It is sometimes thought that devotion to the Sacred Heart can be rather individualistic – nothing but a personal relationship between me and Jesus. But that is the opposite of the spirituality of the Sacred Heart. We see in Jesus a love for his heavenly Father that moves outward in this world to the love of neighbour.
Jesus draws on the Old Testament to remind us of the two great commandments of love: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) On the cross itself, the compassionate love of the heart of Jesus reaches out to console the criminal crucified with him. (Luke 23:39-43) It is not a love that is restricted to some safe place of religious piety: the love of the heart of Jesus encompassed the most marginalized in his society, symbolized by the lepers he healed. It is a practical love represented by the shrewd practicality of the Good Samaritan, who knew what to do to really help the man lying wounded at the side of the road. (Luke 10:33-35)
The Sacred Heart statues with outstretched hands challenge us to care for those most in need. The famous story of such a statue of the Sacred Heart, with hands blown off during battles in World War I France, speaks of this. When, after the war, the parishioners wanted to get a sculptor to repair the hands, a wiser person said: “No, leave it as it is, but put a sign on the statue saying “You are his hands”.” And so we are, extending the practical love of Jesus to others. Head, heart, and hands.
The Sacred Heart reaches outward in practical love. But is this not charity, instead of justice? It certainly is a call to practical love in the service of others, but flowing from that is awareness of the need to work to change the social structures that lead to suffering. Christian social justice needs a foundation in the spiritual wisdom of the Sacred Heart devotion, for a shadow side of the passion for justice can be an abstract and generalized concern for justice for humanity, forgetting the individual. The Sacred Heart devotion is a corrective to that: we are called to serve the cause of justice for all by recognizing the dignity of each individual, each person loved as Jesus loves, fully, warmly, and one at a time.
It is not surprising that Pope Leo XIII, who initiated the modern Social Teaching of the Catholic Church with his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 is also the same pope who initiated the modern approach to devotion to the Sacred Heart in his encyclical Annum Sacrum in 1899, when he consecrated humanity to the Sacred Heart. He considered that act to be the high point of his pontificate.