The National Catholic Review

If you read enough novels that feature Catholic characters, you’re bound to run across a Catholic family described as having an “oleograph of the Sacred Heart” hanging somewhere in their house (usually the kitchen, the dining room or the bedroom).  It’s the lazy novelist’s shorthand for a certain kind of kitschy, overheated devotional stance that is supposed to “locate” for the reader the pious sensibilities of the (usually indigent or uneducated) Catholic characters. 

The Sacred Heart is one of the few devotions that have probably suffered from its artistic representations.  Many of the images with which older Catholics are familiar are both kitschy and off-putting: a doe-eyed Jesus pointing to his heart, which is always pictured outside his body.  There is the yuck factor (the bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns is often pictured in gruesome detail) and the disbelief factor (there's no way that a carpenter from Nazareth looked so effeminate).  It’s a tragedy that art has distanced many Catholics from a powerful way of looking at Jesus.   

The devotion began with the mystical visions of Jesus and his Sacred Heart as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a Visitation Sister living in the French town of Paray-le-Monial.  As is often the case, the sisters in her community were highly doubtful about her reported visions.  At one point Margaret Mary was told in prayer that God would send her “his faithful servant and perfect friend.”  Shortly afterwards, the mild-mannered St. Claude la Colombiere, a Jesuit priest living nearby, was assigned to serve as her spiritual director.  Later, Margaret Mary would have a vision that showed their two hearts (hers and Claude’s) united with the heart of Jesus. 

From that point the two worked together to spread the devotion, which became strongly associated with the Jesuits, who promoted it with vigor in the following centuries.  As the devotion flourished, the paintings, mosaics, sculptures and yes, oleographs proliferated.  So did parishes, hospitals, retreat centers, schools and universities named in its honor.  Everything you know that is named “Sacred Heart” (including the great church of Sacré Coeur in Paris) stems from these two people—and Jesus of course.

(By the way, Fr. Claude wasn’t thought of too highly by his brothers either.  Jesuit communities used to have house “historian” who would record the events of the community life.  The final few days before Claude’s death were recorded as follows by the house historian: “Nothing worthy of note.”)

In time, though, devotion to the Sacred Heart fell off to such an extent that Pedro Arrupe, SJ, then the superior general of the Society of Jesus, had to remind his brother Jesuits in 1981: “I have always been convinced that what we call ‘Devotion to the Sacred Heart’ is a symbolic expression of the very basis of the Ignatian spirit.”  He told them that the Sacred Heart is "one of the deepest sources of vitality for [my] interior life."  Yet Father Arrupe acknowledged, "In recent years the very expression ‘Sacred Heart’ has constantly aroused, from some quarters, emotional, almost allergic reactions."  

Those “allergic reactions” mean that we are missing a powerful and vivid symbol of the love of Jesus.  For the Sacred Heart is nothing less than an image of the way that Jesus loves us: fully, lavishly, radically, completely, sacrificially.  The Sacred Heart invites to meditate on some of the most important questions in the spiritual life: In what ways did Jesus love his disciples and friends?  How did he love strangers and outcasts?  How was he able to love his enemies?  How did he show his love for humanity?  What would it mean to love like Jesus did?  What would it mean for me to have a heart like his?  How can my heart become more "sacred"?  For in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for us and inviting us to love others as Jesus did.

Perhaps newer images are needed to revive this storied devotion (like the one above, by Michael O'Neill McGrath, a Salesian Brother).  Or perhaps we just need newer ways of thinking about this Solemnity, which is today.

Last year I participated in the “Hearts on Fire” retreat, a young-adult retreat sponsored by the Apostleship of Prayer.  It was a wonderful day-and-a-half of talks and prayers and songs and sharing led by a group of talented young Jesuits. (This summer Hearts on Fire is making its tour of the South.)  During one session, Phil Hurley, S.J., the director of the program, gave a lively presentation to the young adults on the Sacred Heart.  He recounted how he had recently shown some images of the Sacred Heart to some schoolchildren.  “Why do you think Jesus’s heart is shown on the outside of his body?” he asked the children.

One girl spoke up: “Because he loves us so much that he can’t keep it in!”  

