The Twelve Promises — and the Great Promise — of the Sacred Heart

“More Brilliant than the Sun," a weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

The series so far:
PART 1: The Plan of the Heart of Jesus to Drive Back the World's Darkness
PART 2:  What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?
PART 3:  Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and its Roots in Holy Scripture
PART 4: The Heart of the Savior in the New Testament
PART 5: 
 The Heart of Jesus Manifest in His Tender Affections and Compassionate Love
PART 6: 
 The Heart of Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross
PART 7:  From Easter Onward: The Heart of Jesus Lives in His Church
PART 8:  The Flowering of Love for the Heart of Jesus in the Middle Ages
PART 9:  Saint Gertrude the Great on Bringing Comfort and Joy to the Heavenly Christ
PART 10:  Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and Reparation to the Sacred Heart
PART 11:  On Consoling the Heart of Jesus
PART 12:  Saints and Servants of Consoling Reparation to the Heart of Jesus

PART 13: The Twelve Promises — and the Great Promise — of the Sacred Heart

Jesus promised to St. Margaret Mary over and over again that those who consecrate themselves to His loving Heart and fervently practice this devotion will be showered with graces and blessings. In 1882, an Ohio businessman named Philip Kemper collected these promises from her writings, and made a list of the principal ones, which he then printed and disseminated throughout the world (an effort that received official approbation from Pope Leo XIII in 1899). These became known as the famous “Twelve Promises” of the Sacred Heart:

  1. I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
  2. I will establish peace in their homes.
  3. I will comfort them in their afflictions.
  4. I will be their secure refuge during their life, and above all, in death.
  5. I will bestow abundant blessings on their undertakings.
  6. Sinners will find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
  7. Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
  8. Fervent souls will quickly mount to high perfection.
  9. I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
  10. I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
  11. Those who promote this devotion shall have their names written in my Heart.
  12. I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving the sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.

Some non-Catholic Christians (and even some Catholics themselves) have been scandalized by these promises, as if they were an automatic guarantee of grace and salvation as long as certain merely external acts of piety were performed. But this is to read into the text something that is not there — and to read the promises out of context, as well. Our Lord surely intended that these promises would be understood in the light of the Catholic faith as a whole (and St. Margaret Mary clearly assumed this, as well, in her letters and her autobiography).

Extraordinary promises
The Gospels make extraordinary promises of graces, blessings, and final salvation to those who place all their faith and trust in Christ (e.g. Mt 17:20-21; Jn 14:12-17). As Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once wrote (as quoted in O’Donnell, Heart of the Redeemer, p. 140-141):

Taken as a whole, these promises [of the Sacred Heart] should be interpreted in the same way as those made in the gospels to the prayer of faith. In neither case are we dealing with a technique or recipe for gaining a hold over God …. The promises are made to man only in the measure in which he surrenders himself in unreserved faith and unquestioning love to the will of God, which is absolute, and for us unfathomable love.

For example, the promises of peace and blessings for every home where the devotion is practiced and an image of the Sacred Heart is exposed does not mean, “All we need to do is put a Sacred Heart image on the wall, and we will have a peaceful, happy family.” The image on the wall must be allowed to impress His love deep within our hearts, and remind us to let our Lord take His place at the very center of our lives. Emily Jaminet in Secrets of the Sacred Heart recommends that every time we pass the image, we might say from our hearts, “Jesus I trust in You. Jesus I love you. Make my home in your heart” (p. 20). And if we then cooperate with His grace and follow His command to “love one another, even as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), then we are truly and fully practicing devotion to His Heart, and then (and only then) will we have true “peace” in our homes (see Jn 14:27).

All this especially holds true for the 12th of the “Twelve Promises,” which is known in the Catholic tradition as “the Great Promise.” Historians do not know for sure the year and date on which St. Margaret Mary received this promise, but she records it for us clearly in a letter to her former superior, Mother de Saumaise, of May, 1688:

One Friday at Holy Communion He said, if I am not mistaken, to me, His unworthy slave: “I promise you in the excess of the mercy of My Heart, that Its all powerful love will grant to all those who receive Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure, nor without receiving the last Sacraments; My Divine Heart shall be their assured refuge at that last hour.”

Proper disposition
Again, we should not interpret this as an automatic guarantee of final salvation to those who simply go through the motions of receiving Communion on nine First Fridays in a row. The assumption is that these pious and sacramental acts are undertaken with the proper dispositions of the heart. As Timothy O’Donnell states in Heart of the Redeemer (p. 260):

This promise was made to the person who completely surrenders himself in a deep and unconditional act of faith. It is a beautiful expression of the Lord’s desire to share Himself with us in His sacrament of love. This is essentially the same promise which our Lord made in the Gospel to those who would eat his flesh and drink His blood [“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” Jn 6:54]. It is unfortunate that this was at times presented as a simplistic guarantee of salvation in return for merely external observance.

If there is no absolute guarantee of final salvation offered here, however, then why did our Savior bother to make the Great Promise at all — what was so “great” about it?

