Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
St. Patrick Church
St. Charles, Illinois
11 June 2021
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.
My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.
For I am God and not a man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.
First, let me thank Fr. Jack not only for his invitation to preach tonight but also for his initiative in organizing this extra-ordinary celebration of the Holy Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The heart of Jesus is tender. It is soft. It is vulnerable. It is human.
The heart of Jesus is on fire. It is rock solid. It is never consumed or exhausted. It is divine.
In one phrase, what do we learn from the Sacred Heart? We learn that God is in love with you.
“My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred. For I am God and not a man…I will not let the flames consume you.”
For I am God, and not a man.
What do you do when your feelings are hurt? What do you do when someone commits an act of egregious harm to your reputation, to your inner life, when someone violates the most sacred places in you? How do you react when someone tells you they love you, and you shower reciprocated love on them, and you discover they’re two-timing you?
I don’t do very well with that. First I get sad, then I get mad, then I get depressed. Then I condemn.
Lucky for us, he is God and not man.
It’s hard to believe; I have a hard time with it sometimes. In fact, I would say that this is the hardest lesson so far for me in the spiritual life. But it’s the truth: God isn’t mad at you, disappointed in you, out to get you, or working toward your undoing; God isn’t mad at you because you’ve done bad things, but he loves you because he knows that this world has caused you pain.
I often find that my biggest adversary is the one looking back at my in the mirror. I often find that the one I need to forgive first and foremost is myself. I often find that the voice which holds the most sway over my interior peace is the voice of some past version of myself who hasn’t existed in years. I often find that this voice has the most convincing arguments as to why I don’t belong where I am, or why I am unworthy to be doing what I’m doing, or why any perceived growth or sanctification is just that – perceived – and that one of these days everything will come crashing down.
(Can you tell I’m a person who struggles with anxiety?)
What’s my response? Usually, and definitely before I really met Jesus and experience the power of his heart, I join the chorus of those voices and I condemn myself to being consumed by the flames.
“For I am God, and not a man. I will not let the flames consume you.”
This last year of the pandemic, the election, the social questions and unrest, scandal in the Church, and the drama of our own personal existences has us on edge, and it seems like lately we are quicker than ever to condemn ourselves and others to a final consummation in the flames.
St. Paul so beautifully told the Romans: There is no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Remember this: where we condemn, God invites. Where we sentence ourselves to condemnation, God offers an invitation.
Conversion is the name given to the process by which we stop condemning ourselves and others and we start letting God be God for us and through us. I first encountered the invitation of God to engage with him in the real work of my own conversion in my first year of seminary when we took a mission trip to Mobile, Alabama. While we served the poor, we stayed in a retreat house attached to the Visitation Monastery and we had the chance join the nuns for prayer and Mass. Above the altar were these words: “Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify to its love.”
Those words were below an image of Jesus, with his Sacred Heart on Fire, speaking to a kneeling woman who I learned was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a 17th century Visitation Sister from the small French village of Paray-le-Monial, just north of Lyon.
I remember kneeling there, starting at those words, and just staring at the statue of the Sacred Heart – “Behold this heart, Ryan, which has loved you so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself for you.”
Could I really be loved like that?
When we got back to the seminary in Minnesota from this retreat, the new semester started and on the first Monday night floor meeting a group of seniors who had just returned from their Rome semester passed out holy cards with this image of the man who’d been our floor patron all year, and whose picture next to the elevator I’d passed everyday since September but never really looked at. It was St. Claude la Colombiere (1641-1682), a French Jesuit who is best known for being the spiritual director to the much more well known St. Margaret Mary Alocoque, to whom Jesus revealed his Sacred Heart through a series of apparitions in the French town of Paray-le-Monial.
Then I thought, “Paray-le-Monial”… “St. Margaret May”… “Visitation Monastery”… where have I heard of this before?
The absolute best moments in the spiritual life are those that are completely unexpected, those little (or big) graces from Jesus that come as total surprises. When I was handed St. Claude’s holy card for the first time, I instantly felt the power of the Holy Spirit and felt a bond with this
holy priest-turned-saint; in this picture, he has one of those classic French grins…half-sincere, half-taunting.
As I prayed more with this picture and with some writings of St. Claude, it was as if he was saying to me, “I know something you don’t know….but I want to tell you about it.”
And through prayer, and a lot of time, he did tell me about it. During his life and especially after his canonization, Claude was known as the Apostle of the Sacred Heart. Since St. Margaret Mary was cloistered, it was up to St. Claude to spread the message of the fountain of mercy, love, and unconditional forgiveness found in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sacred Heart for me has served as a portal, a “point of entry” if you want, into the divine life and into an intimate union with the Trinity. Any progress I have made in my life, spiritually or otherwise, I attribute to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the intercession of my friend, St. Claude la Colombiere.
