The Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy

In honor of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose feast we celebrate on Oct. 16, we share here a portion of the annual Dehon lecture in Spirituality, delivered by Dr. Robert Stackpole at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology Hales Corners, Wisconsin, on Sept. 29, 2021:

 … There is so much one can say about the relationship between these two great streams of spirituality in the Catholic tradition — far more than I dare try to squeeze into one lecture! So today, I will highlight just three (among the central) aspects of the spirituality of Divine Mercy, and show how they often echo, and sometimes complement, the devotion to the Heart of Jesus.

  1. Trust in God’s Merciful Love for Sinners

In the context of her meditations upon the Passion of Christ, St. Faustina wrote: “Therefore let every soul trust in the Passion of the Lord, and place its hope in His mercy” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 72). Here is the constant refrain of her spirituality: “Jesus, I trust in You.”

It is worth remembering this refrain, because sometimes Catholics have been tempted to respond to the Passion of our Lord in a different way. We can be tempted to turn upon ourselves, to utterly despise ourselves for being the cause of the miseries of our Savior. Our following of Christ might even become an endless penitential lamentation: Catholic Jansenism, one might call it. According to St. Faustina, however, that is not the principal attitude that Jesus asks from us as penitents. Of course, there are appropriate times and seasons for deep contrition, tears and penance. Moreover, our sins really were the cause of our Savior’s Passion, and of His deepest sorrows, too, and knowledge of that fact ought to lead us to lament the miserable creatures that we become, when we wander far from His grace. Nevertheless, our Lord also does not want to leave us wallowing in sackcloth and ashes. Rather, as St. Faustina tells us, what Jesus wants us to do, above all, is to trust in Him. We must have a spirit of sincere penitence, to be sure, but combined with total confidence in God’s Mercy (what theologians used to call “compunction”). In one of the meditations in her Diary titled “Conversation of the Merciful God with a Despairing Soul” (1486), she heard Jesus say:

O soul, steeped in darkness, do not despair. All is not yet lost. ... My child, all your sins have not wounded My Heart as painfully as your present lack of trust does – — that after so many efforts of My love and mercy, you should still doubt my goodness. ... You have a special claim on My Mercy. Let it act in your poor soul; let the rays of grace enter your soul; they bring with them light, warmth, and life. ... What joy fills My Heart when you return to Me. Because you are weak, I take You in My arms and carry you to the home of My Father.

In short, Jesus the Good Shepherd does not want to plunge us into endless sorrow and mourning. Above all, He wants us to trust in Him, so that He can put His lost sheep on His shoulders and bring us home rejoicing (Lk 15:5-6).

Jesus clearly taught St. Faustina that the same thirst and longing for the good of souls that He had during His ministry in Galilee, and in His agony and Passion, He still has for us as the Risen Lord. The Risen Savior still seeks us out with that same merciful, Shepherd’s love ever burning in His Heart. In fact, He told her it is His heavenly “delight” to sanctify human souls on earth, filling them with Mercy, and that this is the “kingdom” that He longs to establish: His indwelling in each and every human heart. That is why, near to the end of her life, Jesus said to Sr. Faustina (recorded in her Diary, 1784):

How very much I desire the salvation of souls! My dearest secretary, write that I want to pour out My divine life into human souls and sanctify them, if only they were willing to accept My grace. The greatest sinners would achieve great sanctity if only they would trust in My mercy. ... My delight is to act in a human soul, and to fill it with My mercy. ... My kingdom on earth is my life in the human soul.

What an incredible teaching this is! Here Jesus is telling us that we can bring Him “delight” in heaven, and even give Him the “kingdom” He so earnestly desires, if only we give Him our hearts. “What joy fills My Heart when You return to Me,” He said. “Because You are weak, I take you in my arms and carry you to the home of My Father” (1486).

If we want to live in the light of the Cross of Jesus Christ, therefore, it is not just penitential sorrow that He asks of us. What He desires above all is that we trust in Him: for the forgiveness of our sins, and for all that we truly need for our life journey. In other words, He asks us to let Him love us: to let Him transform and sanctify our hearts with all the graces of His Mercy that He merited for us on the Cross. The miracle He promises is that when we do that, we actually bring “joy” and “delight” to His Sacred Heart, and we give Him the “kingdom” He longs for most of all.

