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Fr Billy Swan

A few years ago, I went looking for a sacred heart lamp for the oratory in the house where I lived. I approached the young assistant in the electrical shop who responded to my request: ‘What is that?’ He didn’t know what a sacred heart lamp was.

It was further evidence, if we needed it, of what we know to be true – namely that the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart, no longer holds the place it once had in Irish families and lives. In response to this, we lament the decline for sure. However, we must look deeper at the cause of this decline and perhaps unearth new reasons why might look again with fresh eyes on what a renewed devotion to the Sacred Heart might look like and how the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus speaks to us today.

Writing about the decline of this devotion, Fr James Martin SJ laments the artistic misrepresentation of the Sacred Heart that turns people off. He writes:

“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 with the bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns is often pictured in gruesome detail”.

Perhaps another contributing factor is people’s memory of being ‘watched’ by the eyes of Christ in images of the Sacred Heart. In many of the pictures of the Sacred Heart, the pupils of Christ’s eyes are very large which gives the impression that no matter where you are in the room where the picture hangs, his eyes are always on you, watching from on high. This was not always in a positive sense of God’s love being continually offered but in the negative sense of being always watched and supervised, waiting to be reprimanded should we sin or make a mistake.

Yet there are many positive reasons to take another look at the symbol of the Sacred Heart and the truths it reveals about God and ourselves. Firstly, and most importantly, the Sacred Heart speaks of God’s affectionate love for us that engages us not just intellectually but emotionally and totally. In the 13th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of God’s love that always stoops down to meet us and reach us:

“The lesser he has made himself in his humanity, the greater has he shown himself in kindness. The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love” (Sermon I, Epiphany, 1-2).

Similarly for St John of the Cross, the way God engages the soul is through spiritual affection. Through spiritual affection, God “refreshes, delights and gladdens the soul” (Spiritual Canticle 11.3). For both Bernard and John, the love of God is not just a cold concept but an energy that engages the entire human being with all of his or her physical, psychological and spiritual powers. It packs a punch and grabs us by the lapels.

This total engagement of God’s love with human love is best spoken of and represented by a union of hearts – something that has a very solid basis in Scripture. In the Bible, the heart represents the whole person, the whole self. Therefore, when the prophet Hosea refers to God leading his people in the desert to speak to their hearts (Hos. 2:4), what is in progress is the heart of a lover longing to be united completely to the beloved. It is a stepping away from activity, to take time out and to warm hearts that have gone cold. This is where God leads us from time to time. His searching love seeks to unite itself to ours and perfect us in love through that union.

This is the loving heart of God that Christ came to reveal. When Jesus identified himself as being “gentle and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:25), he indicates that his gentle humility is the essential nature of the divine love he came to offer us. On the cross, the side of the crucified Christ was pierced with a lance after his death – a violent act that pierced his Sacred Heart and resulted in the gushing forth of blood and water (John 19:34). On Calvary, the heart of God was pierced, broken and shattered. This outpouring of blood and water was interpreted by the Fathers of the Church as the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist through which the love of God was continually poured out and offered through the Church. Even after Jesus’ death, the love of God did not cease to be poured out, offered and given. It was a love that came from the heart of God to the heart of humanity, a love that flowed from a wound in God’s heart, God’s very self.

Think about it. The love we are being asked to believe in has come from a heart of a God whose heart has been broken and wounded. Can we identify with this kind of love that pours out through the wounds and scars that humanity also bears? Absolutely, for a love that never knew human suffering would certainly be less credible. A genuine faith that is born of love always connects to the heart.

One poet from our faith tradition who knew this was Tadhg Gaelach O’Suilleabhain (1715-1795). In his wonderful poem Gile mo chroí do chroí-se, he writes:

“The light of my heart is your heart, O Saviour,

The treasure of my heart is your heart poured out for me;

Since it is clear that your heart is filled with my love, O beloved,

In my innermost heart leave your heart for safe keeping’.

