by the Most Rev. Edward M. Egan
The group that assembled in a third-floor classroom of Rome's Gregorian University in the Fall of 1957 was small and not at all enthusiastic. Along with many other seminarians in the third year of Theology, we had signed up to attend a seminar and write our degree papers under the direction of a well-known moral theologian from the United States. A few months earlier, however, he had passed away; and all were therefore assigned by the university to other professors.
Ours was an elderly Jesuit who had published a number of articles concerning devotion to the Sacred Heart. It was on some aspect of this subject, he informed us, that we were to write our papers.
Since there were only twenty or so of us in the seminar, a small group by Gregorian University standards, the professor suggested that we sit around a huge table at the back of the classroom. He placed himself in the middle on one side and without notes launched into his first lecture. In a matter of minutes, he held us all enthralled.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart, he explained, has been known in the Church for only nine centuries and widely celebrated in only three. Still, he continued, it is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture, in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and in the sacred liturgy. Moreover, he went on, there is virtually no facet of our life with God that is not illuminated by it.
* * * * * *
It was this last element of his presentation that particularly engaged our attention. Just a year earlier, in May of 1956, to be precise, the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, had issued an encyclical letter on devotion to the Sacred Heart entitled "Haurietis Aquas" ("You Shall Draw Water"). In it the theological foundations of the devotion were spelled out with a multitude of citations from the Old Testament and the New, from Eastern and Western Fathers of the Church, from classic and modern theologians, and from liturgical texts as well. All of us had read that encyclical with care. We had no doubt about the doctrinal underpinnings of the devotion, but we had never thought of it as capable of reaching into all areas of the spiritual life, and we were anxious to hear that thesis defended.
The defense was brilliant. Our professor began by explaining just exactly what devotion to the Sacred Heart means. It is, he observed, devotion to the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity and the love that He, His heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit have for us. Of course, he noted, love is not something that even we merely human beings actually do by means of that bodily organ which is the heart. All the same, we think of love and the heart that way. By a kind of unspoken agreement, a convention, if you like, we accept the heart as a symbol of loving. And in the devotion to the Sacred Heart, we remind ourselves that, however worthy or unworthy thy we may be, we are loved with an unlimited love by the Creator Who brought us into existence, by the Spirit Who sanctifies us, and by the Son of God made Man Who suffered and died for us, indeed, Who allowed His heart to be pierced for our salvation.
* * * * * *
One of our number raised his hand. "How would devotion to the Sacred Heart relate, for example, to our reading of Sacred Scripture?" he asked.
We were living then in an era of intense interest in Biblical studies, thanks largely to an earlier encyclical of Pius XII known as "Divino Afflante Spiritu" ("Inspired by the Divine Spirit"). The student's question was therefore probably not unexpected.
Our professor leaned forward in his chair, cleared his throat, and made sure that he had caught the eyes of us all. Every form of revelation, he announced, whether Scripture, Tradition, or even what the Creator unfolds to us through the wise use of our reason, is first and foremost a gift. The Divinity, he added, was under no obligation to tell us all that He has revealed. He made His mind and will so marvelously known because He loves us, because He has a treasure He wants to share with us. "If you keep that in mind," our professor insisted, "you will never make the mistake of studying the Bible or any expression of divine revelation from a strictly `scientific' point of view. You will study it as a gift from the Almighty, a demonstration of that divine love which is so powerfully symbolized by the heart of the Savior Who bled to wash away our sins."
* * * * * *
The room was silent until another question was invited. "The Mass," the seminarian on my right inquired, "what is its connection with devotion to the Sacred Heart?"
Our professor leaned forward in his chair again and replied with evident relish, "The Mass is like so many of the Lord's wonders," he said. "It is a many-faceted reality. It is a sacrifice, a renewal of the sacrifice of the cross. It is a banquet, a sharing at the table of the altar between the Lord and those who follow Him. It is a gift, just as divine revelation is a gift, a gift of the very body, blood, soul and divinity of the Son of the Eternal Father. And in each of these aspects and all others of which I can think, the love of God which is so marvelously betokened by devotion to the Sacred Heart, is the focus. The Son of God was sacrificed for us out of love. The People of God are gathered around the altar table out of love. The Eucharist is given us as our heavenly food out of love. There is nothing in the Mass that is not grounded in love and empowered by divine love, that reality which the pierced and inflamed heart of Jesus bespeaks with wondrous clarity."
* * * * * *
"And what about our moral life?" the professor asked on his own.
"I suspect that you know the answer," he responded. "You and I will live consistently according to the mind and will of God only when we deeply love the God Who loved us first. Love evokes love, and love alone moves us to live precisely as the beloved desires. Study your courses in Ethics and Moral Theology. Master your lessons in Canon Law. Know all the reasons for the commandments of the Almighty, the norms of the Church, and the rules of civilized society. But understand that, given our fallen nature, we can steadfastly avoid transgressions and constantly live as we should only if we understand, in fact, embrace that truth which devotion to the Sacred Heart proclaims with uncommon strength - the Divinity is in love with you and me."
Lecture after lecture, the theme was developed; and soon we had all acceded to the truth of it. The holiness of life that we were striving to achieve and preparing to preach, we became convinced, could be enlightened at every juncture by devotion to the heart of the Redeemer.
* * * * * *
Two years later I left the seminary in Rome, I returned to serve on its faculty. One evening I was driving a retired and revered Jesuit home after a day of recollection he had given the seminarians. He was an American and had been rector of the Gregorian University.
In passing he mentioned the professor for whom I had written my degree paper. Before I could observe that I had studied under him, my passenger turned to me, took a hold of my arm, and told me how Pope Pius XII used to send a car for the professor to bring him to the Vatican for consultations when he was composing his encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart.
"The Holy Father had the highest esteem for that professor's theological wisdom," he confided to me. "It's truly a shame that Americans never used to sign up for his course."
Before I could comment, we pulled into the driveway of the Jesuit Fathers' residence and a young Jesuit opened the car door to help his elderly confrere into their home. I drove back to where I lived with a smile on my face, sad only that I had not had the opportunity to observe that this American had been signed up by the university for the course in question and that he had never ceased to thank the Sacred Heart of Jesus for this blessing, that is to say, for yet another proof of divine love.