Comments

John Wren | 6/15/2012 - 1:14pm
Great article, I liked it so well I just posted it on my Facebook wall, any additional comments there would be very much appreciated. http://Facebook.com/John.S.Wren  Also see link there to information about Jesuit Guide Discussion Group which is starting June 30 for 4 Saturday evening sessions at Denver Loyola Church.
T BLACKBURN | 6/15/2012 - 1:03pm
I plead guilty to having at one time had an almost allergic reaction particularly to the pictures. I reassessed after an excellent pastor remarked to us that he grew up in a family that lacked the bleeding crucifixes of its neighbors but had a Sacred Heart picture (probably, I am guessing, an oleograph) with a vigil light in front of it, no less. He speculated that, because of the difference, he was never drawn to scrupulosity which afflicted many of his neighbors, but when he heard God is love, he said, "it sounded completely obvious to me." Since then, I have grown into, and very fond of, the Sacred Heart devotion.

Fr. James Kubicki, SJ, who runs the Apostleship of Prayer for the U.S. out of Milwaukee, has just published A Heart on Fire: Rediscovering Devotion to the Sacred Heart (Ave Maria Press) which tells  a lot more than you thought you knew about the Sacred Heart.
austin fleming | 6/15/2012 - 12:44pm
That's a great illustration.  Who's the artist? source?
Sara Damewood | 6/15/2012 - 10:14am
I love this article and the little girl's comment even more!  Happy Feast Day!
6466379 | 6/19/2012 - 4:25pm
The “heart” is an accepted symbol of love. As such, “Reviving The Sacred Heart” is an appropriate reminder of God’s love for us, especially in a society that’s becoming less and less “loving.” I thank Father James Martin for sharing Jesus’ understanding love with us.

 Of course, I’m no Bible thumping Fundamentalist, giving fiery and frightening reminders of the end of the world, but it is interesting that the New Testament mentions that one of the “signs” preceding the End Times is that, “love will grow cold.” I guess over time, again and again, love has grown cold, so of itself “cold love” may be called a “normal” pattern of human behavior. But when “cold love” becomes a commodity for sale, rooted in institutionalized agendas, like legalized abortion and of late tampering with marriage and the stability of family and many others, then one has got to take note, for that is different and unnatural human behavior!

 In some way or the other everybody is “aching” and Jesus knows this in a merciful reminder to a modern apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I mean St. Faustina Kowalska to whom Jesus said in private revelations of Divine Mercy, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my Merciful Heart!” The word “snuggle” is very humanly attractive. Two kinds of people “snuggle,” CHILDREN and LOVERS. Children snuggle to parents when frightened, or in some way in need of comfort. Lovers snuggle quite legitimately one to the other in loving embrace. So then, Jesus is telling us to be like children and loves in relating to God, for children and lovers really know how to love, how to relate to the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

 It’s also great that in speaking to Faustina Jesus admits that humanity is “aching.” So, God understand what we are all going through and wants to snuggle close together with us, comfortingly and protectively. Such a relationship also provides practical answers not found anywhere else.

 It’s also interesting to realize that long before the New Testament was formalized and long before Devotion to the Sacred and Merciful Hearts of Jesus flowered into existence, there is mention in the Old Testament of God “having a Heart.” There we read that God loved David despite his great sins and also because of his great virtues, because “he (David) was man after His Own Heart” God’s Heart! Or did God mean he loved David because he (David) was a man after HIS OWN heart in the sense that David dared to love? Scripture scholars, HELP! Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus we love you and place our trust in You. Again, Fr. Martin, Thanks!
Stanley Kopacz | 6/16/2012 - 9:01am
E.T. the Extraterrestrial's heartlight, a secular culture echo of the Sacred Heart? 
John Wotherspoon | 6/16/2012 - 12:33am
Thank you James for beautiful and timely article.
Jesus' love is never out of date.

Like other readers I too am linking your article:
on June 17 menu of www.v2catholic.com
JANICE JOHNSON | 6/15/2012 - 3:57pm
A few years ago, I attended a talk given by Wendy M. Wright, a professor of Theology at Creighton on devotion to the Sacred Heart.   I highly recommend her book:  "Sacred Heart:  Gateway to God",  Orbis Books, 2003.  She focuses on the spirituality of Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal but also reflects on the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, Margaret Mary Alacoque and Teilhard de Chardin.   It is a personal book as well.

