Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The Liturgical Year, 1879
Dom Prosper Guéranger
Our readers will not expect us to do more than give them this general view of the great, mystery, and tell them how the holy Doctors of the Church spoke of it. As far as St. Bernard and St. Bonaventure are concerned, the devotion to the mystery of Christ’s side opened on the Cross, is but a part of that which they would have us show to the other wounds of our Redeemer. The Sacred Heart, as the expression of Jesus’ love, is not treated of, in their writings, with the explicitness wherewith the Church would afterwards put it before us. For this end, our Lord Himself selected certain privileged souls, through whose instrumentality, He would bring the Christian world to a fuller appreciation of the consequences which are involved in the principles admitted by the whole Church.
It was on the 27th of January, in the year 1281, in the Benedictine Monastery of Helfta, near Eisleben, in Saxony, that our Divine Lord first revealed these ineffable secrets to one of the community of that house, whose name was Gertrude. She was then twenty years of age. The Spirit of God came upon her, and gave her her mission. She saw, she heard, she was permitted to touch, and what is more, she drank of, that chalice of the Sacred Heart, which inebriates the elect. She drank of It, even whilst in this vale of bitterness; and what she herself so richly received, she imparted to others, who showed themselves desirous to listen. St. Gertrude’s mission was to make known the share and action of the Sacred Heart in the economy of God’s glory and the sanctification of souls; and, in this respect, we cannot separate her from her companion, St. Mechtilde.
On this special doctrine regarding the Heart of the Man-God, St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde hold a very prominent position among all the Saints and mystical writers of the Church. In saying this, we do not except even the Saints of these later ages, by whom our official, worship, which is now given to his Sacred Heart; these Saints have spread the devotion, now shown to it, throughout the whole Church; but they have not spoken of the mysteries it contains within it, with that set purpose, that precision, that loveliness, which we find in the ‘ Revelations ‘ of the two Saints, Gertrude and Mechtilde.
It was the Beloved Disciple, who had rested his head upon Jesus’ breast, at the Supper, and perhaps heard the beatings of the Sacred Heart, the Disciple who, when standing at the foot of the Cross, had seen that Heart pierced with the soldier’s spear, yes, it was he who announced to Gertrude its future glorification. She asked him how it was that he had not spoken, in his writings in the New Testament, of what he had experienced when he reclined upon Jesus’ Sacred Heart: he thus replied: “My mission was to write, for the Church which was still young, a single word of the uncreated Word of God the Father, that uncreated Word, concerning which the intellect of the whole human race might be ever receiving abundant truth, from now till the end of the world, and yet it would never be fully comprehended. As to the sweet eloquence of those throbbings of His Heart, it is reserved for the time when the world has grown old, and has become cold in God’s love, that it may regain favour by the hearing such revelation.” (The Legate of Divine Love. Bk. iv. ch. 4.)
Gertrude was chosen as the instrument of that revelation; and what she has told us, is exquisitely beautiful. At one time, the Divine Heart is shown to her as a treasure, which holds all riches within It; at another, It is a harp played upon by the Holy Spirit, and the music which comes from It gladdens the Blessed Trinity, and all the heavenly court. It is a plenteous spring, whose stream bears refreshment to the souls in Purgatory, strength and every other grace to them that are still struggling on this earth, and delights which inebriate the blessed in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is a golden thurible, whence there ascend as many different sorts of fragrant incense, as there are different races of men, for all of whom our Redeemer died upon the Cross. It is an altar, upon which the Faithful lay their offerings, the elect their homage, the Angels their worship, and the eternal High Priest offers Himself as a Sacrifice. It is a lamp suspended between heaven and earth. It is a chalice out of which the Saints, but not the Angels, drink, though these latter receive from it delights of varied kinds. It was in this Heart, that was formed and composed the Lord’s Prayer, the Pater noster; that Prayer was the fruit of Jesus’ Heart. By that same Sacred Heart, are supplied all the negligences and deficiencies which are found in the honour we pay to God, and His Blessed Mother and Saints. The Heart of Jesus makes itself as our servant, and our bond, in fulfilment of all the obligations incumbent on us; in it alone, do our actions derive that perfection, that worth, which makes them acceptable in the eyes of the divine Majesty; and every grace, which flows from heaven to earth, passes through that same Heart. When our life is at its close, that Heart is the peaceful abode, the holy sanctuary, ready to receive our souls as soon as they have departed from this world; and having received them, it keeps them in itself for all eternity, and beatifies them with every delight (Preface to the Revelations of St. Gertrude, translated into French from the new Latin Edition, published by the Benedictine Fathers of Solesmes).
