In the late Seventeenth Century, a humble French nun, Marguerite Marie Alacoque (1747 to 1790), had a vision of a conversation with Jesus Christ. In her vision, Jesus reminded the young woman of her vow, given upon a sick bed from rheumatic fever, that she would devote her life to the Church. Marguerite had forsaken the vow in her early 20s. She, with the encouragement of her Mother had entered society with the notion of becoming married. Jesus revealed Himself to her and admonished her for forgetting her vow. Marguerite decided then to enter the convent with the intension of becoming a nun.
Later, after Marguerite had entered the convent, she again had a vision of Jesus, this time He revealed His heart to her as the most important communication link between Him and the faithful and made it known to her that she should dedicate her life to His sacred heart. In Marguerite’s visions, which occurred over the period of two years (1773 to 1775), she described the heart of Jesus. His heart was topped with flame surmounted with a cross. The body of the heart had a vine of thorns wrapped around the center. Upon seeing this vision, she knew then she would dedicate her life to the sacred heart of Jesus Christ.
Sister Marguerite Marie Alacoque shared her vision with others but was at first rebuffed. But slowly her vision was recognized by the Catholic Church as real. Not long after her death, the Bishop of Marseille, dedicated his church and diocese to the Sacred Heart when the plague was raging in that area of France. Miraculously the region was spared. Soon the Sacred Heart was adopted by Catholics as a symbol of piety and charm.
In 1864, Sister Marguerite Marie was beatified. For those non-Catholics reading this blog, that simply means that the Church recognized her as being blessed. The most significant part of this recognition is beatification is the third step in being canonized or recognized as a Saint. Pope Pius, in his encyclical, Miserentissimus Redemptor, stated that Jesus Christ had shown himself to Sister Marguerite Marie. In 1920, The Church recognized her as a Saint.
Today the symbol of the sacred heart is a popular and universally recognized. It is a widely practiced devotion in the Catholic Church and is symbolic of the compassion that Christ has for humanity and His suffering on behalf of saints and sinners alike. The devotion is so popular, in fact, that The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly referred to as Sacré-Cœur is named for it. The Basilica was built on Montmartre, the highest point in the City.
The sacred heart itself combines several symbols: flame represents the divine light of the Word of God, the thorns represent the way of Christ’s death and His suffering, and the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. Often the sacred heart is represented without the cross atop of the heart. This symbol is commonly found in cemeteries, especially Catholic cemeteries—in stone and in glass.