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Reflections on the Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart.

What do you think of when you hear those two words? For me, they most clearly bring to mind Sacred Heart Academy, the K-12 school in Mount Pleasant, Michigan that changed my life for the better by bringing me to the Catholic faith I now call my own. But they also bring other things to mind: our Basilica, for instance, that bears the Sacred Heart as its namesake, or even Timothy R. Smith’s Mass of the Sacred Heart, composed to fill the liturgical music void caused by 2011’s revised English translation of the Roman Missal. 

I have previously written about my conversion to Catholicism in the seventh grade, but in that column I never really wrote about what led to my conversion. When people hear that I grew up reading a Protestant Bible, with a non-denominational Protestant conception of Christianity, they often make certain assumptions about what aspects of our Catholic faith were the biggest stumbling blocks along my way. Most of the time, these assumptions are made in good faith as generalizations of other, more public conversion stories. The book “Rome Sweet Home”, for instance, relays an absolute blessing of a modern Protestant-to-Catholic conversion story. But I find myself not relating to many of the flashpoints Dr. Scott Hahn and Kimberly Hahn raise in that book. 

For a key example, take our relationship with the saints. In my religion classes, we learned about the distinction between God, who we worship, Mary, who we venerate and the saints, of whom we ask for intercession as those who have the ear of God. Nothing about this was objectionable theology to my young not-yet-Catholic ears. Then, on reading “Rome Sweet Home” when our parish gave all its parishioners that book as a Christmas present not long after my own conversion in 2012, I got the sense that many a more well-educated non-Catholic theologian than I ever had been in my own pre-conversion childhood may be operating under a misperception of how the Catholic Church views her saints.

After all, we don’t pray to saints. We ask the saints to pray for us on our behalf to our Heavenly Father, the same way that we ask our friends to do the same. And it truly is the same way, because in our Apostles’ Creed, we confess a belief in the communion of saints, by which we mean that the church militant (those on earth), the church suffering (those in purgatory) and the church triumphant (the saints in perfect union with God in Heaven) are in communion with one another. The saints in Heaven can intercede for those in purgatory and those of us on earth, and we on earth can intercede for those in purgatory. 

But if I had a nickel for every time that I have heard a Catholic friend of mine say that they’re going to pray “to” St. Anthony to help them find a lost thing, pray “to” St. Joseph of Cupertino regarding an exam they haven’t studied for as much as they’d like or pray “to” St. Blaise because their voice gave out after a legendary weekend where Notre Dame’s victory over Clemson led to much rejoicing, I would have far more than two nickels, and that’s the crux of the matter: what the Church actually believes and what her faithful actually practice are too often entirely different things.

This is not news to anyone who’s followed the ever-present issue of bad catechesis surrounding the issue of transubstantiation. A 2019 update of the Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Catholics on their beliefs regarding transubstantiation and the Eucharist was exceptionally telling, because it asked both about what people actually believe and about what people think the Church teaches on the issue. All of its findings are surprising and insightful, but here are a few examples.

First, while 31% of Catholics believe in transubstantiation, 2% of Catholics think the Church teaches that the Eucharistic bread and wine are mere symbols but believe in transubstantiation anyway. Second, 69% of Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the Eucharist, but only 22% of Catholics believe that the Eucharistic bread and wine are mere symbols while understanding that the Church teaches differently on the issue. Third, and finally, a whopping 43% of Catholics do not believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, not because they know Church teaching and are in disagreement with it but because they think the Church teaches something she doesn’t. My guess is that these numbers would be similar for a poll asking about Church teaching regarding the saints.

But this seeming diametrical opposition between official Church teaching on one hand and the private beliefs and practices of the faithful on the other is not the whole story. It’s already convoluted to note that there’s about a 2-to-1 split between Catholics who don’t know what the Church teaches and Catholics who don’t care what the Church teaches on the Eucharistic issue, but the Eucharist, or the saints, are matters on which the Church has authoritative Magisterial teaching that we are called as Catholics to accept as a matter of faith. What about the places where our private understanding of the faith concords with Church teaching, but in a diversity of ways?

I opened this column with two words: “Sacred Heart.” And the various Sacred Heart name-drops I mentioned have little to do with each other besides pointing outside of themselves to three simple metaphysical realities. First, Jesus was a man, who “loved us all with a human heart” (CCC 478). Second, Jesus was divine, therefore said heart is sacred. And third, accordingly, it is a good Catholic spiritual practice to give devotion to the Sacred Heart. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church does briefly discuss the Sacred Heart in paragraph 478, it does so mainly in definitional terms, describing the Sacred Heart as “the chief sign and symbol of that . . . love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings without exception” (internal quotations omitted).

The message we are to take from Church doctrine on the Sacred Heart, however, is clear: Jesus loves us, each of us, more than we could imagine, and understanding the significance of His Passion is something that asks more of us than both knowing and accepting the teachings of the Church. Instead, we’re asked to go further, to develop and embrace a personal relationship with Jesus, with particular regard for His Sacred Heart. This relationship will look different from person to person, but that’s not just to be expected but to be embraced. Each of us is not just told in John’s Gospel that “God so loved the world” (3:16), but also in Galatians that “the Son of God . . . has loved me and given himself up for me” (2:20, emphasis mine). So the relationship each of us has to Christ’s Sacred Heart is innately personal, something not to be learned from spiritual reading or a good theology class but instead cultivated through prayer and through welcoming Christ into our daily walk of life.

As I began embracing the faith 10 years ago, I found myself drawn to the doctrinal clarity the Church provides on things like the sacraments, moral philosophy, the dignity of every human life, the sanctity of marriage and the need for guiding authority in our lives. But the roots of my conversion, roots I have so often lost while considering the minutiae of our faith, are in the Sacred Heart. So let’s commit ourselves to commemorating Jesus’s Sacred Heart as the source of God’s love for us, that we might in turn grow in our love of God and one another.

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn’t serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he’s sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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