Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus dates back to the eleventh or twelfth century. Though we don’t know exactly where the devotion arose, there are monastic texts dating to that time that give a clear indication of it. For the next few centuries, the devotion was practiced on an individual and private level. The Franciscans did promote devotion to the Five Wounds, giving primacy to the Wound in our Lord’s Side, which led to His Heart, but it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the devotion really became public.
This was due in large part to the efforts of St. John Eudes, who propagated the devotion and even established a feast for it, which was first celebrated on August 31, 1670 in the Grand Seminary in Rennes, France.
The saint most commonly associated with the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is Margaret Mary Alacoque, a seventeenth century nun and mystic. St. Margaret Mary had many visions of Jesus, in which He asked her to spread devotion to His Sacred Heart and guided her in how that devotion should be practiced.
“Behold the Heart that has so loved men…instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part of mankind only ingratitude,” our Lord said. He asked that He be honored in the image of His Heart, and that people receive Holy Communion frequently, particularly on the first Friday of the month, and make Holy Hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament as part of their devotion. He also asked for a feast on the Friday after the octave of the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart spread, particularly in religious communities, after the death of St. Margaret Mary, and the feast was celebrated in some parts of the Church. Pope Clement XIII officially recognized and approved the devotion in 1765. In 1856 Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church, and on June 11, 1899 Pope Leo XIII consecrated all mankind to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Other important papal documents are Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, on reparation to the Sacred Heart, and Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Haurietis Aquas, on the nature of devotion to the Sacred Heart.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart is celebrated the Friday following the Feast of Corpus Christi (which is celebrated on Sunday in the United States). Many people practice the First Friday devotion, by which they receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months, specifically with the intention of honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and in reparation for offenses against the Blessed Sacrament. Another important method of honoring the Sacred Heart is as a family, whereby the Sacred Heart image is displayed in the home and the family consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.