The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is portrayed in a stained-glass window. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is portrayed in a stained-glass window. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
Devotion to the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” can be traced back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the Catholic Church. Inspired by over 500 years of tradition, this devotion became part of the Church’s liturgy in 1670, with Mass and prayers composed by French priest St. John Eudes (1601-1680). Three years later, the Lord Jesus appeared multiple times to a 26-year-old French nun of the Visitation Order, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), revealing the love and mercy for which the popular image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has become a universal symbol. Pope Pius IX placed the feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar in 1856, 19 days after Pentecost. This year it is celebrated on Friday, June 19.

In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II declared the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as an annual occasion for the Universal Church to pray for the Sanctification of Priests. The joining of these two events is easy to understand and appreciate, especially when one recalls the words of St. John Vianney, patron of priests: “The priest is not a priest for himself ... he is for you. The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

The reality of this love has been made unambiguously clear to me during these past few months of pandemic lockdown. As Bishop, I have witnessed something in the Diocese of Trenton that I have seen repeated so many times over the past 10 years: the constant love and care of our priests for their parishioners and others entrusted to their care in schools, chaplaincies, organizations and offices. The temporary coronavirus closure of our churches and workplaces, and the hunger of the faithful here for the Eucharist and other sacraments have been keenly, even painfully, felt by our pastors and priests as well.  They have expressed to me – at every opportunity they had – how much they “missed being with their people.” How deeply moving it was to “hear” the pastoral love for parishioners in the emotion-filled voices of their priests!  But they were never very far from their people.

With efforts to pray for, reach out to and keep in touch with the faithful; to minister to them in the face of unprecedented obstacles; to speak the words of absolution through masks; to visit hospitals and nursing homes, when permitted, in protective gear to anoint the sick; to comfort small groups of grieving families in cemeteries at the burials of their loved-ones; to conduct meetings and classes, to broadcast creative and heartfelt video messages and live-streamed Masses, the diocesan and religious priests in our parishes and other ministries used every means at their disposal to keep the Catholic faith alive and flourishing in the experiences of their faithful, despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The Sacred Heart of Jesus could be heard beating everywhere throughout the four counties of the Diocese of Trenton, reminding us all that “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Romans 8:39).”

And now, slowly and carefully, we are returning to limited public Masses together and sacramental life.

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus speaks profoundly of his endless mercy, despite the punctures and wounds of human sin and ingratitude revealed in its imagery. Speaking to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque during her visions, the Lord Jesus asked her to invite all who behold his Sacred Heart to immerse themselves in the embrace of his Divine Love and Forgiveness. That message is not obscured in the ministry of his priests who – despite the horrible scandals of some abusive priests who have pierced his Heart deeply in recent decades – beg for the daily sanctification of their priestly lives so that they, in turn, can lead the faithful entrusted to their care to sanctification.

St. John Vianney once reflected, “A priest goes to heaven or a priest goes to hell with a thousand people behind.” On this Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we must adore him anew as we pray fervently for the sanctification of priests in our day so that they will continue to lead the many “thousands,” indeed millions, to heaven through the holiness to which Christ has called them, and us all, in his Church. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the heart of every priest beat as one.