The cover art is "Sacred Heart:  Rivers of Living Water"  by michael O'Neill McGrath, OSFL.    Dr. Wright in her book discusses the ideas of the Catholic or analogical imagination of William Lynch, SJ.  The challenge for artists is how to express our incarnational faith in inspirational, beautiful mediums.  Difficult with the subject of the Sacred Heart.  I grew  up in a home that had the kitchy Catholic oleographs which had been brought to our country by my great grandprents, uncles and aunts from Bohemia. They came with little other than their faith and the pictures which gave them hope in a better life.  They and many other good souls clung to their faith during times of anti-Catholicism and poverty.  Love of family and church were paramount  in their lives.  It was also a time of great outpouring of faith......Eucharistic processions , massive rosary crusades.  A small town nearby to ours is named Sacred Heart.  While we recognize there was need for modifications addressed by Vatican II, why can't we appreciate the way our forebearers managed to survive and even thrive in their religious faith instead of denigrating them as uneducated and indigent and harshly judging the art that gave sustenance.
Crystal Watson | 6/15/2012 - 3:45pm
I first learned about St. Margaret Mary, Claude la Colombiere, and the sacred heart of Jesus by watching the X-Files  :)  ....  http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2007/10/st-margaret-mary-and-x-files.html
Brendan McGrath | 6/15/2012 - 3:23pm
I'm 30 - I never quite ''got'' the devotion to the Sacred Heart until I took Fr. Thomas King, SJ's course on Teilhard at Georgetown in spring 2002 during my freshman year there.  Teilhard called the Sacred Heart the ''motor of evolution.''  But I think what really, in a single instant, opened my eyes to the beauty of the Sacred Heart is an image on the ''Teilhard T-shirt'' that Fr. King made in spring 2004 (he made different Teilhard t-shirts each year he taught the course; I have four of them).  I have some pictures of it which I could email if anyone's interested, but basically, it's a crimson/maroon T-shirt, with just a simple white ''sketch'' that Fr. King did: it has just a simple sketch of the sacred heart, surrounded by thorns, etc. - no picture of the rest of Jesus - but what really had the impact on me was what was around the heart: clouds and stars, sort of moving aside from it, as if the heart was gleaming through them.  I.e., the point is that the Sacred Heart is the heart of all reality, etc.  And underneath this is a quote from Teilhard: ''The real excitement is to discover the divine at the heart of everything.''

So, I've loved the Sacred Heart devotion ever since.

However, long before that, I guess you could say my fourth grade teacher (well, one of the three) at Waldron Mercy Academy introduced us to the devotion; every morning after the prayers on the P.A. system, we'd say, ''O Jesus, I offer You, all my prayers, works, and sufferings, of this day, in union with the intentions of Your Most Sacred Heart, Amen.''  - I know there are longer versions of that with even the Pope's monthy intentions crammed in there, but anyway, that's the version I learned, and I still say it every morning.

A few things other comments- Fr. Martin, you said, ''the disbelief factor (there's no way that a carpenter from Nazareth looked so effeminate)''  - OOH!  Gender issue alert!  Could this actually be something that could be useful for a feminist theology or something similar?  I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek but I'm also quite serious.

Also, you wrote, ''The devotion began with the mystical visions of Jesus and his Sacred Heart as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690)'' - although I know she popularized it, wasn't the concept at least actually around much earlier, back in the medieval period?
NORMA NUNAG | 6/15/2012 - 2:55pm
Tha young girl's answer is so precious.  Leave it to the young to express the truth.

Happy feast day!
diane DeMane | 6/18/2012 - 10:34pm
Wonderful piece.My athIest sister recently brought back from Mexico a beautiful red and silver image of the Sacred Heart for me.She even bought one for her own house.Maybe the Love of the Sacred Heart will translate to her also!
Anne Chapman | 6/15/2012 - 11:42am
Maybe go for the "new ways of thinking" about it approach. The image shown isn't much improvement on the old ones (which are pretty ghastly), no offense intended.  Art is very much a matter of individual taste.  Maybe just forget the graphics altogether and focus on the concept - love. There is way too much "kitschy" Catholic "art" out there as it is.