Devotion to the Sacred Heart can be seen as early as the second century with St. Justin Martyr and in the 7th century with Pope Gregory the Great. Writers throughout these centuries emphasized the pierced side of Christ as the inexhaustible source from which all graces flow upon mankind and the blood and water as symbols of the sacraments of the Church. With the coming of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Anselm in the 12th century, there was a sudden increase in direct reference to the love of the Sacred Heart for every person redeemed by His Passion and Death. The widespread influence of Franciscan and Dominican Friars enkindled this devotion in the hearts of the faithful who heard their preaching. The focus on the Sacred Heart moved from being a symbol of the sacraments, to the symbol of Divine Love.
One cannot pass over the Middle Ages without mentioning Saints Gertrude and Mechtild. The editor of St. Gertrude’s writings, Revelations, (Dom Boutrais of Soesmes) stated: “Never before…has anything been written on the effect of the divine Heart and its relation to men, to saints, to the souls in Purgatory, such as we find in the writings of St. Gertrude and St. Mechtild.
The contemplation of the Humanity of Christ in His Passion, devotion to the Blessed Eucharist (in particular the feast of Corpus Christi), and the surge of mysticism gave the devotion to the Sacred Heart a new vitality in the Middle Ages. Prior to the revelations to St. Margaret Mary religious communities, particularly in France, continued to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus throughout the world. The French spiritual leaders paved the way for the message given to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque entered the Daughters of the Visitation, founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, in 1671. Although devotion to the Heart of Jesus was already important to the order prior to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque’s entrance, it would be through her that public devotion to the Sacred Heart (reparation, consecration and a liturgical feast) would be practiced universally in the Catholic Church. St. Francis de Sales wrote, “Our little congregation is the work of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Our dying Savior gave birth to us by the wound in His Sacred Heart.” St. Jane told her daughters, “Pray that your heart may be made like to the Heart of Jesus.” It was to this Order that Jesus gave the deepest knowledge of His Sacred Heart and the express command to spread devotion to It.
During this time, the heresy of Jansenism was spreading like wild fire throughout Europe. The Jansenists instilled fear into the hearts of the faithful, turning the religion of faith and love into one of pessimism and scrupulosity, teaching that man is completely incapable of disposing himself to the grace offered by God. Frequent Communion was also frowned upon.
In contrast to his, between the years of 1673 and 1675 Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary revealing His Divine Heart to her. In one apparition He told her, “My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with humanity, and with you in particular, that it cannot keep back the pent-up flames of its burning charity any longer. They must burst out through you.” Our Lord mourned the indifference and ingratitude of the greater part of humanity. Christ asked for the communion of reparation on 9 First Fridays. He also requested that there be a special liturgical feast for His Sacred Heart in the Universal Church to be celebrated eight days after the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. On that day He asked for a solemn act of reparation for all the offenses heaped upon Him in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Holy See has given this devotion a high place of importance in the Church due not only to the requests of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary but also to the soundness of the doctrine and its timeliness in rekindling love and trust in the Merciful Heart of Our Savior. Pope Pius XI, in the encyclical MISERENTISSIMUS REDEMPTOR, writes about the meaning of the vision of the Sacred Heart. “He showed His Heart to us bearing about it the symbols of the passion and displaying the flames of love, that from the one we might know the infinite malice of sin, and in the other we might admire the infinite charity of Our Redeemer, and so might have a more vehement hatred of sin, and make a more ardent return of love for His love.” In this encyclical, Pope Pius stressed that reparation to the Sacred Heart is obligatory for all Christians. He ends his encyclical stating that the devotion of reparation to the Sacred Heart has the highest approval of Apostolic Authority and must be practiced universally by all Christians.
Following the visions and writings of St. Margaret Mary and St. Claude la Columbiere, many Popes have written on the immense importance of devotion to the Sacred Heart including: Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI. On the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Haurietis Aquas on devotion to the Sacred Heart, Pope Benedict wrote, “This devotion (to the Sacred Heart) is “the contemplation of the ‘side pierced by the spear,’ in which shines the limitless will of salvation on the part of God.” For this reason, “it cannot be considered as a passing form of worship or devotion. Adoration of the love of God, which has found in the symbol of the ‘pierced heart’ its historical-devotional expression, continues to be vital for a living relationship with God.”
The Devotion to the Divine Mercy, given to St. Faustina Kowalska in 1931, is a broadened devotion to the Sacred Heart. From this devotion our trust in God’s limitless love and mercy is rekindled. The incomprehensible treasures which we have in the sacraments are symbolized in the blood and water gushing forth from the Heart of Christ. The devotion to the Sacred Heart has flowered and has seemed to come full circle in the devotion to the Divine Mercy, particularly in its emphasis on the graces flowing from the Heart of Jesus, healing and forgiving souls, through the Sacraments of Mercy.