In 1872, Superior General of the Society of Jesus Pieter Jan Beckx stood in the Church of the Gesù in Rome and consecrated the Jesuits’ order to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One hundred years later, Pedro Arrupe renewed the Act of Consecration, explaining the reasons for his decision in the following letter that he sent to the entire Society of Jesus. “We find ourselves then in an historic moment of contestation; of criticism, even of rejection, of traditional attitudes,” Arrupe writes. “This entails great dangers, but it also has the advantage of compelling us to go to the very heart of things.” He concludes that Jesuits have “the duty of reflecting seriously on what is essential in the Sacred Heart devotion and of finding ways to channel and present it to the world of today.” The renewal took place on June 9, 1972, also at the Church of the Gesù.
For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.
Dear Fathers and Brothers: Pax Christi,
As this year of 1972 marks the centenary of the Consecration of the Society to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Fr. Peter Beckx, I would like to keep the promise I made in my letter of December 16, 1971, and share with each and every one of you my thoughts on one aspect of the Christocentric spirituality of the Society: the devotion to the Heart of Christ.
Dear to my heart though this subject is, I find it difficult to treat of because of the conflicting opinions found in the Society today regarding this devotion. I will therefore limit myself to expressing to you a desire I feel deeply as General: that of helping resolve the ascetic, pastoral and apostolic problems which the devotion to the Sacred Heart presents today.
Ignatian spirituality is, without a doubt, Christocentric. Like our apostolate, it is based on a deep knowledge and love of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, who loved His Eternal Father and mankind with a divine and human love, infinite and personal, with a love that reaches out to each and every man. It is this love of Christ, which a tradition of many centuries encouraged by the Magisterium represents in His Heart, which moulds the Ignatian apostolate, making it a response on the part of those who “seek to distinguish themselves in every kind of service” and attain to the self effacement of the Standard of the Cross, the “kenosis” of the “vexillum crucis” and so cooperate in the redemption of the world.
1. Two Conflicting Attitudes
On this fundamental point it is easy to find general agreement. But when one attempts to treat of the devotion to the Sacred Heart one encounters two conflicting positions which may be summarized thus:
Some maintain that the spirituality which they unabashedly insist on calling Devotion to, or Cult of the Sacred Heart, is something so distinctive of, so essential to the Society, that it should be the characteristic mark of every good Jesuit. For them the Sacred Heart Apostolate, that “munus suavissimum,” should be an essential feature of our pastoral activity, its inspiration and soul. The Sacred Heart, symbol of the divine and human love of Christ, is for them the most direct path to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
Then there is a second position, that of those who feel a certain indifference, even some kind of subconscious aversion, to this type of devotion, and who will not speak of it. They hold that it consists merely of certain obsolete and anachronistic devotional practices. They find no inspiration in the symbol of the heart, because the word “heart” for many is charged with sentimentality; it excites distaste, even repugnance. The fact that in at least some cultures the heart is not considered a symbol of love except in a grossly sentimental context may contribute to this attitude.
These conflicting views have left not a few Jesuits greatly perplexed on the subject. They are convinced of the values essential to the Sacred Heart devotion, but they are at a loss as to how this devotion can be proposed in an acceptable manner to the faithful today. So they prefer to maintain a respectful silence and await further developments.
2. Reconciling the Two Positions
The first two attitudes may seem incompatible and mutually exclusive, but perhaps in their fundamental aspects they are not so. The first attitude is solidly based on the official documents of the Church and on the tradition of the Society: decrees of the General Congregations, letters of the Generals and other similar sources. The formation which they have received along these lines from the noviceship onwards, and their own personal spiritual and apostolic experiences have convinced them that they have drawn great profit from the practice of this devotion. Many of them point to the extraordinary fruits of their apostolic action, “ultra quam speraverint” as an authentic sign of its efficacy.