By thus revealing to Gertrude the admirable mysteries of divine love, included in the doctrine which attaches to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was, so to say, forestalling the workings of hell, which, two centuries later on, were to find their prime mover in that same spot. Luther was born at Eisleben, in the year 1483. He was the apostle, after being the inventor, of theories the very opposite of what the Sacred Heart reveals. Instead of the merciful God, as known and loved in the previous ages, Luther would have the world believe Him to be the direct author of sin and damnation, Who creates the sinner for crime and eternal torments, and for the mere purpose of showing that He could do anything, even injustice! Calvin followed; he took up the blasphemous doctrines of the German apostate, and rivetted the protestant principles by his own gloomy and merciless logic. By these two men, the tail of the dragon dragged the third part of the stars of heaven (Apoc. xii. 4). In the 17th Century, the old enemy put on hypocrisy, in the shape of Jansenism; changing the names of things, but leaving the things unchanged, he tried to get into the very centre of the Church, and there pass off his impious doctrines; and Jansenism, which, under the pretext of safeguarding the rights of God’s sovereign dominion, aimed at making men forget that he was a God of mercy, Jansenism was a favourable system, wherewith the enemy might propagate his so-called Reformation. That God Who so loved the world (St. John. iii. 16)! beheld mankind discouraged or terrified, and behaving as though in heaven there was no such thing as mercy, still less, love. This earth of ours was to be made to see, that its Creator had loved it with affectionate love; that He had taken a Heart of flesh in order to bring that infinite love within man’s reach and sight; that He made that human Heart, which He had assumed, do its work, that is, beat and throb from love, just as ours do, for He had become one of ourselves, and, as the Prophet words it, had taken the cords of Adam (Osee. xi. 4); that Heart felt the thrill of joy when duty-doing made us joyous; It felt a weight and pang when It saw our sorrows; It was gladsome when it found that, here and there, there would be souls to love Him in return. Sacred Heart reveals.
How were men to be told all this? Who would be chosen to fulfil the prophecy made by Gertrude the Great? Who would come forth, like another Paul or John, and teach to the world, now grown old, the language of the divine throbbings of Jesus’ Heart?
There were then living many men noted for their learning and eloquence; but they would not suit the purpose of God. God, Who loves to choose the weak (and often it is, that He may confound the strong [Cor. i. 27]), had selected for the manifesting of the mystery of the Sacred Heart, a servant of His, of whose existence the world knew not; it was a Religious woman, who lived in a monastery which had nothing about it to attract notice. As, in the 13th Century, He had passed by the learned men, and even the great Saints, who were then living, and selected the Blessed Juliana of Liege as the instrument which was to bring about the institution of the Corpus Christi Feast, so in this present case: He would have His own Sacred Heart be glorified in His Church by a solemn Festival; and He imparts and intrusts His wish to the humble Visitandine of Paray-le-Monial, now known and venerated, throughout the world, under the name of Blessed Margaret-Mary. The mission thus divinely given to her, was to bring forward the treasure, which had been revealed to St. Gertrude, and which, all the long interval, had been known to only a few privileged souls. Sister Margaret-Mary was to publish the secret to the whole world, and make the privilege cease, by telling everyone how to possess it. Through this apparently inadequate instrument, the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a heavenly reaction offered to the world against the chillness which had settled on its old age: it became a touching appeal to all faithful souls that they would make reparation for all the contempt, and slight, and coldness, and sins, wherewith our age treats the love of our Lord and Saviour Christ Jesus.
“I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament on one of the days during the Octave” (of Corpus Christi, June, 1675,) says the Blessed Margaret, “and I received from my God exceeding great graces of His love. And, feeling a desire to make some return, and give Him love for love, He said to me: ‘ Thou canst not make Me a greater, than by doing that which I have so often asked of thee.’ He then showed me His Divine Heart, and said: ‘Behold this Heart, which has so loved men, as that it has spared nothing, even to the exhausting and wearing itself out, in order to show them Its love; and, instead of acknowledgment, I receive, from the greater number, nothing but ingratitude, by their irreverences and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt wherewith they treat Me, in this Sacrament of love. But what is still more deeply felt by Me is, that they are hearts which are consecrated to me, which thus treat Me. It is on this account, that I make this demand of thee, that the first Friday after the Octave of the Blessed Sacrament be devoted to a special Feast in honour of My Heart; that thou wilt go to Communion on that day; and give it a reparation of honour by an act of amendment, to repair the insults It has received during the time of Its being exposed on the Altar. I promise thee, also, that My Heart will dilate itself, that it may pour forth, with abundance, the influences of Its divine love upon those who shall thus honour It, and shall do their best to have such honour paid to It (Vie de la Bienheureuse, corite par elle-meme).”
