with the same devotion as had the apostles and disciples before their Master ascended into heaven. The Eucharist, he explained, “is that unsearchable mystery by which we believe that the earthly life of Christ our Redeemer, though apparently closed at His Ascension, still goes on and will go on until the end of time…It is nothing less than the invisible continuation now of His visible presence in times past.”
The most effective way of showing gratitude for the Eucharist is to use it according to the will of God, which means especially frequent assistance at Mass with reception of Holy Communion. To be emphasized, however, is that mere frequentation is not enough to derive all the benefit which Christ intended when He instituted the Holy Eucharist. In the words of the Holy Father, if the Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Altar, “are to produce their proper effect, it is absolutely necessary that our hearts be rightly disposed to receive (the graces which come from) them.” We are not living in the seventeenth century, when Jansenism infected the Catholic atmosphere. Our problem today, so states the Pope, is the danger of underestimating the importance of personal effort in order to profit more than just minimally from the Sacrifice and Sacrament of Christ’s love. He warns us against “certain theories (which) tend too belittle, or pass over in silence, what they call ‘subjective’, or ‘personal’ piety.” Without denying that the Mass and Holy Communion, “being Christ’s own actions, must be held capable in themselves of conveying and dispensing grace from the divine Head to the members of the Mystical Body.” Pius XII reminds us of the corresponding obligation which this places upon us. We are indeed members of the Mystical Body. “But observe,” says the Pope, “that these members are alive, endowed and equipped with an intelligence and will of their own. It follows that they are strictly required to put their own lips to the fountain, imbibe and absorb for themselves the life-giving water, and rid themselves personally of anything that might hinder its nutritive effect in their souls.” Considered in this light, our gratitude to the Sacred Heart for giving us the Holy Eucharist is removed from the realm of theory and brought down to actual practice which, at times, may well become even heroic.
Acts of reparation are correlative to those of gratitude, because it was especially the ingratitude towards Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar which the Sacred Heart deplored in His final and greatest revelation to St. Margaret Mary. “Behold this Heart, ”He said, “which has loved men so much, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them its love. And in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude by reason of their irreverence and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt which they show Me in this Sacrament of love.”
Here, if anywhere, it is necessary to bring ourselves up to date, and see what significance this aspect of devotion to the Sacred Heart has in our own time and country. What are these irreverences and sacrileges towards the Eucharist that we are to expiate, and how are we to make reparation for them? I think we can safely transmit, without questioning, that there are sacrilegious Communions; that Catholics, even priests and religious, are often wanting in due reverence and love for the Blessed Sacrament. We admit these conditions and by prayer, penance and a renewed fervor are to make amends for them to the Heart of Christ.
There is another phase of this problem, however, that has not received the attention it deserves. By its judicious application, reparation to the Sacred Heart can become one of the strongest motives for the apostolate. I refer to the absence of the Blessed Sacrament from the lives of over one hundred million Americans, who are deprived of the spiritual consolation and supernatural strength of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The fact that these millions of present and former Christians have been robbed of such a great treasure is not something mysterious or inexplicable. It is the tragic result of centuries of opposition to the Catholic Mass and Communion. Recall the polemic writings of John Calvin who taught it was idolatry to worship the Sacred Host; the destruction of thousands of Catholic churches and chapels in France and Germany during the Protestant Reformation; the persecution of Mass priests in Elizabethan England; the steady flow of books and pamphlets in modern America which deny or attack the Real Presence — and we have some idea of the gigantic task of reparation that lies before us.
This apostolic reparation to the Sacred Heart in the Eucharist can take on a variety of forms. I will only mention one, namely, working and praying for the conversion of our non-Catholic fellow Americans, in order to restore to them the Eucharistic Christ whom they have lost — and thus repair the dishonor and injury which the love of Christ has been suffering for four hundred years.
It was in the spirit of this kind of reparation that Pope Pius XI composed the familiar Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart: “Be Thou King, O Lord, not only of the faithful who have never forsaken Thee, but also of the prodigal children who have abandoned Thee. Grant that they may quickly return to their Father’s house lest they die of wretchedness and hunger.” To which we may add: the wretchedness which follows on losing the Mass and the hunger which can only be satisfied by Holy Communion.
As an epilogue, we may remember the struggle that Cardinal Newman had with the doctrines of the Church before his conversion to the Catholic faith. He confessed that, “I did not believe the doctrine of Transubstantiation till I was a Catholic.” But once converted, he found in the Holy Eucharist the source of his greatest joy. He made the discovery that the Sacrament of the Altar contains the Sacred Heart, which contains the heart of God. This identification he crystallized in a short prayer that beautifully synthesizes the doctrine we have examined:
O most Sacred, most loving Heart of Jesus, Thou art concealed in the Holy Eucharist, and Thou beatest for us still. Now as then Thou sayest, Desiderio desideravi—“With desire I have desired.” I worship Thee then with all my best love and awe, with my fervent affection, with my most subdued, most resolved will. O my God, when Thou dost condescend to suffer me to receive Thee, and Thou for a while takest up Thy abode with me, O make my heart beat with Thy Heart. Purify it of all that is earthly, all that is proud and sensual, all that is hard and cruel, of all perversity, of all disorder, of all deadness. So fill it with Thee, that neither the events of the day nor the circumstances of the time may have power to ruffle it, but that in Thy love and Thy fear it may have peace.