Shortly before the visit of Pope John Paul II to France in October of 1986 a very perceptive article by the distinguished Jesuit Sacred Heart scholar, Édouard Glotin, appeared in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, entitled “John Paul II at Paray-le-Monial or Why the ‘Heart’?” (1) It is a provocative question which many of the faithful may rightly ask today with regard to devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: Why Mary’s Heart? Why should we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary the day after the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? What we will see in attempting even a brief response to this query is that we can never speak of the Heart of Mary without reference to the Heart of Jesus.
There are many legitimate ways of responding to the query “Why the Hearts of Jesus and Mary?”. One could do so, for instance, from the viewpoint of the history of spirituality, the theology of the saints and of private revelations. I wish to do so from the perspective of the papal magisterium, and particularly from that of Pope John Paul II, who shows himself to be especially sensitive to the preoccupations and questions of our day and who has spoken more frequently of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary than all of his predecessors combined.
I. Heart of Jesus—Symbol of His Divine-Human Love
On 5 October, 1986, John Paul II personally presented a letter to the Superior General of the Jesuits at Paray-le-Monial, site of the apparitions of the Lord to Saint Margaret Mary, encouraging the Jesuits to continue promoting this devotion whose “essential elements” he said:
Belong in a permanent fashion to the spirituality of the Church throughout her history; for since the beginning, the Church has looked to the Heart of Christ pierced on the Cross, from which blood and water flowed forth as symbols of the sacraments that constitute the Church; and, in the Heart of the Incarnate Word, the Fathers of the Christian East and West saw the beginning of all the work of our salvation, fruit of the love of the divine Redeemer. This pierced Heart is a particularly expressive symbol of that love. (2)
In other words, even if the devotion to the Heart of Jesus only developed slowly in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and emerged explicitly in the seventeenth century, its roots are in Scripture and Tradition and it belongs “in a permanent fashion to the spirituality of the Church throughout her history.”
In what is perhaps the single most important passage in his monumental Sacred Heart encyclical Haurietis Aquas, the Servant of God Pope Pius XII taught authoritatively about the aptness of the Heart of Jesus as a symbol and the various levels of its symbolism:
The Heart of the Incarnate Word is deservedly and rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves His eternal Father and all mankind.
It is a symbol of that divine love which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit but which He, the Word made flesh, alone manifests through a weak and perishable body, since “in Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).
It is, besides, the symbol of that burning love which, infused into His soul, enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused.
And finally—and this in a more natural and direct way—it is the symbol also of sensible love, since the body of Jesus Christ, formed by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, possesses full powers of feelings and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body. (3)
The Heart of Jesus, then, is “a particularly expressive symbol” of the divine-human love of the God-man.
Building on the teaching of his predecessor, in a remarkable homily given on 28 June, 1984, at the Gemelli Polyclinic (4) and Faculty of Medicine in Rome, John Paul II presented the Heart of Jesus in a way that is at once poetic, theological and very striking:
From our faith we know that at a determined time in history, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). From that moment God began to love with a human heart, a true heart capable of beating in an intense, tender and impassioned way. The Heart of Jesus has truly experienced feelings of joy before the splendor of nature, the candor of children, the glance of a pure young man; feelings of friendship toward the Apostles, Lazarus, the disciples; feelings of compassion for the sick, the poor, the many persons tried by struggle, by loneliness, by sin, feelings of anguish before the prospect of suffering and the mystery of death. There is no authentically human feeling that the Heart of Jesus did not experience…