The opposite attitude derives from a series of reasons which vary from case to case. It should be clear that I am not referring to the more fundamental difficulties based on a Christological problematic which can go so far as to distort our very faith in Christ and the personal relationship we ought to have with Him. I refer rather to the various other motives on which some base their serious reservations in this regard. Some in fact experience a difficulty in accepting any type of spirituality that could limit personal freedom or give the impression of being imposed indiscriminately from without. Others hesitate to commit themselves to a spirituality that seems to them excessively individualistic and subjective. Yet others are turned away by the exaggerated importance given to private revelations, and by the claim that the devotion to the Sacred Heart, even the very concept of consecration, is based solely on them. It may be added that many experience an instinctive revulsion to the over-emotional, inartistic, and often tawdry representations of the devotion.
If these two ways of thinking are calmly considered they are not as conflicting as might seem at first sight. If one analyzes the meaning of such reactions as, “Spare me your special devotions! Jesus Christ the redeemer, crucified and risen, is enough for me,” it is immediately clear that they are intended as strong affirmations of a true love for Christ, who in the Paschal Mystery has achieved our salvation and calls us to identify ourselves with Him; and it is precisely this unconditional love for the person of Christ that has always constituted the essence of the Sacred Heart devotion.
When those holding the second position say they reject external practices as incompatible with the way people think today, those of the first group experience no difficulty in acknowledging that such things are incidental and of only relative and limited value. If the first group in turn insist that Christocentricity and personal love of Jesus Christ are absolutely necessary to attain one’s true vocation in the Society, those maintaining the second position accept this fully, but caution against being led to exaggerate the “horizontal” relationship if one loses sight of the indispensable “vertical” aspect.
One could continue citing other points which in the light of sound discernment shed their intransigence and even tend to disappear. We ought indeed to foster such an exchange of ideas, provided they are characterized by the following characteristically Ignatian features:
— a broad understanding, which seeks to evaluate the statement itself and the spirit in which it is intended (Spir. Exer. 22);
— a complete objectivity, which knows how to consider the positive values and put aside one-sided exaggerations or purely emotional reactions (Spir. Exer. 181);
— utter respect for the legitimate freedom of others without seeking to lead all by the same road, but allowing the Spirit to guide each one according to His will (Spir. Exer. 15).
3. The Objective Value of the Devotion
The objective value of the Sacred Heart devotion is taught clearly in many documents of the Church and the Society. It would be very difficult to maintain, and even more difficult to justify scientifically, the opinion that the fundamentals of this devotion are outdated or lack a theological basis, if one presents in its essentials the message which it offers and the response which it demands.
Christ, the God-man, by very virtue of being the incarnate Son of God, possesses all genuinely human values in their fullness. He is God, and at the same time the most human of men. He embodies in his person love in its fullest measure because it expresses the Father’s gift to us of His Son incarnate, and because it is in itself the perfect synthesis of his love for the Father and of his love for all men.
It is this mystery of divinely human love, symbolized in the Heart of Christ, that the traditional Sacred Heart devotion has endeavored to express, and which it has sought to emphasize, in a world ever more eager for love, ever more in need of comprehension and justice. Between the Word of God and the pierced Heart of Jesus Christ on the cross lies the whole humanity of the Son of God, and the eclipse of sound theological understanding of that humanity has been one of the reasons which has led to the depreciation of the heart as symbol. To bypass the total humanity of Christ means to leave a theological vacuum between the symbol and the object symbolized, a vacuum which anthropomorphism and pietism are always ready to fill. To neglect the humanity of Christ means, above all, to lose the communitarian and consequently the ecclesial dimension of Christocentric spirituality.
The Church is born of the Incarnation. Rather, it is a continuing Incarnation; it is the mystical body of God made man. Hence there is nothing less individualistic than a genuine love of Christ: the very concept of reparation proceeds from an authentic communitarian demand, that of the Mystical Body.
Overcoming the psychological obstacles which the external forms of this devotion may present, the Jesuit should revitalize it with the solid and virile Christocentric spirituality of the Exercises which, integrally Christocentric and culminating in total commitment, prepare us to “feel” the love of the Heart of Christ giving unity to the whole Gospel. The life of the Jesuit is perfectly integrated in his response to the call of the Eternal King and in the “Take, O Lord, and receive” of the Contemplation for obtaining love, which is the crown of the Exercises. To live that response and that offering will be for each one of us and for the whole Society the true realization of the spirit of Ignatian consecration to the Heart of Christ.
