Sacred Heart of Jesus – Part 1 (History of the devotion)

My earliest memories of growing up in a Croatian household and in a Catholic community are of two pictures in the living room – one of Jesus pointing to His Heart, and next to Him a picture of the Virgin Mary with her Immaculate Heart. I didn’t know much about the significance of these two Hearts growing up, but always knew that Jesus and Mary were important to our faith and upbringing. Set between a crucifix and the Croatian grb, these two holy pictures were proudly displayed and enthroned in Croatian homes. This blog is the first of a 3-part series exploring the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – its history and significance, the promises attached to the devotion, and its enthronement in the hearts and homes of Catholic families.

June is the month traditionally dedicated to the devotion of the Sacred Heart. The feast of the Sacred Heart is one of the most popular Catholic devotions in the Church. The feast is a moveable feast and is celebrated on the first Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. In this year of our Lord, 2020, it will be celebrated on Friday the 19th of June.


People often think that devotion to the Sacred Heart is a nineteenth century piety and a relatively new feast introduced by the Church. But it is much older than that, and it is much more than a pious devotion. The devotion to the Sacred Heart in particular began with devotion to the Sacred Humanity of Jesus and to His Passion and His Five Wounds, including His physical suffering, the shedding of His Precious Blood and His burning love for all mankind. It sees its roots in the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries of the 11th and 12th centuries, with figures such as St Gertrude, St. Mechtilde and St Bernard all professing this devotion. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), an instrumental proponent of devotion to the Sacred Heart, used the metaphor of a Christian soldier to explain why Jesus wants us to meditate on His Sacred Heart:

“This gracious Captain desires that the face and eyes of His devoted soldier should be lifted up to those wounds, that his soul may stand erect and he may draw from the sight strength unshakable. For gazing on those wounds he shall not feel his own…. The martyr stands fearless and in triumph…where then is the soul of the martyr? It is safe; it is on the rock; it is in the Heart of Jesus, whose wounds were opened to let it in.” (Sermon 61, On the Wounds of Christ Typified by the Clefts of the Rock)

Several centuries after St Bernard, the devotion was promoted by saints such as St John Eudes, who was born in 1601. He composed the Divine Office prayers for the feast, and wrote a book about the Sacred Heart. The first feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated on August 31, 1670, in Rennes, France, through his efforts. From Rennes, the devotion spread, but it took the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) for the devotion to become universally celebrated in the Church. In all of the visions in which Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus played a central role. The source of the modern Feast of the Sacred Heart is the “great apparition,” which took place on the 16th June in 1675, during the octave of the Feast of Corpus Christi. In that vision, Christ requested of St. Margaret Mary that the Feast of the Sacred Heart be celebrated on the Friday after the octave (or eighth day) of the Feast of Corpus Christi, in reparation for the ingratitude of men for the sacrifice that Christ had made for them.


From the many devotions in the Catholic Church, and rich both in its history and significance, devotion to the Sacred Heart is set apart as particularly unique. This becomes clear when we read the many encyclicals written by different popes on this devotion. For instance, Pope Pius XI explained that “devotion to the Sacred Heart is the very epitome of our religion, and opens the way to a more perfect life.”
(Miserentissimus Redemptor, 3)

More recently, in his letter to a priest, Pope Benedict XVI professed that:

“. . . the devotion, which is totally oriented to the love of God who sacrificed himself for us, has an irreplaceable importance for our faith and for our life in love….” (Letter to Fr. Kolvenbach, 15th May 2006)

Why is this devotion so central and unique, so irreplaceably important for each one of us? To help answer this question, we have to understand what the word ‘heart’ really means in the language of the Bible. It means much more than simply passing sentiments or even deep feelings. The word ‘heart’ is used more than a thousand times in the Bible and each time it refers to the centre of a person, to the core of a person’s identity. The Catechism states that:

The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others… . The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter…. it is the place of covenant.”
(CCC 2563)

So Biblically speaking, the heart is the hidden centre of the person. Thus this means that in order to really get to know someone, that person has to open up their heart to me, to ‘let me in’ so to speak. If they don’t, I may get to know a lot of things about the person but I’ll never actually get to know the person.

What is truly amazing about this devotion is that through it we realize that God Himself, Creator of the universe, infinitely wise and powerful, has opened up His Heart to us! This is the very basis of devotion to the Sacred Heart. While we were still sinners, still rebelling against God’s plan for our lives, He took on human nature through the incarnation of the Eternal Word in Jesus Christ and He revealed His Heart, the very centre of His Divine Person, the very core of His identity. This means that God wants to be known by us. He wants to enter into relationship with us. Devotion to the Sacred Heart then, is devotion to the very essence of God, to the deepest core of His divine nature. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is simply devotion to God as He has chosen to reveal himself to us.

In the words of Pope Pius XII:

“Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men.” (Haurietis Aquas 107)

In images of the Sacred Heart, we see Jesus with His human heart clearly visible. It is encircled by a crown of thorns, yet it glows radiant with light and with the fire of love. A cross is placed atop of it. The image is richly theological. The love of God is contained in the human heart of Jesus. It is a Heart that suffers because of our lack of love. Our sins break Jesus’ Heart. His Heart is also broken on the cross, when the soldier rams a lance through the side of Jesus, piercing His Sacred Heart, from which flows Blood and Water. Every drop of His Precious Blood flows out from His Heart. Jesus give us every ounce of love from His Heart. It is the source of His love for us. It is the seat of His mercy. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a place of healing, refreshment, and forgiveness.
In one of the visions, Jesus said to St Margaret Mary:

“Behold this Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to consuming itself to witness its love. And in return, I receive from most of them only ingratitude from their irreverence’s and their sacrileges and by the coldness and contempt that they have for Me in this sacrament of love…” (Vision of Jesus to St Margaret Mary June 16, 1675)

During this month of June, I encourage you to meditate on the Sacred Heart of Christ. As soldiers of Christ, our King, it is critical that we have a devotion to the very Heart of our Divine King and Saviour. We should meditate on His Sacred Heart and ponder His goodness, His mercy, His justice, His courage, and His sufferings. We should contemplate on the love in His Sacred Heart which emptied itself for us, which sacrificed everything out of love for us, which suffered for us, and which continuously burns for love of us.

Then ask Him humbly to make your heart like His own.

Bog i Hrvati

Sacred Heart of Jesus Series
– Part 1 (History of the devotion)
Part 2 (The Promises)
Part 3 (A Prodigal Son’s Journey)
Part 4 (History of The Enthronement)

Croatian History – Sacred Heart of Jesus

Pod Barjakom Presvetog Srca Isusova – 120th Anniversary