James Martin, S.J.June 10, 2010

Tomorrow we mark the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.   Permit me a meditation on the Sacred Heart and, believe it or not, the way that this traditional devotion, often derided as outmoded and old-fashioned, can help the Catholic church address some of the factors behind the sexual abuse crisis.

In the late 1600s in Paray-le-Monial, France, Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation sister, began receiving visions of Jesus.   In a series of mystical experiences, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, showing her his “Sacred Heart.”  Unfortunately, Margaret Mary had a tough time getting anyone in her convent take her 0r her intimations in prayer seriously.  (This if often the lot of the saints in religious orders: no one believes them.)  Close to despair, Margaret Mary heard Jesus in prayer tell her that he would send his "faithful servant and perfect friend."  A short time afterwards, Fr. Claude la Colombière, a French Jesuit on his "tertianship" assignment (the last stage of formal Jesuit training) showed up at her convent to be a spiritual director to the sisters.   To the young Jesuit she confided her astonishing experiences in prayer, which Fr. Claude concluded were authentic. 

An aside: being the "faithful servant and perfect friend" of Jesus is not a bad way of expressing the goal of every Christian life.  (Perfect Friendis also the title of a now hard-to-find biography of St. Claude by Georges Guitton, first published in 1956, which made a huge impression on me as a Jesuit novice.)

Since then, devotion to the Sacred Heart has been part of the mission and spirituality of the Society of Jesus.  But lately the devotion has been viewed by many in as "outmoded" in the post-Vatican II Catholic world.  Too many kitschy paintings of the Sacred Heart (see above), too many statues where Jesus has a dopey look on his face, seemed to have doomed this devotion to spiritual obscurity and religious irrelevance.  But we neglect it at our peril: It is a powerful symbol of the Love of God that needs to be recovered in a world filled with hatred and bitterness.  And it can help us as we address a church riven by the scandal of sexual abuse.  More about that later.

Let me share two favorite meditations on the Sacred Heart.  The first is an essay from the magazine (later collected in a book on devotions called Awake My Soul) by Christopher Ruddy, a theologian who teaches at Catholic University.   Here's my favorite part:

I did not grow up with any devotion to the Sacred Heart, and it is only in the last few years, as I have struggled with vocation and the demands of family life, that the practice has spoken to my own heart: the fearful heart that paralyzes me when I think of the future, rendering me unable to open myself in trust to God; the cramped heart that refuses to admit my wife and infant son, but clings to my own prerogatives, choosing to watch Peter out of the corner of my eye as I read the morning newspaper rather than get on the floor and play with him; the oblivious heart that holds forth at dinner on the recording history of The Beatles’s Abbey Road, but forgets to ask Deborah how her class went that afternoon. At times like these I wonder, have I really let into my life those I love so much? Have I gone out to them? Are they part of my flesh or merely fellow travelers?

On a particularly difficult afternoon last summer, I took Peter for a walk. We wound up at a church in our neighborhood, and, almost unable to bear the despair and self-loathing that was consuming me, I went in to pray. I lit a candle before Mary for my wife and one for myself before Joseph. Almost accidentally I stopped in front of a wood-carving of the Sacred Heart. Caught somewhere between rage and tears, I looked up at the heart and, for the first time, saw beyond the barbed-wire crown of thorns encircling it, into its gentleness. A prayer rose up in me, “Jesus, give me a bigger heart.” I looked at Peter in shame and in hope, and I went out into the day.

I remain irritable and irritating. I continue to struggle with a stoniness that shuts out so many. I know ever more clearly my deep sinfulness. But in continuing to pray to the Sacred Heart, I have also come to know God’s still deeper mercy. I am strengthened by a heart pierced but unvanquished. I am welcomed by a heart that knows only tenderness and so makes me tender. I look on that pulsing, fleshy heart: courageous and vulnerable, compact and capacious, never one without the other."

