Pope Leo XIII on the Sacred Heart

Pope Leo XIII on the Sacred Heart

During a conversation with my brother, I was led to this question: What was the greatest act of the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII? One thinks of his great encyclicals Rerum novarum and Aeterni patris, on the working class and Christian philosophy. Which one would be the greatest, the defense of the rights of workers or the restoration of Christian philosophy? I would choose the restoration of Christian wisdom. I would be wrong, my brother informed me. And sure enough I found in a book on Pope Leo XIII, according to the report of Msgr. Doutreloux, Pope Leo XIII said that the consecration of all mankind to the Sacred Heart was the greatest act of his pontificate. The encyclical he wrote in preparation for that act is entitled “Annum sacrum” and it was published in 1899 in May (read it here); the consecration was performed in June, 1899. Why is this the most important act (and encyclical), towering over Rerum novarum and Aeterni patris? In his introduction, Fr Husslein explains: “social renovation is ineffective unless based on a renewal of the individual.” Pope Leo explains that the “sovereign power of Christ over men is exercised by truth, justice, and above all, by charity.” Through his Sacred Heart Christ rules over the hearts of men.

A fascinating idea in the encyclical is that the image of the Sacred Heart is a new sign of Christian culture, a sign that apparently substitutes for Constantine’s cross, the sign by which he conquered and by which the faith was protected for centuries; perhaps Pope Leo XIII is suggesting that the Constantinian basis for Christian culture is disappearing and a new era underway, the era of Christian conscience and the universal call to holiness, explicitly brought to fruition at Vatican II. Here is the passage:

When the Church, in the days immediately succeeding her institution, was oppressed beneath the yoke of the Caesars, a young Emperor saw in the heavens a cross, which became at once the happy omen and cause of the glorious victory that soon followed. And now, to-day, behold another blessed and heavenly token is offered to our sight-the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, with a cross rising from it and shining forth with dazzling splendor amidst flames of love. In that Sacred Heart all our hopes should be placed, and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought. §12

The beauty of the vision is stunning: we behold the heart of Jesus with “a cross rising from it and shining forth with dazzling splendor amidst flames of love.”

The daring of the consecration is staggering: “in that Sacred Heart all our hopes should be placed, and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought.”

The renovation of social life depends upon the renewal of the individual. And Pope Leo is concerned that the political philosophy of modern society, especially a “wall between the Church and civil society,” has led to the “banishment of God Himself from earth.” Thus “such an act of consecration, since it can establish or draw tighter the bonds which naturally connect public affairs with God, gives to States a hope of better things.” Without a reminder of God’s presence, without the summons to truth, justice and love, such as is betokened by the Sacred Heart, society will plunge deeper into the darkness of secularism. Men are left to “the prey of their own evil desires, so that they give themselves up to their passions and finally wear themselves out by excess of liberty.”

But why would this act even rise above the renewal of Christian philosophy, or wisdom, which Gilson says is the key to the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII? (And unfortunately Gilson left this encyclical out of his anthology of Pope Leo’s writings.) The Sacred Heart is prior to the restoration of Christian philosophy because we must “have recourse to Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We have gone astray and we must return to the right path: darkness has overshadowed our minds, and the gloom must be dispelled by the light of truth: death has seized upon us, and we must lay hold of life.” Of course the intellectual would surely balk at the submission of his mind and life to the power of Christ. Interestingly, Pope Leo XIII finds in the thought of Thomas Aquinas the key to the consecration of all mankind to the Sacred Heart; therefore, the staggering scope of the act is due to the “Dumb Ox.” So if the restoration of Christian philosophy must “go to Thomas” above all, we will find the reason for the greatest act of religion, the piety of consecration to Christ.

For St. Thomas queries whether Christ’s judicial power extends to all men, and “having stated that judicial authority flows naturally from royal authority, he concludes decisively as follows: ‘All things are subject to Christ as far as His power is concerned, although they are not all subject to Him in the exercise of that power’ (3a., p., q. 59, a. 4).” Christ can exercise his rightful rule over all men through truth, justice and charity.” So not only does Pope Leo consecrate Christendom to the Sacred Heart (replacing Constantine), he consecrates all mankind, believer and non-believer alike (the global mission of the Church).

It is fitting and proper to consecrate ourselves to His Most Sacred Heart because  it is “a symbol and a sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love one another.” Pope Leo XIII laid the foundation for the consecration in 1899.

Father Dachauer, SJ, writes that Pius XII’s encyclical on the Sacred Heart (Haurietis Aquas) “should be considered as complementing the other two encyclicals [by Leo XIII and Pius XI], filling out the teachings of the Church on the theology of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. . .  he explained the ultimate and profound reasons upon which the principle exercises of this devotion rest, and upon which they should be inspired.” (The Sacred Heart: a commentary on Haurietis Aquas, Bruce Publishing Company, 1956). He also provides a nice overview of the history of the official development of the devotion.

  • June 16, 1675: the famous apparition of the Sacred heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque at Paray-le-Monial.
  • January 26, 1765, permission to celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was granted to the bishops of Poland.
  • August 23, 1856, a decree of extension to the Universal Church was made in response to a petition by the bishops of France.
  • April 22, 1875 Pope Pius IX approved an act of consecration by which the faithful could singly or in groups consecrate themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the feast of that year.
  • June 11, 1899 Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
  • May 8, 1928 Pope Pius XI, in Miserentissimus Redemptor, adds an act of reparation
  • May 15, 1956 Pope Pius XII, in Haurietis Aquas, provides a thorough theology of the devotion


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