Thursday, 10 June 2010

The ''Sacred Heart'' of Jesus...

A word on the Latin cult of the ''Sacred Heart'' of Jesus...

I never liked this feast. Even as a child, on trips to my grandparents' house in Cornwall, I always shied away from their majestic portrait of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece - it intimidated me. It reminds me of one of the more amusing quotes from Angela's Ashes is: ''Why is the man's heart on fire?'' I always preferred the large Spanish crucifix my Irish grandmother salvaged from Spain in the mid-1970's. I'd spend hours staring at it. I was a strange boy...

Anyway, I think there is something very queer about devotion to the Sacred Heart - it detracts somewhat from the one worship of Christ's one Person. It is clearly a ''pious devotion'' that has influenced the Church's Liturgy - to great detriment. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, like Corpus Christi, is relatively modern. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that it was familiar by about the 12th century and, like Low Mass, it spread rapidly throughout Christendom. It wasn't until the 17th century that the devotion, which quite rightly had hitherto remained strictly private, was celebrated as an actual ''feast'' with its own Office. To her credit, 18th century Rome refused to grant indulgence for a universal institution of the ''feast'' (to celebrate what exactly?!), but under pressure from the French bishops she eventually caved in, and in 1856 Pope Pius IX made it a Greater Double, and in 1889 Leo XIII made it a Double of the First Class. Once again, where you'd expect the bureaucracy of a centralized Papacy to come in handy in stamping out an enthusiasm, she goes ahead and recognizes it, and even makes it Liturgy - just like Low Mass at the Council of Trent. It is noteworthy that the ugliest church in France is dedicated to the Sacred Heart...

Hideous beyond belief...

As I have said, devotion to the ''Sacred Heart'' detracts from the one and inseparable worship due to God the Son, according to both the Divinity and Humanity, since both are inseparably united in the one Hypostasis of the Word. Canon IX of Constantinople II (an Ecumenical Council, and therefore binding on all Christians) says: If anyone shall take the expression, Christ ought to be worshipped in his two natures, in the sense that he wishes to introduce thus two adorations, the one in special relation to God the Word and the other as pertaining to the man; or if anyone to get rid of the flesh, [that is of the humanity of Christ,] or to mix together the divinity and the humanity, shall speak monstrously of one only nature or essence of the united (natures), and so worship Christ, and does not venerate, by one adoration, God the Word made man, together with his flesh, as the Holy Church has taught from the beginning: let him be anathema.

In the light of this canon of Constantinople II, does not the cult of the ''Sacred Heart'' seem out of harmony with the constant Tradition of the Church? Clearly the devotion was a Medieval ''enthusiasm'' - like the strange practice of going to church purely to see the Elevation of the Sacred Host (held aloft sometimes for minutes on end), or on the Feast of Corpus Christi throwing about pieces of unconsecrated bread. To me, devotion to the Sacred Heart is just as decent as devotion to the most holy bowel-movements of Christ. Liturgy should direct pious devotions, not the other way round. The foundation of the Church's life, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, ought to be celebration of the Sacred Liturgy by the Bishop with the assistance of his Priests and Deacons, not pious devotions which detract from Liturgy.

At any rate, my chief objection to the ''Sacred Heart'' cult (leaving theological implications aside) is that it is new. And what was it the Romans used to say in Apostolic times? Nothing can be both new and true...

Much better. This Icon is full of symbolism; the perfectly round head, cruciform halo etc. Notice also that the hand with which Our Lord is imparting blessing is making use of the traditional Sign of the Cross.


  1. This post is quite a good warning about the excesses of manufacturing devotions to the Holy-this-and-that of Whoever.

    If it wasn't for statues of the Sacred Heart, we wouldn't have "Buddy Christ" in Dogma......a warning for us all. I prefer the Mexican image of the heart alone being adored by Saints Ignatius and Luis Gonzaga.

  2. I was a very strange boy...

    I was...?

  3. Time for a cardiac arrest? Is there a doctor in the house?

  4. Joseph, clearly. I would question the legitimacy of adding pious devotions to the Sacred Liturgy - what on earth do you get from it but a triumph of ''popular'' Catholicism over Tradition?

    In my ideal world there would be no pious devotions, just Liturgy. But if people want them, that's fine - just keep it private, and don't try to impose it on the Liturgy. I mean, the Feast is a Double of the First Class! (Technically on par with the Four Greats of the Year - Easter, Pentecost, Epiphany and Christmas) and why?

  5. Not often liturgical blogs are both funny and thought provoking; good stuff!

  6. Bob, many thanks for your comment. Are you a new reader? If so, how did you discover me?

  7. Hi,

    I can't say I've ever been too much into private devotions. I used to pray the Rosary everyday, but I haven't prayed that for a while now, but then I've also been stuck in a spiritual desert place recently. Even praying the Office has been a struggle recently.

    Nice to see you blogging again.

  8. Paul Knight, thanks for your comment. Nice to see you reading again.

    I shall be mindful of you and your troubles in the Holy Liturgy.

  9. Honestly, from reading your posts, it sounds like you would be right at home in the Orthodox Church.

  10. To me, devotion to the Sacred Heart is just as decent as devotion to the most holy bowel-movements of Christ.

    I had always assumed that it meant heart in the sense of "will" and that the pictures had an atual physical heart simply because it was the best way of representing it visually. That still leaves some of the problems you describe not dealt with.

    I still struggle to believe that St Margaret Mary Alacoque was mad, lying, or both, though.

  11. I think the tenor of this "feast" can be seen in the Collect:

    Deus, qui nobis in Corde Filii tui, nostris vulnerato peccatis, infinitos dilectionis thesauros misericorditer largiri dignaris...

    The Heart itself is described as the treasury of God's love. It's an inherently sentimental metaphor, locating love not in the will but in the "heart".