While there are stories of medieval saints who had powerful visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the modern devotion began with a French Visitation sister, Margaret Mary Aloqoque. She was born in Burgundy in 1647 and claimed to have powerful visions of Jesus even as a child. In these visions, he revealed his heart to her and shared his desire that men and women would leave their self-centered path and adore him. She wished for the king (Louis XIV) to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart, but he refused.
When she died in 1690, the Jesuits took up the cause of making it an official devotion within the Roman Catholic church. This did not happen until 1765, and it wasn’t until the next century that the devotion was given full approval and rites within the church. Margaret Mary Alaqoque was canonized in 1920, five years before Sophie.
It is clear that the devotion exerted a powerful appeal for Roman Catholics. Its focus on a loving God stood in stark juxtaposition against Jansenism, a strain of French Catholicism that saw God as an austere, punitive presence. Sophie was raised in a Jansenist home, and this spirituality informed her childhood. However, at some point during the Revolution, while he was in Paris, Louis Barat sent a pair of images of the Sacred Heart to his mother in Joigny. Mme. Barat placed them on the wall of their home, and one can imagine Sophie gravitating quickly toward this loving, passionate image of a Christ who loves his people deeply and asks them to share that love with others. Around this time she must have done the embroidery of the Sacred Heart, which you can see when you visit the Centre Sophie Barat in Joigny.
While he was under house arrest in Paris, Louis XVI did belatedly what Margaret Mary had wished of Louis XIV: consecrate France to the Sacred Heart. For this reason, the image of the Sacred Heart became a counter-revolutionary symbol. Supposedly he went to the guillotine wearing a badge of the Sacred Heart; it probably looked like the one below. The meaning of the words (Dieu le Roi–God the King) is clear . . .
One could be imprisoned and guillotined merely for wearing it. (We see this in the chapter entitled “Terror” [Part 1] and again in “The Return” [Part 2], where Louis speaks of the guillotining of the young girl Clothilde.) Because of the highly politicized nature of its symbolism, Sophie’s congregation could not adopt the name “Sacred Heart” until the Restoration period.
The devotion became enormously popular throughout the world, and images abound to this day. Below are three logos of the Society of the Sacred Heart: the original image that was used until the late 20th century (left–it is this image that can be seen in the Hôtel Biron chapel window); the current logo (center), which illustrates the idea of the world’s being held in the open heart of God; and the bicentennial logo, which names all the places in the world where RSCJ were active in the year 2000.
Recommended reading: Sacred Heart: Gateway to God (Wendy Wright)
Recommended listening: Entitled Opinions, October 21, 2008 (The Heart) http://french-italian.stanford.edu/opinions/
Recommended viewing: Kathleen Hughes’ presentation Images of the Sacred Heart http://access.carrollton.org/mediasite/Catalog/?cid=c9f61ad0606848809c942297576efeb8