Conforming to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Priests are called to love just as Christ himself loved
The month of June is dedicated in a special way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as the solemnity that honors the devotion — held 19 days after Pentecost Sunday — almost always takes place this month.
In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II established the solemnity of the Sacred Heart as the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. Although this day of prayer can be celebrated on a day that is best for a diocese or country, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart is the most fitting day because it highlights the importance of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the life and ministry of priests. In his 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II said that future priests must be formed “in the spirituality of the heart of the Lord” (No. 49).
Roots of the Devotion
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has deep scriptural roots. Many Fathers of the Church recognized that the Church flows from the pierced heart of Christ on the cross (cf. Jn 19:34). In Sacrosanctum Concilium, its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council teaches that “the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church” came forth “from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross” (No. 5). St. Ambrose noted that just as Eve was “formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was formed from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 766).
Along with a long list of saints who promoted the devotion, the successors to St. Peter consistently have encouraged priets and all the faithful to foster a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Pope Pius XII, in his 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas, pointed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as “the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves his eternal Father and all mankind” (No. 54). The heart of Jesus is a symbol of the divine love he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit; it is a symbol of “that burning love which … enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused,” and also “the symbol also of sensible love, since the body of Jesus Christ, formed by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, possesses full powers of feelings and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body” (Nos. 56-57).
Perspective on the Priesthood
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is especially important for the life and ministry of priests, because priests act in the person of Christ who is divine love incarnate. In Annum Sacrum, Pope Leo XIII describes the Sacred Heart as “a symbol and sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love one another” (No. 8). A priest is meant to embody the love of Christ in all his actions, especially in his sacramental ministry. Soon after proclaiming the Year for Priests in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, in his general audience of June 24, 2009, explained the identity of the priest as alter Christus, another Christ:
|8 Virtues of the Heart of Jesus|
In her book “The Sacred Heart ofthe Priesthood,”
Venerable Louise Margaret Claret de la Touche
outlines the eight sacerdotal virtues of the
Sacred Heart of Jesus that serve as the
model for all priests.
– The spirit of prayer
To these virtues she adds the love
“As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2:5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: He is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind.”
Pope Pius XII, in Haurietis Aquas, recognizes the Eucharist and the priesthood as gifts flowing from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Reflecting on Jesus hanging on the cross, he writes, “But who can worthily depict those beatings of the divine heart, the signs of his infinite love, of those moments when he granted men his greatest gifts: himself in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, his most holy mother, and the office of the priesthood shared with us?” (No. 69). He continues, “It can therefore be declared that the divine Eucharist, both the sacrament which he gives to men and the sacrifice in which he unceasingly offers himself … and likewise the priesthood, are indeed gifts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” (No. 71).
The priesthood is a gift from the Sacred Heart of Jesus because Christ offers his faithful his body, blood, soul and divinity through the sacred ministry of the priesthood.
Configured to the Sacred Heart
Priests also should be formed by the Sacred Heart of Jesus as ministers of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They should strive to embody the merciful love of the Sacred Heart as they reconcile sinners to God. In his 2015 bull for the Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis urges the Church to “place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the mercy of God with their own hands” (No. 17).
Priests also must be formed by the Sacred Heart by seeking forgiveness through the sacrament themselves. In his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2001, Pope John Paul II tells his fellow priests that “it is important for us to rediscover the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a fundamental means of our sanctification. Approaching a brother priest in order to ask for the absolution that we so often give to the faithful enables us to live the great and consoling truth that, before being ministers, we are all members of the same people, a ‘saved’ people” (No. 10).
There is also a mystical way in which priests should be formed by the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In his treatise “The Priest: His Dignity and Obligations,” St. John Eudes says that “the priest is one of the chief parts of the Mystical Body of Christ because he occupies the principal parts of that body, namely, the heads, the eyes, the mouth, the tongue and the heart. … He is the heart circulating the blood stream of Christ’s precious blood to quicken and vivify the other members, that their words and functions may be ennobled and perfected.” Because the priest acts as the “eyes, the mouth, the tongue and the heart” of Jesus, he must be configured to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the embodiment of divine love and mercy.
A Model of Love
Venerable Louise Margaret Claret de la Touche (1868-1905) was a religious sister of the Visitation Order and the author of the book “The Sacred Heart and the Priesthood.” She wrote this volume in obedience to perceived revelations from the Lord beginning on the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1902. She states that “the priest should enter by the Sacred Heart into the intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ.” She describes the Heart of Jesus as a door “through which one must pass in order to penetrate into the interior of Christ, and having become bathed and impregnated with him, become like a brilliant mirror in which infinite love can be reflected.”
Mother Louise Margaret points to the Blessed Virgin as the model for the love a priest should have for Christ. She wrote: “There is only one creature who has loved, and who loves Jesus as the priest should love him; there is only one heart which can serve as the model to him for this love; it is the heart of the Most Holy Virgin. The love of the priest for Jesus should be in everything like the love of Mary for her divine Son.”
The union of the hearts of Jesus and Mary was a central theme of St. John Eudes, who believed that the heart of Jesus living in Mary was “the spirit of her spirit, the soul of her soul, and the heart of her heart.”
In the month of June, priests should renew their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in union with the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As the Mother of priests, the Blessed Virgin will help form their hearts to become more like the heart of her divine son.
ROBERT FASTIGGI, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He is former president of the Mariological Society of America.