Devotional form
The new element in what He revealed to St. Margaret Mary is the connection of His Gospel promises of saving grace (that is, to those who put their faith in Him and receive the Bread of Life in the Eucharist) with acts of sacramental devotion and love directed explicitly to His Sacred Heart, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament itself. In other words, through St. Margaret Mary, Jesus has given to the Church a devotional form (the First Friday Communions of reparation) that —by its very capacity to focus the minds of the faithful on the unfathomable love of His Heart for us, and elicit the deepest dispositions in our souls of penitence and love in response — opens our hearts to receive all the saving graces He promised in the Gospels. Authentic devotion to the Heart of Jesus in the nine First Friday Communions, therefore, gives us a vehicle for bringing the simple Gospel promises home to our hearts in an exceptional way.

The Catholic theologian who best expressed all this for the general reader (and whose classic work is available in English) was Fr. Louis Verheylezoon, SJ, in Devotion to the Sacred Heart (first published in English by The Newman Press in London in 1955). We already have had occasion in this series to quote his words, and we shall do so here again at length. Of the Great Promise, he writes (p.239):

These Communions evidently ought to be good communions, that is to say, received in a state of grace and with the required dispositions; but they must, further, be made for the love of the Sacred Heart, in a spirit of reparation, and in such a way that they really afford Him reparation and consolation for the outrages offered to it; for such are the Communions asked for by Jesus on the First Fridays of the month.

Does this mean that a Catholic who devoutly received Holy Communion at these nine Masses would be guaranteed final salvation even if He led a life of unrepented mortal sin afterward? Verheylezoon argues that this hypothetical situation, in reality, could never come to pass (p.239):

This does not mean, however, that a sinner who at the hour of death refused to return to the Lord would nevertheless be saved, but that this supposition will never be realized, and that never will a sinner, who has fulfilled the appointed conditions, refuse to turn to God, at least at the hour of death, nor will he die impenitent.

No contradiction
This raises another difficult theological question. Does the Great Promise contradict the solemn teaching of the Church at the Council of Trent that no one can be certain in advance of the grace of final salvation unless it be made known to him or her by a special revelation from God? Verheylezoon reassures us (p.240):

[T]here is no such contradiction. The Council only teaches that no one, without a particular [divine] revelation, is able to know with absolute and infallible certainty that he will obtain the grace of final perseverance [in the love of God]. Now the promise of the Sacred Heart does not afford us this absolute certainty … . For we do not know with absolute certainty whether we have made the nine Communions with the proper dispositions, and hence whether we have fulfilled the required conditions.

Verheylezoon does not mean that we cannot have any assurance at all in this regard. If we are attentive to our own state of heart, sincerely seek to make reparation to the Heart of Jesus, and to console Him by making these nine Communions, then we can have a good hope that His promises will be fulfilled in us. But a good hope is not an absolute, infallible certainty, so we have no license here to become slack in our devotional life, and in our obedience to God’s commandments as we continue our journey to our heavenly home. One of Christ’s intentions in making the Great Promise, Verheylezoon says, may have been “to set at rest pious and virtuous souls, who often ask themselves anxiously whether they will be saved.” It is to them — and not to those selfishly looking to cut corners on the road to Heaven, that He gives the needed, subjective reassurance: “He gladdens their souls, makes them more cheerful in His service, and helps them to accomplish their actions with a more pure and perfect intention, rather from love than from fear” (p. 242-243).

Common sense
One final objection: How can it be true that everyone who devoutly receives the nine First Friday Communions will receive the sacramental anointing and absolution before death (as Jesus seems to have promised)? What about those who die suddenly (in car accidents, for example), or on the battlefield, or anytime and anywhere that no priest is available to administer the Sacraments?

But Verheylezoon argues that the text of the Great Promise must be interpreted with common sense. In the original wording recorded by St. Margaret Mary, our Lord’s promise of the Last Sacraments is both preceded and followed by the assurance that the faithful soul who has made the nine Communions “shall not die under My displeasure” and “My Divine Heart shall be their assured refuge at the last hour.” The promise of the Last Sacraments evidently is meant to be instrumental to that end. Verheylezoon writes (p.241):

Jesus did not promise the Last Sacraments unconditionally and absolutely … He only engaged Himself to afford the opportunity of receiving them in so far as one might stand in need of them. The Promise, then, must be understood in this way: “They shall not die under My displeasure, and hence without receiving the necessary Sacraments.”

In short, the Great Promise is not an offer of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card to those looking for a short-cut to Heaven, requiring nothing other than external, ritual observance on our part. This extraordinary divine gift must be sincerely and devoutly received. As Verheylezoon says, in summary (p. 242):

[This] is what the Sacred Heart promised to all those who make the nine First Friday Communions with the proper dispositions: they shall die in the state of grace, and hence they shall receive the Last Sacraments if they are in need of them. A magnificent promise indeed, which is rightly called “The Great Promise” and which is, as St. Margaret Mary declares, an eloquent proof of the “excess of mercy of the Heart of Jesus” and a priceless gift of “Its all-powerful love.”

This series continues next week with Part 14: "Holiness from the Heart of Jesus: Two Examples."
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