On the Question of the
Sacred Heart Devotion
Essay by Hieromonk Aidan, Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia,
revised March 2008
(c) 2008 St. John
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Originally penned some
18 years ago for a
Sunday bulletin, the following article received a few finishing touches
in March of 2008, when it was posted to the Occidentalis group,
largest internet discussion group for Western rite issues in the
Orthodox Church. Much of the analysis and many of the
references were made originally in an article by the Russian Orthodox
hieromonk Vladimir Guettee, a much-respected Roman-Catholic historian
and priest known as the "Abbe Guettee" before his late-19th-c.
conversion to Holy Orthodoxy.
to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a popular thing in the Roman
Catholic Church of today. Frequently we see depictions of the Heart,
and in Roman Catholic prayer books there are prayers to it, and
consecrations of persons and places to the Heart. It is being called
"God's gift for our age." What is this gift?
Devotion to the Heart first appeared in the 1600s under the auspices of
the Jesuit order, which sought to emphasise the humanity of Christ.
This was part of their campaign to make Christianity less demanding,
less "other," more approachable. To forge their new "minimum
Christianity," Jesuit theologians, for example, tried to prove that for
a sinner to be absolved, he need only fear hell, or regret the
consequences of his sins. The so-called Jansenists, on the other hand,
with others who upheld Catholic practice, countered Jesuit teaching,
saying it is the love of God which must motivate penitents to come to
confession. Whereas Jesuit teachers debated how often it is necessary
to love God, one Jesuit divine of the times concluding it is enough if
a person love God one time before he die, Orthodox Christianity
concerns the fullness of life in Christ and is scarcely interested in
what the absolute minimum to achieve salvation would be. The form taken
by the newly forged devotion to Jesus' humanity as popularised by the
Jesuits also strayed outside the bounds of Orthodox doctrine. We know
that there have been seven Oecumenical Councils of the Church, from
whose dogmatic teaching there can be no appeal. The Council of Ephesus
(A.D. 431), responding to the teachings of Nestorius, the heretic
Patriarch of Constantinople, taught that the Word, the second
Person of the Trinity, was made man--that He took a human body and a
human soul--that He appeared in the world under the name "Jesus," and
under the title "Christ." Thus there is only one Person of Jesus
Christ, and this Person is to be worshipped with a single worship, that
of latria, the kind of worship rendered to God almighty. Nestorius,
however, attempted to separate the honour paid to Christ's humanity
from that offered His Divinity. Thus Nestorius had said in a Christmas
sermon at Constantinople that it was demeaning for him to worship a
St. Athanasius of Alexandria pointed out the wrongness of worshipping
Christ's body in a separate way, in these words: "We do not worship a
created thing, but the Master of created things, the Word of God made
flesh. Although the flesh itself, considered separately, is a part of
created things, yet it has become the body of
God. We do not worship this body after having separated it from the
Word. Likewise, we do not separate the Word from the body when we wish
to worship Him. But knowing that "the Word was made flesh," we
recognise the Word existing in the flesh as God." (Ep. ad Adelph., par.
Do those who worship the Sacred Heart worship, with a single worship,
the whole Person of Christ, or do they really worship His body
separately? How did this devotion come into being?
The first theologian to have taught this devotion was the Jesuit priest
La Colombiere (died 1682). He was the father confessor of a Visitation
sister named Marie Alacoque (+1690), who, he said, had informed him of
a number of revelations she received, revelations which passed from his
papers into Jesuit publications, and into the life of sister Marie
published by Languet, Jesuit bishop of Soissons. When Languet published
her Life, it provoked such an uproar and scandal that he and his
brother attempted to hide all copies. But it was too late; some had
sold, and an Italian translation came out. Pope Clement XIV condemned
it in 1772.
What were these visions which so scandalised Roman Catholic clergy and
faithful in the 18th century?
Marie Alacoque claimed that devotion to the Sacred Heart was revealed
to her by Jesus Christ Himself in the following manner. One day as she
was at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus came and showed her
heart, and said that He desired the Friday after Corpus Christi to be
dedicated to the worship of His heart, "for the love He had given to
me." "Address yourself," He said, "to My servant, the Jesuit father La
Colombiere; tell him for Me to work as hard as he can to establish this
devotion, in order to give pleasure to My heart." Marie delivered this
message, adding, "Jesus Christ has great hopes for your Society."
Then the revelations increased. Sister Marie spent whole nights in
"amorous colloquies with her beloved Jesus." One day, He permitted her
to lean her head on His breast and asked for her heart. She consented.
He removed her heart from her chest, placed it upon His own, then
returned it to her chest. From that time she felt a continuous pain in
that side, where her heart had been extracted and replaced. Jesus told
her to bleed herself when the pain became too great.
Marie Alacoque gave her heart to Jesus by a physical document, a deed,
which she signed in her own blood. In return, Jesus gave her a deed,
which designated her as the heiress to His heart for time and eternity.
"Do not be stingy with It," He said to her, "I permit you to dispose of
It as you wish, and you will be a plaything for My good pleasure." Upon
hearing these words, sister Marie took a pocket knife and carved the
name of Jesus into the flesh of her breast "in large and deep letters."
Bishop Languet's Life dwells upon the "promise of marriage" which took
place between Jesus and sister Marie, on their "betrothals and
espousals." (Actually, the terms he uses are too graphic to be printed
in an article intended to be read by Christians.) Languet also relates
that the first Friday of every month the pains in sister Marie's side
were so sharp she had herself bled. Since this occurred from 1674 to
1690, she would have been bled 192 times in honour of the Sacred Heart,
believing she was obeying Christ's express injunctions.
