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A moveable feast: the Sacred Heart

30 November, 1999

Janice writes to ask: Why does the Feast of the Sacred Heart fall in May this year? I thought that June was the month of the Sacred Heart and that May was the month dedicated to Our Lady. Fr Bernard McGuckian SJ replys to Janice’s query and explains the history behind such feasts.

As you are probably already aware 2008 is bringing a lot of ‘liturgical’ surprises. This year, the Mass of St. Patrick was celebrated on 15 March because the traditional date, 17 March, coincided with the Monday of Holy Week. This is a very rare occurrence but even a feast that looms as large as that of St. Patrick’s for the Irish has to give precedence to one of the days of the great Holy Week. This complication arises because the dates of this and other important feasts such as the Ascension and Pentecost are all linked to Easter which fell so early this year.

This applies to the Feast of the Sacred Heart too. It came into existence as a result of an express request of Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque way back in 1673 in the small French town of Paray le Monial. He asked that a feast in honour of His Sacred Heart be established and celebrated on the Friday ending the Octave (eight days) of Corpus Christi. This year that day happens to fall on 30 May.

Still, you are perfectly right in thinking that June is the Month of the Sacred Heart. June was chosen for this purpose because nine times out of ten the Feast is celebrated in June but there are exceptional years when it is celebrated in the last couple of days of May or the early days of July. This is one of those rare years.

June was first designated the Month of the Sacred Heart by the Archbishop of Paris, Hyacinth de Quelen in the middle of the 19th century on the suggestion of a precocious secondary school girl, Angele de Sainte Croix. The month of May had already been dedicated to Mary many centuries earlier but Angele thought that there should also be one dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The Archbishop agreed and the idea, first mooted in a girls’ boarding school in Paris, was subsequently taken up all over the world.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart was asked for by Our Lord Himself and for a very specific reason. His words to St. Margaret Mary come down to us like an extraordinary cry from an all-too-human heart, broken by the callousness of those he thought were his friends.

Some years later in her autobiography, the saint described what happened : ‘Showing me His Divine Heart, He said, Behold this Heart which has so loved men and women that It has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself to prove to them its love. In return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude, contempt, irreverence, sacrilege and coldness in this Sacrament of My love. But what I feel still more is that there are hearts consecrated to Me who use me thus.

Therefore I ask of you that the Friday after the Octave of the Blessed Sacrament be kept as a special Festival in honour of My Heart, to make reparation for the indignities offered to It and as a Communion day, in order to atone for the unworthy treatment It has received when exposed upon the altars. I also promise that my Heart shall shed in abundance the influence of Its Divine love on all those who shall honour It or cause It to be honoured’.

What was requested by Our Lord was not an act of reparation for sins in general. It was offences against the Eucharist that were in question. But what the Lord seems to have found most hurtful was that hearts consecrated to Him could be so callous. Perhaps the people He had most in mind on that occasion were tepid members of the clergy and religious orders but we should not forget that those baptized are all consecrated men and women.

There is a close link between the Feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart. Both came into existence as the result of private revelations to young women, although several centuries apart.

In the 13th century a young nun Juliana of Liege was asked to have a new feast in honour of the Blessed Sacrament introduced to the liturgical year. This only became a reality in 1264, some years after her death. In the 17th century another young nun, Margaret Mary was asked to do something similar for the Sacred Heart. This Feast was only introduced for the universal Church in the 1856, nearly two hundred years after her death.

The Feast of the Sacred Heart and indeed the whole month of June provide us with an opportunity to make up for the shortcomings in our devotion to the Body of Christ. Even before these Feasts were established, inspired people saw the connection between them. St. Albert the Great (1200-1280) who actually lived to see the Feast of Corpus Christi established, marvelled at how the institution of the Eucharist was a source of joy to the Sacred Heart: ‘His heart overflowed with love and joy at being completely one with us and filling our hearts with joy and jubilation.’

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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