And is this not the very same message that our Lord gave to St. Gertrude the Great, Bl. Julian of Norwich, the Venerable Bernard de Hoyos (the great apostle of the Sacred Heart in Spain), St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and so many other intimate friends and confidantes of His Heart? As our Lord is reported to have said to the Servant of God Sr. Josefa Menendez:

I thirst! … I thirst for souls, and to appease this thirst I have given the last drop of my Blood … the most ardent longing of My Heart is that souls should be saved.[i]

  1. The Works of Mercy

Saint Faustina was an exceptional practitioner of the works of compassion and mercy. Jesus spoke to her about this quite strongly on several occasions (see especially Diary, entries 742 and 1317). Even as a child she used to hold raffles, and go door to door in her village to raise money for the poor of the parish. As a teenager she looked after the spiritual and temporal needs of a homeless person who lived under the stairs of her apartment building. Jesus said to her on one occasion: “My daughter, look into My Merciful Heart and reflect its compassion in your own heart and in your deeds, so that you who proclaim My mercy to the world may yourself be aflame with it” (1688).

From the pen of St. Faustina we also have been given a special prayer for the grace to exercise this apostolate of mercy. It usually goes by the name of the prayer “For the Grace to be Merciful to Others.” Here St. Faustina prays to be “transformed” into the Lord’s own mercy, so that she might ultimately became a living reflection of His Compassionate Heart. The prayer is recorded in her Diary, entry no.163; here is just an excerpt from it:

O Most Holy Trinity! As many times as I breathe, as many times as my heart beats, as many times as my blood pulsates through my body, so many thousand times do I want to glorify Your mercy. I want to be completely transformed into Your mercy and to be your living reflection, O Lord. May the greatest of all divine attributes, that of your unfathomable mercy, pass through my heart and my soul to my neighbor. … Help me, O Lord, that my heart may be merciful so that I myself may feel all the sufferings of my neighbor. I will refuse my heart to no one. … May Your mercy, O Lord, rest upon me. You yourself command me to exercise the three degrees of mercy. The first: the act of mercy, of whatever kind. The second: the word of mercy – if I cannot carry out a work of mercy, I will assist by my words. The third: prayer – if I cannot show mercy by deeds or words, I can always do so by prayer. My prayer reaches out even there where I cannot reach out physically. O my Jesus, transform me into Yourself, for you can do all things.

A most remarkable incident in Sr. Faustina’s apostolate of mercy occurred when she was serving as the porter at the main entrance of her convent (Diary, entry 1312). A poor young man, barefoot and with his clothes in tatters, came to the convent on a cold and rainy day begging for hot food. Faustina immediately went to the kitchen but found nothing there for him. After searching for some time, she succeeded in finding some soup, which she reheated and into which she crumbled some bread. After the young man ate the soup, He unveiled to her His true identity — the Lord Jesus Christ Himself — and then vanished from her sight. Later, she heard these words in her soul: “My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached My ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from My throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy.

What St. Faustina learned here is that Jesus Christ is not only an example for us to imitate of merciful love for the poor and suffering, and the source of grace that enables us to do so. In addition, our Lord is also the true and ultimate object of all our human acts of mercy. What Jesus Christ living within us enables us to do is precisely to love Jesus Christ hidden under the guise (so to speak) of our neighbors in need. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Calcutta: there are two kinds of Real Presence in the world: the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, where He is at work to fill us with His light, life, and love, and the presence of this same Lord in the poor, where He is waiting for us to give Him back His light, life, and love.

The fact is that the Merciful Heart of Jesus is tied by the most intimate bonds of compassion to the plight of each and every human being. His compassion extends especially to the poor and the suffering, the lost and the broken, simply because they are most in need of His mercy. That is why our Savior can truly say in His parable (Mt 25:35-40): “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.... Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” In commenting on this passage from the Gospels, St. John Paul II restated this same truth in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia: The Merciful God actually “invites man to have mercy on His only Son, the crucified one.” He does so by sending the Crucified Savior to knock on the door of the heart of every man, calling us to love, “which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of man, but also a kind of ‘mercy’ shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father.”[ii]

In showing compassion upon our neighbors in need, therefore, we are also consoling the compassionate Heart of Jesus. We are loving Him in the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the lost, and the lonely — for He once shared the lot of the suffering and abandoned; in the depths of His Compassionate Heart He foresaw them even from the Garden and on the Cross, long ago, and His sympathy even now embraces them from where He dwells in glory in the Heart of the Father (see Heb 4:15-16).