The second is from Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the former superior general of the Society of Jesus, from a beautiful talk on the Sacred Heart in 1981:

In recent years the very expression ‘Sacred Heart’ has constantly aroused, from some quarters, emotional, almost allergic reactions, perhaps in part as a reaction against certain means of presentation and terminologies more suited to the tastes of an earlier time. Therefore it seemed to me to be advisable to allow a little time to pass, in the certainty that this attitude, which is emotional rather than rational, should die down somewhat.

I have always entertained the conviction that the high value of this profound spirituality would not be long in reestablishing itself in the esteem of all. For it is spirituality which successive Roman Pontiffs have classed as ‘a supreme spirituality’. It is, moreover one which makes use of a biblical symbol, the heart, which itself is a ‘source word’ (Urwort).

For this reason, and very much in spite of myself, I have spoken and written relatively little about this theme, although I have often dealt with in more personal conversations, and in this devotion I myself possess one of the deepest sources of vitality for my interior life.

I think that the image of the heart of Jesus has a great deal to teach Christians, Catholics and the Catholic church today.  Especially today--in light of the sexual abuse crisis.   To that end, a story.

The other day, I was speaking with a Jesuit in my community about the idea of Jesus as a joyful person (part of a new book I’m working on).  And he said spontaneously, “Oh he must have been!”  I was surprised by his confidence in this. “Why would you think so?” I asked. 

“Because children wanted to be around him,” he said. “To me that indicates that he was a joyful and gentle person.  Children don’t want to be with someone who is an ogre.” 

Good point.  Not surprisingly—since my friend mentioned children--I was put in mind of the sex abuse crisis.   And I started to think about what the Sacred Heart can teach us.

In 2003, soon after the scandals broke in the United States, I participated in a panel discussion, at a large teaching hospital in New York City, on the topic of sexual abuse in the church.  The audience was mainly health-care professionals, clergy and several victims of abuse.  The panel included several psychologists and psychiatrists.   After I gave my talk on what I saw as the causes of the abuse, a psychiatrist outlined the two main characteristics of abusers.   (The proceedings were later gathered into a book edited by Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea and Virginia Goldner.)  It was an illuminating presentation that I’ve never forgotten.   The two characteristics were: narcissism and grandiosity.

The narcissist, said the psychiatrist, does not care how uncomfortable he makes a child—or anyone for that matter—even if a child expresses or indicates discomfort.  That is, an emotionally healthy person would know when another person is feeling uncomfortable.  The narcissist does not, and so he persists in his abusive behavior.  And, after the abuse is revealed, or the abuser is convicted of a crime, the narcissist personality mainly feels sorry for himself (or herself).  Because, as the saying goes, it is all about him. 

The abuser with grandiose feelings, the psychiatrist explained, is the “Pied Piper,” the larger-than-life personality, the frequent Lone Ranger, who figures into so many abuse narratives.   The person who attracts children into his orbit through the sheer force of his personality.  The person in whom parents mistakenly place their trust because of his “gifts” with children.   The person whom bishops and religious superiors give a wide berth, or even give a pass, because of his “unique” ministry.  

Both of these characteristics—narcissism and grandiosity-- are devastating for anyone in ministry.   Yet they are the hallmarks, said the psychiatrist, of the abuser.  

How much the Sacred Heart has to teach us still--especially today.  For narcissism and grandiosity are the opposite of the way that Jesus loved.  He did not love to serve himself, nor did he love to be seen as “more than” others.  Indeed, he “emptied himself” as St. Paul said.  And though Jesus naturally attracted people to himself, it was never to fulfill his own needs for grandiose plans: indeed, he rejected all of those plans in the desert.  The Sacred Heart is not narcissistic and grandiose, but selfless and humble.  The Sacred Heart is the model for the hearts of all in Christian ministry,and  for all who wish to be his “faithful servant and perfect friend.” 

May all of us and our church, with God’s grace, be freed from narcissism and grandiosity.   And may the Sacred Heart, this “profound spirituality” of the “courageous and vulnerable” love of Jesus, be our goal as we move ahead in our broken church.