By thus calling His servant to be the instrument of the glorification of is Sacred Heart, our Lord made her a sign of contradiction; just as He himself had been (St. Luke, ii. 34). It took more than ten years for Blessed Margaret to get the better, by dint of patience and humility, of the suspicions wherewith she was treated by the little world around her, and of the harsh conduct of the Sisters who lived with her in the same Monastery, and of trials of every sort. At last, on the 21st of June, in the year 1686, the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi, she had the consolation of seeing the whole Community of Paray-le-Monial kneeling before a picture, which represented the Heart of Jesus as pierced with a spear; it was the Heart by Itself; it was encircled with flames, and a crown of thorns, with the Cross above it, and the three Nails. That same year, there was begun, in the Monastery, the building of a Chapel in honour of the Sacred Heart; and Blessed Margaret had the happiness of seeing it finished and blessed. She died shortly afterwards, in the year 1690. But all this was a very humble beginning: where was the institution of a Feast, properly so called? and where its solemn celebration throughout the Church?
So far back as the year 1674, our Lord had, in His own mysterious way, brought Margaret-Mary to form the acquaintance of one of the most saintly Religious of the Society of Jesus then living, it was Father De la Colombiere. He recognized the workings of the Holy Spirit in this His servant, and became the devoted apostle of the Sacred Heart, first of all at Paray-le Monial, and, then, later on, in our own country of England, where he was imprisoned by the heretics of those times, and merited the glorious title of Confessor of the Faith. This fervent disciple of the Heart of Jesus died in the year 1682, worn out by his labours and sufferings; but the Society, in a body, inherited his zeal for the propagation of devotion to the Sacred Heart. At once, numerous confraternities began to be formed, and everywhere there began to be built Chapels, in honour of that same Heart. Hell was angry at this great preaching of God’s love. The Jansensists were furious at this sudden proclamation, at this apparition, as St. Paul would say, of the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour (Tit. iii. 4); and the men who were proclaiming it, were aiming at restoring hope to souls, in which they, the Jansenists, had sowed despondency. The big world must interfere; and it began by talking of innovations, of scandals, of even idolatry; at all events, this new devotion was, to put it mildly, a revolting dissecting of the sacred Body of Christ! Erudite pamphlets were published, some theological, some physiological, to prove that the Church should forbid the subject! Indecent engravings were circulated, and witticisms, such as indignation can make, were made, in order to bring ridicule upon those for whom the world had coined the name of Cordicolae, or Heart-Worshippers.
But, human wisdom, or human prejudice, or even human ridicule, cannot withstand God’s purposes. He wished that human hearts should be led to love, and therefore worship, the Sacred Heart of their Redeemer; and He inspired His Church to receive the devotion, which would save so many souls, though the world might not take heaven’s view. The Apostolic See had witnessed all this; and, at last, gave its formal sanction. Rome had frequently granted Indulgences in favour of the devotions privately practiced towards the Sacred Heart; she had published innumerable Briefs for the establishment of local Confraternities, under that title; and, in the year 1765, in accordance with the request made by the Bishops of Poland and the Arch-Confraternity of the Sacred Heart at Rome, Pope Clement the Thirteenth issued the first pontifical decree in favour of the Feast of the Heart of Jesus, and approved of a Mass and Office, which had been drawn up for that Feast. The same favour was gradually accorded to other Churches, until, at length, on the 23rd of August, 1856, Pope Pius the Ninth, of glorious memory, at the instance of all the Bishops of France, issued the Decree for the inserting the Feast of the Sacred Heart on the Calendar, and making obligatory its celebration by the universal Church.
The glorification of the Heart of Jesus called for that of its humble handmaid. On the 18th of September, 1864, the Beatification of Margaret-Mary was solemnly proclaimed by the same Sovereign Pontiff, who had put the last finish to the work she had begun, and given it the definitive sanction of the Apostolic See.
From that time forward, the knowledge and love of the Sacred Heart have made greater progress, than they had done during the whole two previous centuries. In every quarter of the globe, we have heard of Communities, Religious Orders, and whole Dioceses, consecrating themselves to this source of every grace, this sole refuge of the Church in these sad times. There have been pilgrimages made of thousands, from every country, to the favoured sanctuary of Paray-le-Monial, where it pleased the Divine Heart to first manifest Itself, in its visible form, to us mortals.