Over the past few decades, theologians of the Sacred Heart seem to have discovered this truth afresh. From Africa, for example, Fr. Bruno Ramazzotti has written:

Consoling the pierced Heart of Jesus means working constantly and with ardent zeal to comfort people afflicted by a multitude of spiritual and temporal evils, and to help them to enjoy more and more fully the fruits of Christ’s sufferings and death.[iii]

From Italy, Fr. Angelo Cavagna is equally emphatic:

The Spirituality of the Heart of Jesus … must activate in the Christian a sensitivity — a solidarity of merciful love towards the victims of sin and injustice today. … The purpose of devotion to the Heart of Jesus, like the Christian life (in general), is not merely to invoke “Lord! Lord! Heart of Jesus, Heart of Jesus,” but to put into practice the Reign of the Heart of Jesus in souls and in society.[iv]

Perhaps what we are seeing here is the theologians finally catching up to what many of the saints of the Heart of Jesus recognized long ago (not least among them, the man after whom this annual lecture is named: the Ven. Fr. Leon Dehon, SCJ!): that devotion to the Heart of Jesus is inseparable from an earnest desire to build up a “civilization of love,” in place of the decadent, soul-corrupting and life-destroying society humanity has fashioned for itself now. As St. John Paul II put it: “The true reparation asked by the Heart of the Savior will come when the civilization of the Heart of Christ can be built upon the ruins heaped up by hatred and violence.”[v]

In this regard, one cannot help but wonder: What would have happened — how the course of the modern world might have been completely different — if the Kings of France had not waited until the last possible moment (indeed, when it was too late, because the French Revolution was already under way and largely out of control), to follow the request our Lord had made through St. Margaret Mary, more than a century earlier, and consecrated all of France to His loving and Merciful Heart? We will never know. But we need not repeat the mistake. The Merciful Heart of Jesus is not only the font of “living water” for the sanctification of individual souls, and not only the source of grace that enables us, as individuals, to perform works of mercy: His Heart is also a veritable “ocean of mercy,” “the restorative tide” (as St. John Paul II put it) that alone can sanctify the whole world.

  1. The Veneration and Enthronement of the Sacred Images

The Lord Jesus specifically requested of St. Margaret Mary that the image of His Sacred Heart should be honored and venerated by all the faithful. In His first apparition to her (1673), for example, our Lord had said:

My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with men that it can no longer withhold the flames of that burning love; it must needs let them spread abroad by means of you, and reveal itself to men to enrich them with its profound treasures.[vi]

Then in His second apparition to her (1674), Jesus pictured His Sacred Heart for her, and made His designs more explicit. She wrote:

After that I saw this divine Heart as on a throne of flames, more brilliant than the sun and transparent as crystal. It has its adorable wound and was encircled with a crown of thorns, which signified the pricks our sins caused Him. It was surmounted by a cross ...

He made me understand that the ardent desire He had of being loved by men and of drawing them from the path of perdition into which Satan was hurrying them in great numbers, had caused Him to fix upon this plan of manifesting His Heart to men, together with all Its treasures of love, mercy, grace, sanctification and salvation ... It must be honored under the symbol of this Heart of flesh, whose image He wished to be publicly exposed. He wanted me to carry it on my person, over my heart, that He might imprint His love there, fill my heart with all the gifts with which his own is filled, and destroy all inordinate affection. Wherever this sacred image would be exposed for veneration He would pour forth His graces and blessings.[vii]

To those familiar with her writings, it will be immediately apparent that our Lord made somewhat similar promises to St. Faustina, and to those who venerate the Image of the Divine Mercy. He said to her:

Paint an image according to the pattern you see with the signature: Jesus I trust in You. ... I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over (its) enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I myself will defend it as My own glory. ... I am offering people a vessel with which they are to keep coming for graces to the fountain of mercy. That vessel is this image with the signature: Jesus I trust in You. ... I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and (then) throughout the world (Diary, 47, 48, 327).

Not only did Jesus make similar promises to those who venerate these two images, but also, the movements inspired by His Spirit to promote such veneration seem remarkably similar. For example, early in the 20th century, our Lord inspired Fr. Mateo Crawley-Boevey, a priest from Chile, to initiate the movement for the solemn enthronement of the image of the Sacred Heart in families. Pope St. Pius X, when asked for his approval of this mission, answered Fr. Mateo, “I not only approve; I command,” and called his mission the “work of social salvation.” As a result, the enthronement movement spread rapidly throughout the world. Father Mateo described it as follows in his book, Jesus, King of Love:

What is the work of enthronement? It can be defined as the official and social acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the Heart of Jesus over the Christian family, an acknowledgment made tangible and permanent by the solemn installation of the picture of the Divine Heart in a place of honor, and by an act of consecration ...