Tadgh closes his poem with a reference to this love of Christ being poured through his wounded heart:

"Even though you were astray, O fair Holy King from heaven,

Tormented in our midst in a way that cannot be estimated,

You made no boast of your love for us, O Christ, ‘till the lance tore open

A haven in your heart for the whole world”.


These beautiful sentiments of the loving affection of God are expressed much better by the Irish idioms used by O’ Suilleabhain in his poetry than those in English. They deserve to be wider known and deployed by catechists and evangelists to share the gift of our faith today. Yet we might add an important caveat here. This is not a call to return to an overly sentimental or pious faith. Nor is it permission to transgress boundaries and ignore what is appropriate. All of our loves and passions must come under the control of reason. Someone who understood this well was St John Henry Newman. He often spoke and wrote about the importance of reason but how faith must speak to us also at the level of the imagination and the heart. That is why, when he was appointed cardinal, he choose at his motto “cor ad cor loquitor…heart speaks to heart”.

In more recent times, Pope Francis beautifully describes the mission to preach as “the wonderful but difficult task of joining loving hearts, the hearts of the Lord and his people” (The Joy of the Gospel, 143). He continues: “To speak from the heart means that our hearts must be on fire…Helping our people to feel that they live in the midst of these two embraces is the difficult but beautiful task of one who preaches the Gospel” (The Joy of the Gospel, 144).

This is our task today, to witness to Christ, to speak about him and share our faith in him in ways that touch the heart. But in order to do this, we must have been touched too. We must have been touched and moved by the love of God that loved us first. And perhaps this is what is needed most in our Church today. It is no coincidence that St Therese of Lisieux’s greatest prayer was that “there be love at the heart of the Church”. About the ministry of priests, the late Karl Rahner wrote the following:

“Tomorrow’s priests will be people with pierced hearts, from which alone the power of their mission will come. Pierced hearts: pierced by life’s godlessness, pierced by love’s folly, pierced by failure, pierced by a sense of their own wretchedness and their own deep ambiguity. But also people of faith that only through such a heart can the power of their mission be communicated”.

The symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus speaks to everyone’s need for love and intimacy. It is this need that drives us more than we care to admit. In every human soul there is a drive, a tremendous energy that pushes us to seek communion with another. It is a divine impulse that can only be satisfied by communion with the love of God but one that is mediated through communion with one another. The trouble is, we often try to find the intimacy for which we hunger in places and people apart from God. We try to substitute the love of God for something or someone other than God.

This need to accept and experience the personal, affectionate and heart-felt love of God is not some kind of disordered desire or excessive neediness. Rather it is a recognition of the strong relationship between the acceptance of love and the nurturing of faith. As Pope Benedict described it beautifully: “Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received”. Therefore, in prayer and in the depths of our hearts, faith moves us to say ‘yes’ to the gift of God’s love for us that we accept with gratitude and joy. In the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel we are invited to “Remain in my love” or in the words of St Elizabeth of the Trinity, to “Let ourselves be Loved”. St Bernard of Clairvaux once described the lack of affection in people’s lives as “among the many great and grievous evils” (Sermon 50:4).  Was he exaggerating? Hardly. He is merely pointing to the dysfunction and problems that arise when the human heart is starved of love and affection. This feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus connects again the human heart that seeks intimate love with his own heart that is filled with the love we are made for.

To conclude. If you walk up O’Connell St in Dublin, you will see on the center median, both a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the huge spike at the junction of Talbot St. I know what one symbolizes, but not the other.  It’s time to take another look at the image of the Sacred Heart. His eyes in that picture or statue are not staring at us waiting to catch us out but to connect with the intimate love we wishes to offer – a love that engages us totally and flows through a heart that loves, knows and understands. I finish with the prayer of Mrs Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. As she grieves the murder of her son, she cries out:

“O Sacred Heart of Jesus, take way our hearts o’ stone, take away our hearts o’ stone and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this muderin’ hate, and give us Thine own – Thine own eternal love!”


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