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 June 6, 2005 VOL. 43, NO. 11Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Discipleship means belonging to the Heart of Christ

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

This year the first Friday of June is the day appointed for the celebration of the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Such an important day in the Church’s liturgical year seems a fitting topic for my reflections this week.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus had a long history of development in the Church; it is rooted in the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures themselves and in the exposition of these texts by the Church Fathers. The Heart of Christ became a prominent theme in the writings of theologians and mystics in the Middle Ages, and the devotion received a strong new impetus through the preaching of the Jesuit Fathers and especially through the witness of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). In 1856 Blessed Pius IX extended the feast to the whole Church.

Profound exposition
Anyone interested in a profound and fully reliable exposition of the history and meaning of the Sacred Heart devotion can do no better than the Pius XII’s Encyclical “Haurietis aquas: On devotion to the Sacred Heart” (May 15, 1956). [The text is readily available on the Vatican web site: www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals.] A key point the Holy Father made there which I want to share with you is this:

“[That] the Heart of the Incarnate Word is deservedly and rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves His eternal Father and all mankind.

“It is a symbol of that divine love which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit but which He, the Word made flesh, alone manifests through a weak and perishable body, since ‘in Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col 2:9).

It is, besides, the symbol of that burning love which, infused into His soul, 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 (S.T., III, q. 9, aa. 1-3).

And finally - and this in a more natural and direct way - it is 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” (S.T., III, q. 33, a. 2, ad 3). (“Haurietis aquas,” 54-57).

As Pius XII so succinctly puts it: The Lord Jesus’ Heart is “the chief sign and symbol” of his love. Celebrations which honor the Sacred Heart, especially on the First Fridays, and above all on the Friday after Corpus Christi, are excellent ways for the whole People of God to give witness to the infinite love we have received in Christ Jesus.

In my own Christian formation, devotion to our Lord’s Sacred Heart was very important. During my grade school years the first Friday of every month, particularly dedicated as it was to the Sacred Heart, was always a special occasion.

Powerful memories
The day before, we all went over to the parish church to make our monthly confession in order to be well prepared for Holy Communion the next day. That First Friday Mass was always something I looked forward to. It concluded with Solemn Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, at which we recited the Litany of the Sacred Heart. These are some of my most powerful memories from my childhood experience of the faith.

I cannot think about those mornings without recalling this one particular title of address: “Heart of Jesus, Burning Furnace of Charity,” to which we all answered “Have mercy on us.” That title captured my imagination because it so powerfully and poetically expressed the ardor and constancy of Christ’s love for us.

When I went off to minor seminary, it was to a school named “Sacred Heart.” The faculty members responsible for our formation built on the catechesis we had received at home. They especially held up to us Jesus’ Sacred Heart as the model according to which we should strive to let the Holy Spirit shape our hearts. We used to begin and end most days with this short prayer: “Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, Model of the Priestly Heart, have mercy on us.”

From countless repetitions of this prayer and the time spent in reflecting on its meaning, God taught me that a priest’s ministry must be rooted in his heart, in a heart made unconditionally generous after the example of the heartfelt generosity Christ manifests in the Holy Eucharist. And for bringing about this change to my heart there was and is no better means than receiving the Lord’s love in Holy Communion.

These first experiences of priestly formation were ratified during the eight-day retreat I made under the direction of a well-known Jesuit in Detroit in order to prepare for my priestly ordination. It was my director, Father Jules Toner, who assigned me a whole day to read and pray over Pius XII’s Encyclical on “Devotion to the Sacred Heart.” I view that as Providence’s confirmation that not only in my years before ordination but also in all the years thereafter I am called to make the foundation of my ministry the shaping of my heart according to the model of Christ’s priestly Heart.

Grace received
In thinking about the grace I have received through devotion to the Sacred Heart, I cannot help but be mindful of the instruments through which that given has been mediated to me and to all the other members of the Church.

In the obscurity of her Visitation convent, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received in prayer remarkable manifestations of Christ’s love which were not for her alone but were a charism given to her for the enrichment of us all. St. Margaret Mary stands in a long line of saints – before and after her – so many of them women, who were latter day prophets calling the Church never to forget that the heart of discipleship is belonging to the Heart of Christ.

One remarkable woman who came centuries before St. Margaret Mary with this same message was St. Catherine of Siena. In our own era St. Faustina, with her message of the Divine Mercy that streams from Christ’s heart, is another such witness. And the recently beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta is surely a remarkable voice calling us to respond with love to him whose Heart is only love for us.

These saints, and the many others who could rightly be classed in their company, exemplify what some theologians, thinkers like Hans Urs von Balthassar, call the “Marian Dimension” of the Church. Throughout the Church’s history they have been living embodiments of the Blessed Virgin as she performed the culminating act of her role in Salvation History: Standing at the foot of the Cross to witness to and share in the consummation of God’s love for the world.

Noblest vocation
St. Margaret Mary, St. Catherine, St. Faustina, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta all invite us to “draw water from the springs of salvation,” from the Sacred Heart of our Savior, thrown open by the spear’s wound so that we could receive the treasure of infinite love the temple for which is his Heart. Of all the vocations in the Church, this is the noblest and most important.

I am very grateful that the celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart this year has been an occasion to confirm me in the rich graces given me through this devotion from my childhood until today. I pray that it will be that same sort of opportunity for you.

If you once were regular in marking the First Friday of each month with Confession and Communion, but you have gotten away from that, now is a good time to return to this practice once more. If you never had this devotion as part of your life, then through Pius XII’s eloquent encyclical learn more about the profound significance of the Lord’s Heart as a rich symbol for his person and love, to which we are all invited to pledge our person and love in return.

 

Previous "In His Light" Columns by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

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