The Jesuits used their campaign of spreading devotion to the Sacred
Heart as a means to spread other of their doctrines, including the
Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Sister Marie Alacoque aspired also
to sow the seeds of this belief: that the Mother of God was conceived
in a manner beyond the human experience. She also insisted that those
within her circle of influence swallow little slips of paper with
pertinent messages written on them.
"You promised," she wrote to her brother, a priest, "that you would
take the notes which I am sending you, one each day, on an empty
stomach, and that you would have said nine masses, on nine Saturdays,
in honour of the Immaculate Conception [of the Virgin Mary] and as many
masses of the Passion, on nine Fridays, in honour of the Sacred Heart.
I believe that none of those who shall be particularly devoted to It
After these vigorous promotional campaigns, Rome's Congregation of
Rites was solicited to establish a feast of the Sacred Heart, a request
denied in 1697. Thirty years the Order waited, using images, medals,
booklets, pictures, stories, sermons, confraternities, and exhortations
at confession to advance the Sacred Heart devotion.
In 1727 and 1729, two more requests for a feast of the Sacred Heart
were submitted. The Promotor of the Faith for the Congregation at that
time was named Prospero Lambertini. He was a well-educated man and not
much inclined towards the Jesuit programmes, and he denied the
requests. In his work "On the Canonisation of Saints," Lambertini left
us an account of the affair. "If one requests a feast for the Sacred
Heart of Jesus," he marvels, "Why not also ask for one for the Sacred
Side or the Sacred Eyes of Jesus? Or, even for the Heart of the Blessed
Lambertini later became the Pope-scholar Benedict XIV. Little could he
have foreseen that what he knew to be so preposterous would, after his
day, infect the entire Roman Church. In the 19th century, the Roman
Church established a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary, and even
instituted a feast day in its honour.
It was observed that the new Sacred Heart devotion was not favoured by
Rome, and was frowned on by Benedict XIV. But at the close of the 18th
century Pope Clement XIII, a friend of the Jesuits, tried to reverse
Rome's negative position by the following means. He had some Polish
bishops write him some letters begging him to approve the devotion, and
alleged he had received a letter of the same import from Philip V, the
King of Spain. However, the king was warned, and he made it known
publicly that "his" letter was quite spurious. The Jesuits, the Pope,
and the Pope's minister Torregiani were involved in this sordid affair.
As a result, in 1765, Clement XIII authorized a feast day in honor of
the heart of Jesus. He did not dare to approve a feast of the physical
heart, but of the symbolic heart of Jesus, as an emblem for the
Saviour's love of mankind. In fact, soon after, when a certain French
bishop interpreted the feast as in honor of Jesus' physical heart, Rome
intervened. The canon lawyer Blasi published a dissertation in 1771 to
prove that the cult of the physical heart was not authorized, and Pope
Pius VI declared the same.
The reticence of the Papal court at Rome was eventually powerless
against the tide of popular Roman Catholic devotion. The majority of
Roman Catholic bishops issued pastoral letters to establish worship of
the Sacred Heart, naming the physical heart as the object of worship.
Offices were composed and inserted into the Missals and Breviaries, and
prayerbook devotions abounded. Apologists for the devotion tried to
exonerate it from charges of Nestorianism. (Nestorius honored Jesus as
man in one way and Jesus as God in another; the Faith teaches us that
we must worship Jesus Christ as one Person both human and Divine, not
as one or the other separately.)
The apologists argued they worshipped the Heart for the sake of its
union with the Godhead. What they forgot is that Nestorius himself,
when cornered at the Council of Ephesus, also claimed he "adored what
was visible for the sake of that which was hidden."
Such niceties could not conceal that the original devotion was an
actual worship of the physical heart. The Jesuit Fr. Galifet wrote: "It
is a question of the heart of Jesus Christ in its proper and plain
sense and is by no means metaphoric. Jesus Christ speaks of His own
literal heart [in the "revelations" of Sister Margaret Mary]; this is
shown by His action of uncovering His heart and showing... Here then is
the palpable object of the devotion..." He sought to validate worship
of the Heart by seeking a precedent in the Feast of Corpus Christi.
"The sole and proper object of the Feast of Corpus Christi is the flesh
of Jesus Christ; from this it must be concluded that this feast was not
really instituted to honor the Person of Jesus Christ, but in order to
honor His flesh, His Body, His Blood, since neither His Divinity nor
His Person is the formal object of this feast."
In the end, these qualms and counter-defenses in Catholic circles were
rendered effectively obsolete by a single action from the Vatican. Pope
Pius IX canonised Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque. There was no doubt how
she intended to honour the Heart, so there was no longer any thought
that the Sacred Heart could be confined to a symbol of God's love. Its
"palpitations," "dilations," "beating in heaven," were worshipped, as
they are today by Roman Catholics. The historian Father Rene Francois
Guettee, in his polemic work "The Heretical Papacy," remarks that by
singling out for worship not only Christ's human body as opposed to His
whole Person, but the heart as opposed to the rest of His body, an
error even worse than that of Nestorius has been devised. We may note
was the same Pius IX who made other official Roman Catholic formulas
which militate against Orthodox Christian traditions of the East and
West. He formally taught (1) the Immaculate Conception of Mary; (2) the
Divine right of the Roman Church to use armed force, and (3) Papal
Many in America are converts to the Orthodox Faith and may keep Sacred
Heart images in their homes, as literal baggage from their pre-Orthodox
days. Also, well-meaning friends may give Sacred Heart prayers or
images as gifts. The faithful should replace all such images with
genuine Orthodox icons. They should not place Sacred Heart images, or
any other non-Orthodox images, in their icon corners.
Hieromonk Aidan (Keller),
Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
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