Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a long history dating back to the medieval period in the Church, but the development and popularity of the devotion in modern times dates from the seventeenth century. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun of the Visitantine order, was recorded as having had several apparitions of the Sacred Heart in the years from 1673 to 1675 in her convent chapel in Paray-le-Monial. Arising from this, both she and Father Claude de la Colombiere SJ were charged with promoting the devotion worldwide.(1) The devotion was to be centred on honouring the image of the Sacred Heart by frequent communion and in particular by receiving Holy Communion on the first Friday of the month, as an act of reparation to the Sacred Heart, and also by making a vigil in union with Christ’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, which came to be known as the ‘Holy Hour’.(2) Twelve promises of graces and blessings were made to all who fulfilled these devotions and in particular ‘the Great Promise’, often referred to as the twelfth promise, guaranteed to all who fulfilled the devotion of the Nine First Fridays the grace of final repentance and that they would not die without receiving the Sacraments.
The devotion was promoted via the Archconfraternity of the Sacred Heart and by the League of the Sacred Heart also known as the Apostleship of Prayer. On Passion Sunday 1873 the bishops of Ireland consecrated the Irish nation to the Sacred Heart. In November 1887 Fr James Cullen SJ was appointed director for Ireland of the Apostleship of Prayer and this marked the beginning of the countrywide spread of devotion to the Sacred Heart.(3) The official organ of the Apostleship of Prayer in Ireland was, and is, the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Mean, founded by Fr James Cullen SJ in January 1888. The Jesuits promoted the devotion through the Messenger. The Vincentian Fathers organised a confraternity of the Sacred Heart in the Church of St Peter in Phibsboro, Dublin. In due course Pope Leo XIII raised the confraternity to the dignity of an Archconfraternity, and imparted to it all the indulgences enjoyed by the Archconfraternity of S. Maria della Pace in Rome and gave the Vincentians authority to affiliate other confraternities and to communicate to them the same indulgences.(4) Wherever they went to give missions they promoted the devotion by endeavouring to set up a confraternity and by encouraging people to enrol. Confraternities of the Sacred Heart were widespread throughout the country but began to decline from the 1960s. The devotion was also promoted by priests and nuns in parishes and schools. Some ten years after founding the Messenger, in 1898 the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded, also by Fr James Cullen SJ, to address the problem of alcohol abuse. It also had the aim of spreading devotion and making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The practice of consecrating the family to the Sacred Heart was widespread in Ireland until the 1960s. Families placed a picture of the Sacred Heart in some prominent place in the home, before which a lamp was kept constantly burning. This was the centre of the family’s spiritual life. To this day, the Sacred Heart picture with the eternal lamp and the Papal Marriage blessing evoke the mood of 1950s and 1960s Ireland. A publication of the Irish Messenger series in 1937, entitled Consecration of Families to the Sacred Heart, estimated that about a million persons were consecrated to the Sacred Heart in connection with the Irish branch of the Apostleship of Prayer.(5) In the late thirties and early forties sales of the Messenger peaked at 248,000.(6) The Messenger cultivated a very personal faith, based on worship of the heart of Jesus Christ, as a symbol of God’s love and gives a unique insight into popular piety. It was promoted and distributed through the schools and by local volunteers. Originally at a penny a copy, it was affordable even for the poor and like the Sacred Heart picture it became a staple in Irish Catholic homes. One of the best known aspirations associated with the devotion was ‘O sacred heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in thee’, for which 300 days indulgence could be gained. Each month’s issue of the Messenger published letters of thanksgiving for favours, spiritual and temporal, obtained through consecration of the home and in answer to prayers to the Sacred Heart. This is a central feature of the devotion, which has not changed to this day.
Popular devotions have fallen into decline in the post-Vatican II era. A major concern of the Second Vatican Council was to re-centre Catholic devotional life on the Mass. Theologians and liturgists were uneasy with forms of piety which cultivated the idea that certain prayers or pious acts, practised according to certain conditions, could procure favours or offer guarantees of salvation. While it is not possible to be definitive about Sacred Heart devotion at the present time, undoubtedly it has declined, as in the case of other popular devotions. That said, the Messenger is now available online and has a circulation of approximately 95,000 monthly.(7) According to its website, it is one of the biggest-selling publications produced in Ireland at the present time. It also notes that in excess of 50,000 letters reached the Messenger Office the previous year from all corners of the world, testifying to God’s help and protection in the lives of those who practise devotion to the Sacred Heart.(8)
1. Rev. Sir John Robert O’Connell, Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: its history and its practices (Dublin: CTSI, n.d), pp 20-23.
2. Rev. R. Burke Savage SJ, Sacred Heart Handbook (Dublin: Office of the Irish Messenger, n.d.), p. 5.
3. Thomas J. Morrissey SJ, ‘Our Founding Father: James Cullen SJ 1841 -1921’ in the Sacred Heart Messenger, January, 2008, p. 9.
4. CM., ‘The Confraternity of the Sacred Heart’ in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Fifth Series, vol. lvi (Sept. 1940), p. 232.
5. Consecration of families to the Sacred Heart (Dublin: Office of the Irish Messenger, 1937), pp 5-6.
6. Information from Vera Casey, Irish Messenger Publications office.
7. Interview with Fr John Looby SJ, Editor of the Sacred Heart Messenger.
8. See www.messenger.ie
Dr Louise Fuller is a Research Fellow in the Department of History at NUI, Maynooth and author of Irish Catholicism since 1950: the undoing of a culture (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002; 2004) and co-editor with John Littleton and Eamon Maher of Irish and Catholic? Towards an understanding of identity (Dublin: Columba Press, 2006).