Western Rite History

Western Rite Culture

W. Rite Discussion

Western Rite Groups

Western Rite Essays

West. Rite Liturgics

Western Rite Media

Western Rite Links

On the Question of the Sacred Heart Devotion

an Essay by Hieromonk Aidan, Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, revised March 2008
(c) 2008 St. John Cassian Press

return to Essays

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, the 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.

Devotion 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 babe!

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. 3)

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 already been
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 His
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 shall perish."

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 Virgin!?" Prospero
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 that it
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 Infallibility.

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

for more information see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Occidentalis