Sunday, May 28, 2017

Popular Piety III: Sacred Heart


From the 17th through 19th centuries comes one other notable theme of piety, veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A close friend used to carry around a prayer card with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She dropped it one day and was told by a very secular Protestant, “You dropped your bleeding heart.”

The image may have been similar to the French holy card, circa 1880, depicted below, right. Note the spear, a reference John 19:34 (“one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water”), which tells of a Roman soldier who speared the dead Jesus on the cross (caption: “Behold this heart which has loved men so much. It is nothing but love and mercy”). Today a commonplace Catholic devotional artifact, it emerged in modern form only in the 17th century.

The heart as a symbol of affection or romantic love is near universal—although when the French first colonized Vietnam they learned that locals viewed the stomach as the organ of love. The oldest instance of the heart as a symbol relates to silphium, a now-extinct species of fennel from the Greek colony of Cyrene, North Africa, used most famously as a form of birth control. It was so popular that it was overharvested into extinction in the first century. Its seedpod looked like the modern Valentine’s heart, and Cyrene, which grew rich from the silphium trade, put the heart shape on its coins.

The modern Valentine heart is medieval, as are the very earliest allusions to the heart of Jesus. In early Christianity, there were meditations on the humanity of Jesus Christ and his sufferings on the cross, with particular reference to his five wounds (nails on hands, nails on feet and the spear to the side). In John 20:24-29 the apostle Thomas demands to see the wounds of the risen Christ.

In the 12th century, just when the heart became the locus of love in the European mind, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the piercing of his side revealed Jesus’ goodness and his heart’s love for us. Devotion to the wounds spread through the monastic orders and was propagated worldwide by the Jesuits, who admired the Franciscan devotion of the Five Wounds.

A well-known medieval litany the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ) pleads:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water flowing from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
Good Jesus, hear me
In your wounds shelter me
Never let me be separated from Thee
From evil one protect me
At the hour of death call me
Into your presence lead me
That with your saints I may praise you
Forever and ever
Amen
It was a hop, skip and jump from these devotions to the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a French nun and mystic. At the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial, where she made her final vows and was assigned to the infirmary as a not very skillful nurse, Alacoque experienced several private revelations between late 1673 and mid-1675.

She reported that Jesus let her rest her head on his heart, revealed the wonders of his love, and asked to be honored by the depiction of his heart. He said he had chosen her to make his love known to all people. Her superior, Mother de Saumaise, was skeptical, as were theologians called to authenticate the apparitions; even most members of her own community, who reputedly didn’t think much of her visions, were not persuaded.

She eventually convinced her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière, S.J., and opposition in the community ended in 1683, when the convent’s leadership changed and she was named assistant to the new superior. The convent began to observe privately the Feast of the Sacred Heart (today observed 19 days after Pentecost, on a Friday), and in 1688 a chapel was built to honor the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was promoted by the Jesuits, but remained the subject of controversy within the Church and was not officially recognized until 75 years after Alacoque died. She was beatified in the 19th century and canonized in 1920.

The Sacred Heart is also linked to the story of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, R.S.C.J. (1779-1865), a French saint who founded of the Society of the Sacred Heart (official name Religiosa Sanctissimi Cordis Jesu or Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).

The daughter of a well-to-do Burgundy family, Barat was born barely a decade before the storming of the Bastille. As a child and young woman she witnessed the conflict between the leaders of the revolution and the Church, which was under constant attack by the government between 1790 and 1801, when Napoleon signed a concordat with the pope.

In 1795 she went to Paris with her brother, a priest, who sought the anonymity of the big city and was received in a safe house. She worked as a seamstress and became an excellent embroiderer, while her brother taught her about the Church Fathers, mathematics, Latin and the scriptures. Sophie decided to become a Carmelite nun, but religious orders in France had been abolished in 1790.

Instead, along with three other women living in the Paris safe house, she took vows as one of the first members of a new religious congregation. At the time, however, the French government had outlawed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so the society took the name Dames de la Foi (“Women of Faith”) or alternatively, Dames de l’Instruction Chrétienne (“Women of Christian Instruction”). The second name described their activity, the education of girls and young women in schools, first in Amiens, then Grenoble and later Poitiers. Barat was elected superior in 1806.

From then on the network of schools grew exponentially throughout Europe, America and elsewhere. Barat dreamed of educating all children regardless of their parents’ financial means, but the schools rapidly became elite institutions and the intellectually superior nuns became known as the female Jesuits. She aimed to see that for every new elite school established, a corresponding “free” school was opened for poorer children, but this aim does not seem to have been accomplished.

As of 2015 about 2,600 religious serve in 41 countries around the world. Barat was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.

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