From this intense living of the Spirit of the Exercises issues, with a certain inescapable apostolic urgency, the pledge to live and offer one’s own prayer and work in union with the Heart of Christ and so attain to a life profoundly centered in Christ and the Church. The Apostleship of Prayer has long animated, and still continues to animate, the priestly perspective of many Christian lives, drawing them onwards to the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ and the consecration of the world to God. This instrument of the Apostleship of Prayer, which has so greatly helped the People of God in the past can, with appropriate renovation and adaptation, render new and greater service today, when the need is so keenly felt to establish apostolic groups of prayer and earnest spiritual commitment.
It is a fact that the Providence of God has, at different times, provided the Church with the most appropriate spiritual means. For the Society of Jesus, one of those means has manifestly been the devotion to the Sacred Heart. None can deny the excellent fruits which have resulted from it for a Christocentric spirituality and the apostolate of the Society.
It is a theological certainty confirmed by the tradition of the Society, that the devotion to the Sacred Heart by its very nature possesses great values which can and should be applied to present day needs.
It is a fact that there are today many good Jesuits who experience no special attraction to this type of devotion; they may even be repelled by it. And an Ignatian principle tells us that we cannot impose on anyone a form of spirituality which does not help him in his life as a Jesuit.
We find ourselves then in an historic moment of contestation; of criticism, even of rejection, of traditional attitudes. This entails great dangers, but it also has the advantage of compelling us to go to the very heart of things.
It follows that the Society, if it is to remain faithful to its tradition, has the duty of reflecting seriously on what is essential in the Sacred Heart devotion and of finding ways to channel and present it to the world of today. Simplistic solutions are unacceptable, both those which ignore the necessity of constant adaptation and theological development of its essence and exercise, and those which openly reject the devotion because it does not happen to possess an appeal for them.
A thorough investigation of this spiritual, pastoral and apostolic problem should lead us, on the one hand, to discover its true solution, which should be of great service not only to ourselves but also to the many, religious and lay, who in their perplexity are looking for concrete direction in this matter; and on the other hand it should help us to attain a deeper understanding of Him in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Profound meditation on the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross becomes a source of fruitful and very timely theological reflection. The Evangelist who expressly emphasizes the love of Christ in His passion and death, seems to want to call our attention to this love as the keystone of His redemptive work by showing us the open side of Jesus, from which gushed forth blood and water, those mystical symbols of the gifts of the Spirit to the Church.
I would like as General, to add a personal word. I have felt an obligation to speak out on this subject so vital to our spirituality. Apart from the centenary celebration, apart from my own personal conviction of the intrinsic value of the Sacred Heart devotion and its extraordinary apostolic efficacy (to which both theology and experience testify), I also believe that it can be defined, with the Supreme Pontiffs, as “a compendium of the Christian religion,” and with Paul VI as “an excellent form of true piety for our times.”
I therefore wish to recommended to all, particularly our theologians and our specialists in spirituality and pastoral care, to study the most effective way of presenting this devotion today, so that we may reap in the future the plentiful harvests of the past. I am convinced that by insisting on this recommendation I am rendering great service to the Society, and that the more perfectly we comprehend the love of Christ the more easily shall we find the authentic way to describe it and to express it. The graces promised “ultra quam speraverint” avail for us as well.
In the Church of the Gesù in Rome, where Fr. Beckx first consecrated the Society to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I hope to renew that consecration on the 9th of June, the feast of the Sacred Heart, using the formula which I enclose with this letter. I would like all of you to join me in spirit in this consecration, in whatever manner each province finds most convenient.
May the Father, “who has hidden these things from the wise and the prudent and revealed them to the humble,” grant to us, to you and to me, to know and experience more deeply day by day the inexhaustible riches hidden in the Heart of Christ. I consider this grace of the greatest importance at this moment in the history of the Church and of the Society. Ask, and it shall be given you.
Yours in the Lord,
General of the Society of Jesus
Rome, April 27, 1972
On the Feast of St. Peter Canisius
Other Apostolates Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—III, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1981, “Devotion to the Heart of Christ,” pg. 329–337.