Last Friday, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, was the closing of the Year of the Priest, which began on that same feast one year ago. Let us take that as our topic this week.

The Heart of Jesus
It is most appropriate that the Year of the Priest, called for by our Holy Father, was centered on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was also most appropriate that the two “hinges” of this Year were the liturgical celebrations of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Why is this so?

We know that the heart is the symbol of love. Although it may not be the center of love in a physical or biological sense, it has long been seen as the best symbol we can use for what is basically an unseen and spiritual reality. Many of God’s creatures possess physical hearts, but it is only the heart of the human being that can be used as a symbol of the unique ability to love, given only to those made in God’s image and likeness. Conversely, God, who is pure spirit, does not possess a physical heart and yet He is love itself: “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

The God who is pure spirit allows us to participate in His pure love by giving us the ability to love. The Eternal Son of the Father, in taking on a body like ours, united His perfect love with the physical expression of a body: “a body you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5). All of this is summed up in the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the perfect love of God symbolized by the Heart which beats in the body of the God made Man.

What caused the Eternal Son to humble Himself in this way? Love! In a liturgical hymn for the Feast of the Sacred Heart, we read: “Love compelled You, O Christ, to take a human body, that as the second Adam, You could restore what the first had taken from us.” From the very beginning, this love involved humility and sacrifice: the humility of God becoming Man and the sacrifice made by the Son, to the Father, for the sake of those made in His image and likeness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees not sinful Adam, but the Son, who became man for love of us.

The Sacred Heart and the priesthood
Now that we have briefly pondered the mystery of God’s love, expressed in the Sacred Heart, we may ask what its connection to the priesthood is.

The love of Jesus is enduring. In fact, the Entrance Antiphon for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart and for the Votive Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart, make use of these words from Psalm 32: “The thoughts of his heart last through every generation” (Psalm 32:11). These “thoughts,” if we can use that word in connection with the perfect, timeless knowledge of God, were present on the Cross. As we know, from the Cross, Jesus was able to “see” through to every generation and every person who would ever live. From the Cross, He was able to know our inspanidual sins, and for them He died in agony. However, it was love that caused Him not only to become Man, but also to die for us. In this, He is the perfect Priest, because He is the one offering the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and it is Himself whom He is offering in that sacrifice. This is why we say that Jesus is both Priest and Victim.

As we know, in His mysterious and loving plan, Jesus willed that these graces and this mercy, poured forth from His pierced side upon the Cross, should be distributed to faithful Christians in time, through the Church He founded. This is done through the sacraments, but most especially in the Sacrifice of the Mass, which makes present again that same Sacrifice offered by Jesus on the Cross. In the Holy Mass, we say that the priest offering the Mass acts “in the person of Christ.” This is one of the reasons why our present Holy Father has spoken so many times, both as theologian and now as Pope, about Jesus being the center of every Mass. It is He whom the people should see at the Altar, when the priest is celebrating the Eucharist in His name and in His Person.

The other place in which the merciful love of the Heart of Jesus is made present in time, to each person seeking His mercy and love, is in the sacrament of reconciliation. In order to make the moment of His love and forgiveness clear to an inspanidual seeking His mercy, Jesus has entrusted this treasure of His merciful and forgiving Heart to the priest in the confessional. When the words of absolution are pronounced, after the confession of sin and expression of sorrow on the part of the penitent, the mercy of Jesus is extended at that moment and the fruits of the merciful Heart of Jesus are given to that person. Is it any wonder that there is an intimate connection between the priesthood and the Sacred Heart?

Confidence in the forgiveness of the Sacred Heart
All of us, priests, consecrated religious and lay faithful, are in need of the merciful love of the Sacred Heart. In our own moment in history, we seem to be surrounded with a spirit which is both totally permissive, but also merciless. The law of God provides for clear guidance, and so we believe in the objective reality of sin when God’s law is transgressed. However, we also believe in mercy, and so we do not despair when we sin.

I would like to share a story with you which concerns St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the nun whom our Lord appeared to with His Heart exposed, and her own spiritual director, Father, now St. Claude de la Colombiere.

The Church has always been extremely cautious when an inspanidual claims to have had an apparition of our Lord, our Lady or one of the saints. This is so for two basic reasons: the first is that all the revelation that we need to know for our salvation was given to us by the time of the death of the last Apostle, and so there is never a new revelation made through an apparition; secondly, apparitions are difficult to prove and they can cause unhealthy emotionalism among their followers.

Therefore, when Sister Margaret Mary told her spiritual director that our Lord had appeared to her and showed her His Heart, the priest was hesitant to believe her. When he eventually realized that her apparitions were genuine, he asked her to ask Jesus a question the next time He appeared to her. He wanted her to ask our Lord which of his sins (Father Claude’s) had offended Jesus the most. Sister asked the question as requested. Our Lord told her: “Tell him I have forgotten!”

This is a wonderful lesson in the love and mercy of the Sacred Heart to those who confess their sins with true sorrow. It is this forgiveness, this “forgetfulness,” that we receive from Jesus in the person of the priest who absolves us of our sins. Again, what great sense it makes to unite the love of the Heart of Jesus with the Priesthood!

A heartfelt thank you to all of you
Last Friday, I had the privilege on concelebrating the Mass which closed the Year of the Priest with Pope Benedict XVI. I brought all of your petitions with me and, most of all, I brought my gratitude for the faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This Year of the Priest has been what our Holy Father wished it to be when he proclaimed it: a great outpouring of faith in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, which He shares with chosen, imperfect men, so that the fruits of His loving Heart may be distributed to inspaniduals until the end of time. It has been the occasion of many prayers offered by you, the faithful, for your priests, for your Archbishop and my Auxiliary Bishops.

I pray that it may bring one more special benefit, which may not be seen for a few years: an increase of vocations to the priesthood in our own Archdiocese. In this way, the merciful love of the Heart of Jesus, poured out from His open side on the Cross, and distributed through His Church by the instrument of the Priesthood, may ever be offered more effectively for the salvation of the world.

17 June 2010