For our grandparents, devotion to the Sacred Heart was a keystone of Catholic prayer. Everyone tried to make the “nine First Fridays” at least once in order to be assured of the spectacular promises Jesus had made through St Margaret Mary Alocoque (peace in the home, comfort in afflictions, and especially the grace of “final penitence”: the guarantee of a good death).
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has not been at the forefront of Catholic life for the past fifty or so years, but it is beginning to make a return in the light of the devotion to the Divine Mercy with which it has so much in common. Like the Divine Mercy, devotion to the Sacred Heart has a strong biblical foundation. The theme of God's heart, a heart overflowing the tenderness and mercy, runs through the Scriptures from the early books of the Old Testament through the Prophets and on to the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John.
Great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and some of the medieval Church's greatest saints and mystics wrote about the pierced Heart of Jesus, but popular devotion to the Sacred Heart as our grandparents knew it is especially linked with St Margaret Mary. Beginning in 1673, this French nun experienced a series of visits with the Risen Jesus in which he progressively made known his desire to be approached with trust and even a kind of compassion. “Behold this Heart,” he said, pointing to his chest, where his heart appeared as a fiery furnace, “this Heart which has so greatly loved human beings and has received so little love in return!” He promised blessings (the “Promises of the Sacred Heart”), specifying particular grace for those who would participate in Mass and receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of the month for nine consecutive months.
What the Sacred Heart of Jesus was proposing seemed drastically out of tune with the cultivated sensibilities of the elite members of the Church. In St Margaret Mary's time, and even toward the 20th century, Catholics (especially those influenced by the rigorist Jansenist heresy), although attending Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days, rarely received Communion and even then only with the approval of their confessor. Jesus was saying he wanted more of a relationship with his people, one that would transform their lives through intimate communion with him.
But wait, there's more! Nine months is a very significant timeframe for human beings. And Jesus had plainly told his disciples that anyone who did the will of God was his “brother and sister and mother” (see Mk 3:35). Might Jesus be asking each of us, in effect, “Will you let me be formed in you, born of you to live in the world in a new incarnation?” St Paul did not hesitate to use such imagery with the Galatians (see Gal 4:19), saying that they put him “back in labor pains until Christ is formed in you.”
The nine “First Fridays” are not a pious trick, an automatic process, or a machine for dispensing healing grace. Instead, they foster a relationship with Jesus that grows bit by bit as we come to him on a not-so-random workday, giving him a bit more of our precious time and attention. The nine First Fridays can form us in an abiding disposition, a readiness or alertness to make use of everything to turn more fully (more full-faced, if you will) toward God; an ongoing availability for conversion.
Conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, our premises, choices, perspectives, interpretations, and criteria of value or of esteem begin to shift. Our life itself can impart a new Christian “flavor,” a new “imprint” as Blessed James Alberione put it, to society. The nine First Fridays can be seen as a secret for both sanctification and evangelization. Communion with the Sacred Heart makes us “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (see Mt 5:13-14): but it is his flavor; his light that expands around us, not ours.
The first and greatest commandment, we are told, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength” (see Mk 12:30). Jesus always gives his “all” to us. The challenge for us is to come to him with our whole self: mind, will, and heart. The nine First Fridays are meant to bring that about.
Sister Anne (@nunblogger) is guiding the members of the MY SISTERS online faith community through a retreat of nine First Fridays that began this March. “Heart to Heart: Spiritual Growth through the Nine First Fridays” consists of a spiritual conference the evening before and a streamed Hour of Eucharistic Adoration with the Daughters of St Paul on the First Friday. (Retreat videos and prayer handouts are archived for those who cannot participate in real time, or who would like to reuse the material.) To learn more about MY SISTERS, visit pauline.org/mysisters