As today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I thought I would try to explore the relationship between devotion to the Sacred Heart, and devotion to the Divine Mercy, hopefully shedding some light on both. Firstly though, I shall give a brief summary of the roots and history of the Sacred Heart devotion.
The beginning of it can be found in many of the Church Fathers, who saw John 7:37-39 and 19:33-37 as signs that God’s love for humanity was focused in the human heart of Jesus (i.e.; in His human affections for us). It was not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries though, that this developed into a specific devotion to the Heart of Jesus, and at this point deeper connections were made between Christ’s corporeal presence in the Eucharist and the love He feels for us in and through His human nature.
It was in the seventeenth century that Saint John Eudes, influenced by the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, focussed this current of private devotions to Jesus’ Sacred Heart into a devotion that could be practised and honoured by the Church as a whole. He also emphasised the inseparability of this devotion from a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which we celebrate tomorrow. Later on in this century, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque received a series of visions of Jesus, where He instructed her to enjoin people to celebrate devotion to His Sacred Heart and to increase Eucharistic Adoration.
After a subsequent period of questioning within the Church, it was not long before this devotion became widespread, with the first celebration of it as a feast in 1670, and its institution as obligatory for the whole Church in 1856, by Pope Pius IX. Over the course of time, it has grown in significance within Catholic life and is now one of the most popular devotions. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote:
‘And since there is in the Sacred Heart a symbol and a sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love one another, therefore is it fit and proper that we should consecrate ourselves to His most Sacred Heart-an act which is nothing else than an offering and a binding of oneself to Jesus Christ, seeing that whatever honor, veneration and love is given to this divine Heart is really and truly given to Christ Himself.’
Annum Sacrum, 8.
Later on, Venerable Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Haurietis Aquas (1956),wrote to counter criticisms from the Eastern Orthodox that this devotion leaned too closely to Nestorianism, separating Jesus’ humanity from His divinity, and stated that:
‘Nothing therefore prevents our adoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ as having a part in and being the natural and expressive symbol of the abiding love with which the divine Redeemer is still on fire for mankind. Though it is no longer subject to the varying emotions of this mortal life, yet it lives and beats and is united inseparably with the Person of the divine Word and, in Him and through Him, with the divine Will. Since then the Heart of Christ is overflowing with love both human and divine and rich with the treasure of all graces which our Redeemer acquired by His life, sufferings and death, it is therefore the enduring source of that charity which His Spirit pours forth on all the members of His Mystical Body.’
Haurietis Aquas, 85.
What Venerable Pius XII writes here perhaps provides a good point from which to consider the relationship between devotion to the Sacred Heart and the devotion to the Divine Mercy. A criticism that could be levelled here is that the latter devotion detracts from the former, and also that it focuses too much on the divinity of Christ as opposed to His humanity. However, Saint Faustina Kowalska herself had a great devotion to the Heart of Jesus, and in her diaries (section 1777) records Our Lord as having said to her:
‘My daughter, know that My Heart is mercy itself. From this sea of mercy, graces flow out upon the whole world. No soul that has approached Me has ever gone away unconsoled. All misery gets buried in the depths of My mercy, and every saving and sanctifying grace flows from this fountain.’
Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (2014), p.629, Marian Press.
Not only does Jesus here speak of His Heart as the seat of all Divine Mercy, but also uses the language of grace flowing from His Heart as waters from a fountain, which mirrors precisely the imagery upon which Pius XII based his encyclical – Haurietis Aquas means ‘you will draw waters’ – and also the passages from Saint John’s Gospel that the early Fathers appealed to in focusing their attention to Jesus’ heart. This shows a remarkable kinship between the two devotions, and, as Pius’ encyclical does too, reveals the ultimate inseparability of the mercy God has for us in His eternal self from Jesus’ human affections. It is the Sacred Heart of Jesus that reveals to us the mercy He has for us from before all ages.
Another criticism that could be levelled though, is that we do not need both devotions – if they are so similar, why not just stick with one or the other? I think the answer to this is less theological and more pastoral. Whilst both devotions recognise the deep unity between Jesus’ divinity and humanity, and neither would make sense if taken in a Nestorian sense, they definitely do have a slightly different focus. The Divine Mercy devotion speaks to us more of God’s love for us in His eternal nature, and thus seeks to call this love down towards us; the Sacred Heart devotion speaks to us more of how this love is concretely expressed in the Incarnation, and thus seeks to call us to a love already revealed.
These two different but complementary ways of speaking of God’s love will appeal, respectively, to people of different personalities, and also of the same personality in different circumstances – there will be times when we want to entreat God’s mercy to pour down upon us, and this is when we will turn to the Divine Mercy devotion; there will be other times when we need to be reminded of the love God has already shown us in Christ, and to be urged to imitate Him.
Thus, not only is it possible to practice both devotions, it is very worthwhile to do so – taken together, they cater for a wider range of devotional needs. The essential message of both though (taken together or separately) and the most important thing to remember, is the same: Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully God and fully man, and His human heart, the seat of His affections, pulses with a divine Love that exists eternally, and that desires to redeem all those created in the divine image, so that He may bring them close to Himself and share His love with them. The essential and fundamental message here then, is that Jesus loves you!