The family is the source of life, the child’s first school. If the source of national life is poisoned, the nation will perish. What we long to do is to plant faith deep in families, and love for the Sacred Heart. If Jesus Christ is in the roots, the whole tree will be Jesus Christ.[viii]

There is also a movement now for the solemn enthronement of the Image of the Divine Mercy in every home. It has its origins in Christ’s words to St. Faustina, “I am King of Mercy” (Diary, 88), and in her own poem about the Image, in which she wrote: “O sweet Jesus, it is here that You established the throne of Your mercy ... ” (Diary, 1). Although Jesus never explicitly asked her for acts of “consecration” to His Merciful Heart, it seems to be implied in the complete act of “trust” called for by the signature on the Image — “Jesus, I trust in You” — and St. John Paul II himself “entrusted” his entire Petrine ministry to the merciful Christ before the same Image in 1997. This enthronement movement has received ecclesiastical approval from several sources, and the aims of this movement are quite similar to those of the enthronement movement of the Sacred Heart:

Enthronement [of the Image of Mercy] provides a special welcome for Jesus to come into our hearts and homes to claim them for Himself. He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When the grace of God reigns in the members of a family, the presence of the Holy Spirit increases the divine life in them, immersing them in the sacraments of His mercy.[ix]

The questions naturally arise: Are these two images, and the enthronement movements they inspired in competition? Is there any need in the Church for both? Should the new image and movement simply replace the old?

The best answer would seem to be that both movements are actually enthroning the same Sacred Heart of Jesus, but that Heart seen under different aspects. These aspects are true, and complementary, and therefore there is need, and room in the life of the Church for both enthronement movements to flourish.

If we are enthroning a more traditional image of the Sacred Heart, then we are honoring Christ’s physical Heart as the best symbol of the mystery of His divine person, the “hidden center” and source of His love for our families, and for all men and women. Moreover, the traditional images of the Sacred Heart emphasize the tender, suffering, wounded nature of the love of Jesus for us; this is another reason why His Heart is shown as surmounted by a cross, pierced and crowned with thorns. The focus is on His wounded Heart of love: His burning thirst and ardent desire for our love, His call for reparation for our failure to return His love, and the image even suggests that we can console His wounded Heart by making a return of love. In short, in the traditional images of the Sacred Heart, Jesus is calling us back to Himself: calling us to love Him back, calling us to make that response of love in which our sanctification and beatitude ultimately consist, in return for all His tender, affective, and wounded love for us.

In the Image of the Divine Mercy, on the other hand, the emphasis is not so much on the movement from us to Christ, but more from Him to us. Everything about this Image speaks of the Risen Christ graciously taking the initiative, and seeking us out in the darkness with the rays of His merciful love. In this image Christ is shown walking toward the viewer, coming to find us; the rays of merciful love flowing from His Heart spread out to embrace the viewer, and His hand is raised with a blessing of peace even before we ask for it.

As Jesus once said to St. Faustina: Be not afraid of your Savior, O sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know by yourself you are unable to lift yourself to Me (Diary, 1485). Here what Christ calls us to do, above all, is simply to receive His grace trustfully: “Jesus I trust in You.” It is no wonder that the Image is such a powerful one in the new evangelization, for it is a little summary of the basic Gospel message: God’s gracious offer to us of free, unconditional, merciful love, through the Merciful Heart of Jesus Christ.

On one occasion, St. Faustina had a vision of the Heart of Jesus that confirmed for her the role of His Heart as the source of mercy (recorded in her Diary, 177):

After the renewal of vows (in the year 1932) and Holy Communion, I suddenly saw the Lord Jesus, who said to me with great kindness, ”My daughter, look at My Merciful Heart.” As I fixed my gaze on the Most Sacred Heart, the same rays of light, as are represented in the image as blood and water, came from it, and I understood how great is the Lord’s mercy.

