The Imaculate Heart of Mary: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions

In the cold December half-light where I sat with my first cup of coffee, it caught my eye. I was intent on praying myself into a good attitude for a weekend of meetings, and saw outside my window one of many astounding ironies in midtown Manhattan. There, in the middle of a postage-stamp size convent garden, stood a slender statue of the Sacred Heart. The familiar Jesus of my childhood pointed to his heart and blessed the oblivious multitudes rushing down East 33rd Street like battery bunnies. It was a comforting and nostalgic sight. I recited some lines from a favorite hymn: Heart of my own heart, whatever befall... Still be my vision....

But wait a minute. What was that on his head?


It was a veil. My vision needed some tweaking.

The view was not of Jesus, but of Mary. It was not his heart, but hers, transfixed by the sword of the world’s pain and sorrows, as Simeon predicted, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk 2:35). To Jesus through Mary, I remembered. For Jesus, through her heart to ours.

Generations have found comfort in Mary’s heart as a shining mirror of Christ’s own, a tangible symbol of the compassion and mercy of God in womanly guise. Like other forms of Marian piety, devotion to Mary’s heart has undergone numerous historical variations. At different times, pious folk have been drawn to Mary’s Holy, Sacred, Most Pure and, more familiarly, Immaculate heart.

Rooted in the scriptural texts of Luke’s infancy narratives, Christian attention to the heart of Mary provides a central theme for discipleship: Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart (Lk 2:5, 19). The biblical heart (in Greek, kardia) is a word far richer than its popular association with love and human affectivity. It embraces the deeper elements of courage, insight, knowledge, deep desire and will. Throughout the Gospel the figure of Mary, as the first disciple, contemplates and treasures the mystery to which she has freely surrendered herself without fully understanding it. In Ignatian terms, Mary’s heart is the center of her experiential, felt knowledge of God in Christ, her son and savior. It describes her personality, that passionate and patient love for the one she knows by heart, as well as her constancy and faithful seeking, without seeing, along what mystics name the way of unknowing. Mary is called to bear the drama and tragedy of her own people, as she bears God’s Word in her body and in her heart. In this she becomes the prototype of the new Israel, as prophesied by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, with God’s law written on her heart, a heart of flesh and not of stone.

Patristic and medieval writings picked up on these biblical images, referring to Mary’s heart as the source of her fiat. He shed the blood of his body; she, the blood of her heart. St. Augustine reminded his community that Mary was more blessed for having borne Christ in her heart than in her flesh. The first known prayer invoking the Heart of Mary, composed in 1184 by Ekbert of Schonau, calls on all to praise the happiness of your heart, whence our salvation flowed. At the Cistercian monastery of Helfta, a center of women’s spirituality in the 13th century, interest in the devotion was promoted by its renowned visionaries, Mechtild of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great. Medieval Franciscan theologians, especially Bernardine of Siena, wrote of Mary’s heart as a furnace of divine love, stressing the affective dimensions of the symbol.

The devotion deepened in 17th-century Europe, thanks to the insights of a generation of apostles, founders and mystics, all leaders of what came to be known as the French School. A major emphasis of this spirituality was the Incarnate Word, revealed in the mysteries of self-emptying and love as symbolized in Christ’s infancy, passion and death. Mary was the perfect mirror of that Word, her heart echoing the sentiments of Christ’s own. From this time on, the two sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary would lay claim to Catholic piety for imitation, but even more, for veneration and reparation. Filling an affective vacuum created by rationalism, this approach met with great success at the level of popular piety. It also ignited violent Jansenist opposition and theological squabbles with Jesuits and others who were accused of promoting an all-too-earthy new devotion.

The most notable advance in devotion to the heart of Mary can be attributed to St. John Eudes, who composed texts for a proper Mass and office, which he hoped would be adopted by the universal church. He also founded several religious societies dedicated to promoting the devotion. Just before his death in 1681, Eudes finished a major treatise on the Admirable Heart of Mary. His dream of an approved cult and feast, however, would not be realized until 1855, when the Congregation of Rites approved private celebrations of the Most Pure Heart of Mary. And only in 1944 did Pope Pius XII extend the liturgical celebration to the universal church, assigning the feast to Aug. 22, the octave of the Assumption. With the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was transferred to a more fitting date, the Saturday following the feast of the Sacred Heart.

Many Catholics of a certain age will easily recall the importance given to the Immaculate Heart in the wake of the appearances of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. There Mary had reportedly given the three child-visionaries a mission to establish world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. Her message of prayer, penance and reparationcoming as it did in the wake of Soviet Communismbrought Mary’s heart into the global conflicts of the 20th century and into the consciousness of millions of young Catholics.

In the last cantos of his Paradiso, Dante addresses Mary as figlia del tuo Figliodaughter of your Sonand describes her face as the one that most resembles Christ’s. Such poetic images reveal the grace of a unique bond between Jesus and Mary, a sacred mutuality of likeness. It is rooted in the exquisite, profoundly physical relationship of mother and son.

As I write these lines, my niece Erin is about to give birth to her first child. She has explained to me that her heart pumps blood into the placenta that nourishes the baby in her womb. In a very real sense, Erin’s heart has becomelike every mother’sher child’s lifeline. So it was, I like to think, between Mary and Jesus. Her heart’s blood flowed into his tiny frame, feeding his body from her own, announcing the Eucharist. Her heart’s yes to God’s mystery mothered him for mission in those long years at Nazareth we now call the hidden life. She and Joseph taught him how to treasure that mystery in the Scriptures, in nature and in the events of his life. She must have encouraged Jesus to seek and follow his unique call, even if sometimes she and others he loved might not have understood what he did or said. Like all parents, Mary learned to let her child go and grow in freedom, all the way to Calvary, even if it broke her heart many times over.

I have to admit that until now I haven’t really paid much attention to Mary’s heart in my own personal prayer. Maybe that’s what God wanted me to learn through this little reflection. Noticed or forgotten, desired or resisted, bidden or unbidden, Mary’s heart is there, for all of us, and for all the ignored, unloved, unloving, wayward children she has mothered in Christ. What it was for Jesus, it is for me: a pledge and a presence of the love that never fails, whatever befall. As the reality of global violence threatens the future of our world, the pierced heart of Mary, home of the Spirit, can still be my vision, one I trust and treasure, even in the cold half-light of these ominous times.

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