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William deHaas
11 years 4 months ago
The psychiatrist nailed it.  Now, transfer these two unhealthy personality traits to the clerical culture.  What does Rome and the clerical culture reinforce, demand, and instill via the seminary educational process?  In fact, would suggest that a healthy and happy priest has to struggle daily against the prevailing clericalism.  A healthy priest is basically counter-cultural vs. the Vatican.
How may bishops can you name who do not have one or both of these traits?  Same comments as above....do you see bishops standing by the gospel message or fighting to show how loyal they can be?  When was the last time you saw children trying to gather around a bishop?
Sad situation only made more difficult because most priests remain silent and thus complicit in the face of the clerical, naracissitic, and gradiose colleague or superior.  Lone Ranger - you make no connection or comment that with celibacy in the Latin Rite, priests are forced to take assignments that leave them alone or becoming circuit riders in rural dioceses - again, struggling against the prevailing culture.
Molly Roach
11 years 4 months ago
There are terrible deficits in our church's leadership right now, from the harm done by those who abuse, and by the bishops who facilitated them.  Multiply that by the silence of good priests.  It's going to take an act of God to set this all right because there is no cause for hope on the human horizon at present.
ed gleason
11 years 4 months ago
Our culture seems to foster/reward Narcissism and grandiosity not only in clerical quarters as you point out but also in so many of the leading professions. Say hello to the many narcissistic and /or grandiose politicians and corporate/financial types that surfaced in the last decade or so. I like your point that the sociopath's peers and supervisors get out of their way because they have the 'power' that is admired and 'needed' in these professions.. You are  right again that this humble devotion is out of favor, most likely with other humble praxis too. . maybe because our entire culture is so narcissistic/grandiose its no wonder that we sneer at such  spiritualities. Maybe the decline/disappearence of devotions can be attributed to the culture rather than the usual suspect =  Vatican II. If an entire culture can be infected with the virus of  narsissism/grandiosity we definitely have caught it.
Kate Smith
11 years 4 months ago
Jim, I didn't read the whole thing yet, cuz I'm sitting outside a library in my car and like to save things like this for reading at my cabin later.
But I had to say something while I have the chance (no internet at my very very rural place).  You said Mary Margaret had visions of Jesus and had a hard time gettng anyone in her convent to take her seriously (before a Jesuit spiritual guide showed up).
I have visions of Jesus too, and it never occurred to me that I had to have someone take me seriously (or that other people don't have visions too!).   The Jesus that shows up in my life acts like he and I share an inside joke.  He has a big smile on his face, like we've been laughing together.   He offended me very much at first, since not much seemed funny.  Then I remembered my buddies at SNAP conferences, and how much we laugh.    I still remember the day it dawned on me I can laugh with Jesus because he went through hell too.
You'd might think - or I might think - that I'd lose Jesus because I was sexually assaulted by a Jesuit (Society of Jesus), but it did not turn out that way.   I lost churches and liturgies and rituals, but I have a good friend to laugh with about the crazy world and the nutty church.
Carolyn Disco
11 years 4 months ago
An important reflection, Fr. Martin, on the Sacred Heart versus the narcissism and grandiosity of abusers. I suggest the same narcissism and grandiosity are the hallmark of complicit bishops, as Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea emphasizes in her writings.
I am struck at a report in an Irish newspaper about Rome’s instructions to the Commission of cardinals and others sent to investigate the scandal’s record there:

“The nine-member team led by two cardinals will be instructed by the Vatican to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for their priests, the Irish Independent has learned.

A major thrust of the Vatican investigation will be to counteract materialistic and secularist attitudes, which Pope Benedict believes have led many Irish Catholics to ignore church disciplines and become lax in following devotional practices such as going on pilgrimages and doing penance.”

