By Kristen Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Each beat of the human heart keeps us alive, pumping blood through our bodies, powering our organs. Without it, we simply could not do anything. That is the physical heart. There is also the symbolic heart, the one that is connected to the idea of love. This heart is the center of our moral and emotional being. It guides us through our days, our relationships, our lives. But what of the Sacred Heart? The Feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated on June 23, 19 days after Pentecost, and is dedicated to the memory of Christ’s compassion, love, and suffering.

God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten son, and we killed Him. Born of the Virgin Mary, the latter of Jesus’ 33 years were marked with miracles, parables, and sacrifice. These actions required both His physical and symbolic heart. Monsignor Patrick Golden, pastor of Richmond’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, says, “His heart represents and recalls His infinite love for us. While His heart is flesh, His heart is also divine – the heart of God. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s infinite love for us, beyond what any human might have. The heart of Jesus never ceases to love us from heaven.”

Jesus showed how much He loved us by dying for us, taking all of our sins with Him. He was stripped, tortured, and crucified to the sounds of cheers. His mother wept while He suffered.

The Sacred Heart is a reminder of that suffering. The Heart is shown as wounded and bleeding. It is pierced in the side, as Jesus was stabbed on the cross. The Heart also has a crown of thorns, reminiscent of the crown Jesus wore while bring crucified. It is radiating light, ablaze in fire with a cross above, reminding us of the transformative power of God’s love – a love that lives on in each of our own hearts.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a long history, and has grown in popularity over the centuries. Richmond’s own Cathedral of the Sacred Heart was built at the height of this popularity in the beginning on the 20th century. The story of the Sacred Heart, however, begins several hundred years earlier.

In the 13th century, a devout and fervent nun named Gertrude was visited by Jesus. On the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, Jesus invited Gertrude to listen to His beating heart. As this story grew, so did the devotion. In the 17th century, Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque too had a vision of Jesus, where He permitted her to rest her head on His chest and hear His beating heart, also on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. Jesus told her that He had chosen her to spread the word of the wonders of His love. Jesus revealed the Sacred Heart to her, saying, “Behold the Heart that has so loved men… instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part only ingratitude.” While He gave us all love, this love was rejected.

“We make reparations for the indifference and ingratitude with which he is treated and for leaving him abandoned by humanity,” Msgr. Golden says, “The most painful issue for me is to experience the indifference of many Christians.” Jesus asked for a feast of reparation and Margaret Mary set to work. She submitted wholly, lying prostrate on the ground from eleven until midnight in an effort to feel some of the sadness Jesus felt while He was left to die on the cross. She continued to do this on the eve of the first Friday of every month and then took Holy Communion the next day. On her deathbed she refused medical help, saying, “What have I in heaven and what do I desire on earth, but Thee alone, O my God”, and died with Jesus’ name on her lips.

More than 200 years later in 1898, Jesus appeared to Sister Mary of the Divine Heart saying He wanted Pope Leo XIII to consecrate the entire world to His Sacred Heart. Sister Mary’s confessor wrote to the pope, which at first did little to sway him. Sister Mary herself then wrote a letter, stating that despite the pope’s illness, he would live until the consecration. This apparently moved the pope so much that he did consecrate the entire world, Christian and non-Christian alike, to the Sacred Heart on June 9, 1899. Sister Mary died the day before.

Asked why it is important to still honor the Sacred Heart today, Msgr. Golden says, “We only have to look at the violence that takes place in the world today, be it terrorism or in the political sphere. We must always pray for His peace, as we will never do it alone. The Sacred Heart is our reminder.” Suffering is everywhere, and it is through prayer that we may find peace.

A popular prayer to the Sacred Heart is, “O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in Thee.” This short, simple prayer requires total devotion. In return for this devotion, Jesus promises grace, peace, consolation, refuge, and more. He claims sinners shall find an “infinite ocean of mercy” and that priests will have the power to “touch the most hardened hearts.” These blessings further show the breadth of Jesus’ love for us, and how it has never diminished over time. He gave us His life and His heart. If we listen, we can hear it beating.