The Jesuits and devotion to the Sacred Heart have a long history together. Ever since Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) at Paray-le-Monial under the aspect of the Sacred Heart and directed her to consult His “perfect friend” (St. Claude la Colombière, SJ) regarding her visions, the Society of Jesus has been directly involved in promoting devotion to the heart of Christ. The Society continues to spread the devotion today, both by supporting works dedicated chiefly to this end, such as the Apostleship of Prayer, and by making devotion to the heart of Christ a “depth dimension” of its various ministries.
Jesuit devotion to the Sacred Heart, however, did not actually begin with St. Margaret Mary. In fact, the devotion had already achieved a quasi-public status among the faithful by the middle of the 16th Century, complete with specially formulated prayers and a battery of pious practices. Jesuit ascetical writers and mystics, such as Fr. Alvarez de Paz, St. Francis Borgia, St. Peter Canisius, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. Alphonsus Rodriguez were practicing and promoting this form of the devotion decades before Christ prescribed to St. Margaret Mary its official form (i.e., celebrating the Solemnity on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi, observing the monthly First Friday devotion, hoping in the twelve promises, etc.). This is hardly surprising. It’s hard to see how a devotion to the divine-human love of Christ could not appeal to an order dedicated to the “salvation of souls” and accustomed to contemplating the Incarnation after the method of the Spiritual Exercises.
Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, general of the Society of Jesus from 1965-1983, understood the inner harmony between the Ignatian charism and devotion to the Sacred Heart. The two had practically “grown up” together. He also recognized that devotion to the heart of Christ, like so many of the Church’s devotions, was endangered. At some point it began to seem saccharine (the devotion is the veiled referent of the phrase “bleeding heart”), individualistic, magical and, as a result, provoked “emotional and allergic reactions in some.”
In response, Arrupe made prudent efforts to “retrieve” the Sacred Heart for his contemporaries both inside and outside the Society of Jesus, pointing to its rich doctrinal roots and its inner harmony with the mysticism of the Exercises. In the final appeal of his last address to the Society of Jesus, “Rooted and Grounded in Love” (1981), he commended it specially to Jesuits as both a source of spiritual renewal and as an index spiritual health. He would no doubt say the same to any devout Catholic. As my own contribution to promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart, I’ll leave you with Arrupe’s concluding thoughts from the same address.
From my noviceship on, I have always been convinced that in the so-called “Devotion to the Sacred Heart” there is summed up a symbolic expression of the very core of the Ignatian spirit and an extraordinary power—“ultra quam speraverint”—both for personal perfection and for apostolic fruitfulness. This conviction is still mine today. I have said relatively little on this topic. There was a reason for it, which we might call pastoral. In recent decades the very phrase “the Sacred Heart” has not failed to provoke emotion and allergic reactions in some, partly perhaps as a reaction to the forms of presentation and terminology linked with tastes of a bygone age. So I thought it advisable to let some time go by, in the certainty that that attitude, more emotional than rational, would gradually change…
At the same time, I did not wish to draw the pall of silence over my deep conviction that all of us, as the Society of Jesus, should reflect and discern before Christ crucified what this devotion has meant for the Society, and what it should mean even today. In today’s circumstances, the world offers us challenges and opportunities that can be fully met only with the power of this love of the Heart of Christ…
If you want my advice, I would say to you, after fifty-three years of living in the Society and almost sixteen of being its General, that there is a tremendous power latent in this devotion to the heart of Christ. Each of us should discover it for himself—if he has not already done so—and then, entering deeply into it, apply to his personal life in whatever way the Lord may suggest and grant. There is here an extraordinary grace that God offers us.
The Society needs the power (dynamis) contained in this symbol and in the reality that it proclaims: the love of the Heart of Christ. Perhaps what we need is an act of ecclesial humility, to accept what the Supreme Pontiffs, the General Congregations, and the Generals of the Society have incessantly repeated. And yet, I am convinced that there could be few proofs of the spiritual renewal of the Society so clear as a widespread and vigorous devotion to the Heart of Jesus. Our apostolate would receive new strength and we would see its effects very soon, both in our personal lives and in our apostolic activities.