I hope you’ll indulge me in a little timeline:
Who was the first Christian with a devotion to the Sacred Heart? I believe that St. Longinus – who Tradition tells us was the one who thrust the spear into the side of Jesus and was healed by the blood and water flowing from his side – was the second person with a devotion. The first of course was St. John the Beloved Disciple, who leaned his head against the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper.
After the crucifixion, St. John met a young Christian man from Smyrna named Polycarp, who he accompanied and taught about Jesus. Polycarp eventually became the Bishop of Smyrna. One day, Polycarp was out preaching, and the “gravity [with which] he everywhere came in and went out; what was the sanctity of his deportment, the majesty of his countenance, and what were his holy exhortations to the people,” so deeply impressed a young man that he was converted on the spot: we now know this man as St. Irenaeus.
St. Irenaeus was sent to the Roman province of Gaul in the second century, and while he was not the very first to preach Christ in France, he was certainly the most efficacious, and did so much to solidify the presence of the faith especially in south-central France, in the city of Lyon.
So from John the Apostle to Polycarp to Irenaeus, who brought this message to Lyon. And nearly 1500 years later, in the midst of the stronghold of Jansenism, the Sacred Heart of Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary on December 27th, 1673 – the feast of St. John the Apostle.
The thing is about having Jesus sporadically appear in your bedroom and reveal something as major and consequential as his Sacred Heart is that it is pretty likely that most people won’t believe you. St. Margaret Mary’s sisters in the convent thought she had gone crazy. In prayer, Margaret Mary asked Jesus what to do. Jesus said to her: “The Jesuit community down the street has a new superior, whose name is Fr. Claude; you can trust Fr. Claude, he is a special friend of my heart.” With the help of the Mother Superior, Fr. Claude was invited to the convent where he met with St. Margaret Mary, heard her confession, and discussed the revelations of Jesus at some length. He eventually affirmed for the sisters in the convent and, really, for the whole Church that these revelations were authentic.
3 years after I first met St. Claude la Colombiere, I had the chance to study abroad in Rome for a semester, and I had the chance to travel to Paray-le-Monial and meet Claude in person. As Providence would have it: I arrived to Paray-le-Monial and visited the tomb of St. Claude for the first time on December 27th, 2013, the feast of St. John the Apostle, 340 years to the day that Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary.
From John to Polycarp to Irenaeus to Claude to me, I have seen the ways in which mercy comes full circle.
When you are ready to give in to condemnation, I beg you to remember the invitation. An invitation to conversion, to a different way of living, to recognize the gestures of wholehearted and abundant life.
What’s the process?
“Jesus, my heart is like a rock. It is heavy and hard and cold. I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t think I’m strong enough to lift it up and take it out and give it to you. So I give you permission to come in and take it. Renovate my heart, Jesus.”
So he takes your heart. And with characteristic tenderness, he begins to knead it. Slowly, carefully. He massages it. And overtime, chunk by chunk, the rock begins to fall away.
And what is underneath all that rock? Not more dead earth, but warm and living flesh. And eventually all the rock falls away, and Jesus is left with a new, fleshy heart (as Ezekiel calls it), which he begins to massage harder, more intensely. When it is ready, he reaches for the flask of the oil of gladness – the anointing of the Holy Spirit – and covers your heart in it with its sweet fragrance, with its invigorating substance, and soon the new heart becomes soft, and tender.
But he doesn’t stop. The softer your heart gets, the newer it gets, the harder he presses and as he presses harder, he begins to leave traces of himself there; look closely and you’ll see his fingerprints being left behind on that heart. This is the fulness of deification – “whose heart is this?” People will ask. “It is in your chest, it is the source of your life, it is your blood which runs through it, but there is the DNA of another here.”
It is excruciating, it is lifelong, it is transformative, it is beautiful.
“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live – no longer I, but Christ lives in me. Insofar as I live now in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and has given himself up for me.” (Gal 2:19-20)
There is no condemnation now for you, because of the invitation that has been extended to you tonight, tomorrow, and forever: “Behold this heart, which has so loved you, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself for you.”
Maybe our prayer tonight can be the prayer of St. Claude: “Oh my God, do I still desire something that is not you? What have I come here to seek if it be not you? My soul, are you tired of your God? O loving God, how wonderful it would be if some day you should use my weakness to withdraw a soul from sin! If all that is required is my will, I give it to you with all my heart…Make me holy, O my God, and do not spare me in the making, for I want to be yours, whatever the cost.”
Jesus we love you.
Jesus we need you.
Jesus, please bring your mercy full circle for us.
Jesus, teach me to stop condemning.
Jesus, make your invitation obvious to us.
Jesus, I am not strong enough to give you my heart, to give you what you really desire. Jesus, I invite you – I beg you – to come in and to take my heart, and to make it new.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine.