Historically in Catholic devotional life, the month of June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the First Friday of June observed as the proper feast day of the Sacred Heart. This year, the feast falls on June 3.
The Sacred Heart devotion was formalized in the seventeenth century, through apparitions of Jesus Christ to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque, a simple Visitation nun in Paray-le-Monial, France.
As the Church enters the month of June during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, influenced by the Divine Mercy devotion from Poland, some questions come to mind: Is there a shared message between the Sacred Heart devotion given to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque in the seventeenth century, and the Divine Mercy devotion given to St. Faustina in the twentieth century?
Even as one looks at the two images of the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy, he is overwhelmed by the similarity of the two images and could ask: Does this similarity of images reflect a similarity of messages?
Perhaps the historical contexts of both devotions could provide an answer.
It is reported that the Sacred Heart of Jesus first appeared to St. Margaret Mary in 1673. The nun was known to be of modest intellect and clumsy in her duties. Nevertheless, while she was at prayer, Jesus spoke to her and showed her his heart and gave her a message over a span of eighteen months.
The message of the Sacred Heart emphasized the immensity of God’s love and compassion for all people. It echoed the biblical call of Jesus for sinful and hurt humanity to turn to him for mercy, healing, and restoration.
The message of the Sacred Heart could not have been more timely, because it came at a time when the Church was in deep battle with the false teaching of Jansenism. That movement held many spiritually dangerous beliefs, among them was a radical pessimism about human nature, a belief that most people would be damned and only a few saved, and a rigorous observance of rules which involved a severe limitation of mercy and kindness.
Jansenism threatened to empty the soul of the Church of her spiritual richness and joy.
Given to and by a simple nun, the Sacred Heart message dismantled Jansenism and reminded humanity of its dignity and inheritance as the children of God. The Sacred Heart message of God’s burning heart of love eclipsed and replaced the false Jansenistic image of God’s fiery wrath and vengeance.
Fast forward almost three hundred years to another simple nun, to whom God reveals his love and mercy. St. Faustina was a meek Polish sister to whom Jesus appeared in 1931 and showed himself as the Divine Mercy.
In terms of the historical context of this Divine Mercy message, Pope St. John Paul II provided his own observations.
In his homily at Faustina’s Canonization Mass in the year 2000, the saintly pontiff preached: “By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century… it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted his message of mercy to her.”
“Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people,” John Paul said, “know well how necessary was the message of mercy.”
In the midst of the human drama that involved two massive wars of worldwide proportions, the rays of God’s mercy and grace overshadowed humanity’s rays of anger and justice. God was showing humanity another way.
In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, humanity may no longer be struggling with formal Jansenism, but it continues nonetheless to entertain a spiritual Jansenism marked by pessimism, exclusionism, and rigorism.
Humanity once again chooses dark convictions that diminish its spiritual health, which makes hope, openness, mercy, and tenderness appear abstract and impossible as solutions to “real problems.”
Pope St. John Paul II purposely waited to canonize Faustina so that she would be the first saint of the twenty-first century. He said: “Sister Faustina’s canonization has a particular eloquence: by this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium.”
“It is this love which must inspire humanity today, if it is to face the crisis of the meaning of life, the challenges of the most diverse needs and, especially, the duty to defend the dignity of every human person,” he said.
Seeing now the historical contexts of the devotions of the Sacred Heart and of the Divine Mercy, do these two devotions have one message for humanity in this Jubilee Year?
Yes, blatantly the two devotions have one message: Humanity is good and is greatly loved by God, and God generously offers mercy to all.
Furthermore, God is seeking to show humanity a better way. Alongside the reality of humanity’s fallenness and sinfulness, is the reality of fraternal compassion and mercy. Humanity was made for greater things than pessimism, exclusionism, and rigorism.
The degree to which humanity is willing to listen and to live this liberating message of mercy is the degree to which there will be peace in one’s heart, and peace in the world.
Father Jeff Kirby is a doctoral candidate at Holy Cross University in Rome.