Again, the enthronement of the Image of the Divine Mercy is also an enthronement of the Sacred Heart, but that Heart seen under a different aspect. The focus is on the merciful love that flows to us from His Heart, for in that Image, what stands out most distinctly are the red and pale rays that shine out from His breast. These rays represent the healing and sanctifying graces (especially of the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation, and the Eucharist), that flow from the Sacred Heart of Jesus toward us. This makes the Mercy Image especially suitable for the desperate needs of so many families in our time, families all too often broken and wounded by evil: by apostasy, adultery, division, and divorce; by contraception, fornication, and impurity; by shallow consumerist materialism, neglect of the poor and the elderly, and the killing of the unborn. These assaults of evil, often promoted by modern culture, are simply overwhelming many Catholic families. The rays of the Mercy Image show us the healing, sanctifying graces that our Savior is longing to pour into every human heart, if only we will receive them with repentance and trust. Jesus said to St. Faustina:

My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world ... I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain (Diary, 1485).

Whatever sacred images we may enthrone, or other Catholic devotional traditions we may choose to practice, the important thing to remember is that our Lord regards not the number or magnitude of our devotions, but the faith and love with which we undertake them. Moreover, such pious practices are means, not ends in themselves. They are meant to nurture and form in us, by the grace of God, not just devotions and “devotionalism,” but true devotion: true love for God. In other words, we are not merely to remain gazing at images of the Merciful Heart of Jesus, or reciting prayers to Him; rather, we are invited to come to know His love for us so deeply, personally, and intimately that we enter into that Heart, as into an ocean and fountain of mercy, a burning furnace of love and light.

In this, the final goal, as in so many other respects, the devotion to the Sacred Heart and the devotion to the Divine Mercy are in perfect accord. In closing we have only to quote the words of St. Faustina and Sr. Josefa to show that these two devotions recommend the same means — complete, trustful surrender to the Heart of Jesus — to reach the same end, namely: mystical union with that Heart as with a veritable “sea of mercy” and “abyss of light”:

(From St. Maria Faustina Kowalska):

Today the Lord said to me, I have opened My Heart as a living fountain of mercy. Let all souls draw life from it. Let them approach this sea of mercy with great trust. Sinners will attain justification, and the just will be confirmed in good. Whoever places his trust in My mercy will be filled with My divine peace at the hour of death. …

O my Master [Faustina wrote], I surrender myself completely to You, who are the rudder of my soul; steer it Yourself according to Your divine wishes. I enclose myself in Your most compassionate Heart, which is a sea of unfathomable mercy. (Diary, 1520 and 1450)

(Then from the Servant of God Sr. Josefa Menendez):

I was thus in converse with (Jesus), when again He made me enter the Wound of His side...

I cannot very well describe what I saw; my heart was being consumed in a great flame. I could not see the bottom of this abyss, for it is an immense space and full of light. I was so taken up with what I saw that I was not able to speak or ask anything ... I spent meditation and part of Mass in this way ... till, a little before the Elevation, my eyes, even my poor eyes ... saw my Beloved Jesus, my heart’s desire, my Lord and my God; His Heart in the midst of a great flame. I cannot say what passed; it is not possible ... Would that the whole world knew the secret of happiness. There is but one thing to do; love and abandon oneself. Jesus Himself will take charge of all the rest.[x]

[i] Menendez, The Way of Divine Love, p. 306 and 171.

[ii] Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, no. 8.

[iii] Bruno Ramazzoti, The Spirituality of the Pierced Heart of Jesus, The Good Shepherd (Nairobi: St. Paul Publications, 1992), p. 50.

[iv] Angelo Cavagna, Il Cuore di Cristo e l’apostolato sociale, in G. Manzoni, ed., La Spiritualita del Cuore di Cristo (Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane, 1990), p. 189 and 192.

[v] Pope John Paul II, address at the Monastery of The Sisters of the Visitation in Paray-le-Monial, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition October 27, 1986, p. 7.

[vi] Cited in Margaret Williams, RSCJ, The Sacred Heart in the Life of the Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1957), p. 115.

[vii] St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Letter to Fr. John Croiset, SJ, on November 3, 1689 in The Letters of St. Margaret Mary (Rockford, Ill: TAN, 1997), p. 229-230.

[viii] Cited in Williams, The Sacred Heart in the Life of the Church, p. 188-189.

[ix] Bishop Emilio S. Allué, S.D.B., and Kathleen Keefe, The Image of Mercy (Yonkers, NY: Peace Through Mercy Publishing, 1996), p. 67.

[x] Menendez, The Way of Divine Love, p. 24-25.