One fresh April morning, leaving St. Peter’s Basilica, I walked across the Tiber river, through a maze of beautiful Roman streets, and found myself standing in front of the iconic Pantheon. Breathtaking as it is, it wasn’t my destination.
I continued around the corner and went into the more modest Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where my friend St. Catherine of Siena lies in repose. She is a good friend, and someone I love to spend time in prayer with. But this morning, I simply greeted her with a smile and a quick hello, and then walked over to the dark back-left corner of the church. Getting up close to the grate of the side-chapel hidden in the shadows there, I settled in to pray before my favorite image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, exchanging smiles of heart with St. Catherine, and the friend who joined us there, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
The first time I saw this painting, it hit me powerfully. My first impulse was an unspoken exclamation, “I want to be there with them, adoring Jesus together with them!” And then I realized… I am. Not in a painting, but in reality.
We’ve heard the expression soul sisters. That’s who I find in this particular work of art. Soul Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Centuries and countries separated St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Catherine of Siena and I. One was a French cloistered nun, one an Italian laywoman and third order Dominican, and one is a Canadian mom of 6 living now in the United States. Two are saints, one is not (yet), but here we are together, adoring our shared Love. And looking at the painting, I see how happy that makes him. He glows. He radiates. He gazes with tender, merciful love, at eyes that gaze into his heart.
And there’s more- the fountain of living water calls to mind another soul sister- the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Unseen in the painting, I know that in spirit she is here with us too, at the feet of our beloved Lord.
He is also the Risen Lord in the garden, with his glorified wounds. The Christ who appeared to St. Mary Magdelene (John 20:1-18). She is another unseen soul sister who is there with us.
Draped over Jesus’ shoulders are broken ropes- the broken ropes of my sins and fears – the sins and fears that bound me until he set me free, and which he continues to break in the sacrament of confession, every time they threaten to bind me again. He makes me free to be loved and to love.
Why are we there adoring the Sacred Heart together? Why the draw that spans millennia and cultures? Because there we learn what love is, and that Love loves us more deeply than anyone else could, more deeply than we can understand.
We do not hesitate to declare that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the most effective school of the love of God; the love of God, we say, which must be the foundation on which to build the kingdom of God in the hearts of individuals, families, and nations. -Pope Pius XII
What is the Heart of Christ that it draws our love so much? The Catechism says,
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others… The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter… it is the place of covenant. – CCC 2563
(Side note: Check out the RC Spirituality Center’s Fire & Thorns Retreat Guide on the Sacred Heart for a beautiful meditation on this.)
According to the Catechism, then, the Sacred Heart is the dwelling place of Jesus Christ, and the place he chooses for encounter and covenant with us. Inside His Heart, we open our own hearts to him and to others. Entering through his wounds, we feel the courage to let him enter our own wounds, and unite us to himself through mercy.
To me, the resonance of heart that stirs whenever I meet a saint, or any person who loves the Sacred Heart from an experience of mercy, is a concrete experience of the communion of saints. Not that I’m a saint, but that through mercy I am counted among those who are- those who have loved Christ bravely and gone on to win Heaven’s crown. And my heart beats more and more with the same passion that theirs do.
Going outside the doors of the Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, I find more soul sisters (and brothers) everywhere. St. Augustine, portrayed holding the fiery Sacred Heart in his hand, and countless others in almost every church. There’s even a church called Our Lady of the Sacred Heart- a title we don’t often hear given to Mary, but that makes so much sense.
A friend of mine said that when she is in Rome, she plays an adaptation of the game Where’s Waldo? called Where’s the Sacred Heart? since his image is in almost every Church, just waiting to be found (the one exception I have found so far is the Pantheon….).
His love- so strong that it bleeds and burns, is everywhere. Do we notice? Do we enter into his heart in a way that we really open our eyes to the intensity of His love?
One of my favorite meditations is on Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John 17. Taking the words they and them out of the passage, I put in my own name. In doing this, the truth of who I am and how Christ loves me becomes instantly visible – and breathtaking.
Adding your own name, knowing that Christ spoke to his Father so passionately about you, exposes the intense and personal love of the Sacred Heart to your soul in a new way.
Then, taking the words them and they out and putting in not only my name, but other names as well, those of my family, my friends, fellow parishioners, priests, the pope, people I don’t get along with, and of course the saints, takes this union Christ prays for to another level. Communion in him. In his Sacred Heart.
Praying this way and adding the names of others to your own must bring such consolation to “the Heart that has loved so much and been loved so little in return” (Jesus’ own words to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque), and it gives us a taste of the communion we will have in Heaven, God-willing.
Try it…. I’ll meet you there, in prayer and communion before Him, and I’ll bring St. Catherine and St. Margaret Mary with me too.
After saying this, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you; so that, just as you have given him power over all humanity, he may give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him. And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world existed. I have revealed your name to those whom you took from the world to give me. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now, at last, they have recognized that all you have given me comes from you for I have given them the teaching you gave to me, and they have indeed accepted it and know for certain that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me. It is for them that I pray. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All I have is yours and all you have is mine, and in them, I am glorified.
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us. While I was with them, I kept those you had given me true to your name. I have watched over them and not one is lost except one who was destined to be lost, and this was to fulfill the scriptures. But now I am coming to you and I say these things in the world to share my joy with them to the full. I passed your word on to them, and the world hated them because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world. I am not asking you to remove them from the world, but to protect them from the Evil One. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world, and for their sake, I consecrate myself so that they too may be consecrated in truth.
I pray not only for these but also for those who through their teaching will come to believe in me. May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity that the world will recognize that it was you who sent me and that you have loved them as you have loved me.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they may always see my glory which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Father, Upright One, the world has not known you, but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me. I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.”