Talk about narcissism and grandiosity! So, the investigation is focusing on the restoration for reverence for the priest, and the following of devotional practices, by the LAITY? Those are just the sort of attitudes of lay deference and passivity that fostered the immunity of clergy from suspicion.
It took Benedict how long to even hint that the sin lay within the church, meaning the hierarchy, versus the media, or whatever else might excuse the criminal bishops from culpability for endangering children?
This is grotesque. Telling, that Benedict is closing the Year of the Priest instead of the Year for Survivors. I am at a loss how to penetrate the narcissism and grandiosity of clerical culture, but I keep trying.
Claire Mathieu
11 years 4 months ago
Here is what Pope Benedict told the bishops of Ireland:"Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal."

I am waiting to hear signs of self-examination (Bp. Moriarty showed some), and to view complete honesty and transparency, leading to decisive action. Pope Benedict wrote those words, and I'm hanging onto them. My hope rests on that.
11 years 4 months ago
Growing up not Catholic, I'd seen pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus but I didn't learn of Margaret Mary's vision  until I saw an episode of the X-Files  :)  In that episode,  two characters are discussing a painting of Margaret Mary (My Divine Heart).  That made me look up it up and I came across a poem by Claude de la Colombière SJ, adapted by John Veltri SJ ...
Act Of Hope And Confidence In GodMy God, I believe most firmlythat you watch over all who hope in you,and that we can want for nothingwhen we rely upon you in all things.Therefore I am resolved for the future ... to cast all my cares upon youPeople may deprive me of possessions and status.Sickness may take my strength from me. I may even jeopardize ourrelationship by sin; but my trust shall never leave me.I will preserve it to the last moment of my life,and the powers of hell shall seek in vain to grab it from me.Let others seek happiness in their wealth and in their talents.Let them trust in the purity of their lives,in the number of their activities, in the intensity of their prayer;as for me, my confidence in you fills me with hope.You are my divine protector. In you alone do I hope.I am assured, therefore, of my eternal happiness,for I firmly hope in it and all my hope is in you."In you, O Loving God, have I hoped: let me never be confounded."I know too well that I am weak and changeable.I know the power of temptation against the strongest virtue.I have seen stars fall and foundations of my world crack.These things do not alarm me.While I hope in you, I am sheltered from all misfortune,and I am sure that my trust shall endure,for I rely upon you to sustain this unfailing hope.Finally, I know that my confidence cannot exceed your generosity,and that I shall never receive less than I have hoped for from you.Therefore I hope that you will sustain me against the waysin which I deceive myself.I hope that you will protect me against the deceitful attacksof the evil one. I hope you will cause my weaknessto triumph over every hostile force.I hope that you will never cease to love meand that I shall love you unceasingly."In you, O God, I have hoped, let me never be confounded."
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
11 years 4 months ago
This is quite wonderful and I am going to share it with a few of my friends. I feel like I have "closeted" some of my own feelings and devotion to the Sacred Heart and it is freeing to read this.
As is the case with so much of faith - and love - there are things that cannot be explained and my now outed Sacred Heart devotion is one of them.
It is easy to make mockery of devotions - I am guilty of this myself - but to either be suspicious and making them to gain favor or to disdain them entirely serves no one and does not serve God.
How you connect this to the crisis is very healing and hopeful. We could all use a bit more of both healing and hope, couldn't we?
In closing I will add this... At my very not devotional looking (think car dealership circa 1975) parish, we recently acquired a large marble statue of  Sacred Heart Jesus from a church that was closing. So many kids look at it in wonder and curiosity. It makes me think of how many images made their way into my own Catholic heart and imagination as a kid. No matter what age this comes into our lives, it can be a real gift.
austin fleming
11 years 4 months ago
For many, devotions are of a piety whose time has passed - especially when the artwork associated with them is kitschy.  Leading up to the feast of the Sacred Heart I wrote and posted a novena on my blog based on more contemporary imagery of Jesus' heart. Searching the internet for good Sacred Heart art, I found it a stretch to come up with nine images, one for each day.  And do you remember holy cards?  I loved those when I was younger and when I find holy cards today with good art and solid prayer texts, I'll buy a thousand and put them at the church doors.  You don't even have to announce that they're there!  They disappear quickly, taken by folks young and old. 

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