Fire and Thorns: Conference

Spreading Fire and Removing Thorns

  • Introduction
  • Removing Thorns
  • Making Reparation
  • Exchanging Hearts: Conclusion & Questionnaire



To sum up what we have seen so far in this Retreat Guide, I would like to cite a passage from the universal Catechism, which explains the solid theology of this devotion, independent of the supernatural visions and revelations that over the years have illustrated that theology.
Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life,
his agony and his Passion, and gave himself up for each one of us: “The Son of God… loved me and gave himself for me” [Galatians 2:20]. He has loved us all with a human heart. For this reason, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by our sins and for our salvation, “is quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that… love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings” without exception [Pope Pius XII].
–CCC 478
If you are using this Retreat Guide, God has already given you at least a small experience of this love, and
he has already stirred up in your soul a desire to love him in return — that experience and that desire are the core of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In this conference, I would simply like to offer a few reflections on some of the practical expressions of that devotion that have developed in the Church. Maybe one or two of them will resonate with you, and become a good channel for your love.

Removing Thorns

The first expression of devotion to the Sacred Heart is the most obvious. If someone you love comes to you in pain, the first thing you want to do is remove the cause of that pain.
If they sprained their ankle, you help them put some ice on it. If they scraped their knee, you help them clean and dress the wound. If they are hungry, you give them something to eat. The pain experienced by the Sacred Heart is symbolized by the thorns that pierce that heart. To show our love, then, we want to do everything we can to remove those thorns.
Jesus has explained what those thorns are: they are sins. Every sin is a rejection of God’s love, because every sin, like original sin itself, is disobedience to God’s loving plan for our lives and for the world. And so, at the very center of devotion to the Sacred Heart we find the basic work of the Church as a whole and of every sincere Christian: the conversion of sinners, the bringing of people into friendship with Jesus Christ.
Someone who is truly devoted to the Sacred Heart, therefore, will do what the first Apostles did, responding generously to Christ’s great commission:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
– Matthew 28:19-20
Every time we have the chance to share our experience of Christ’s love and our knowledge of his truth with another person, we are removing a thorn from the Sacred Heart.
Every time we show forth God’s love to those who haven’t experienced it yet, through our words and works of kindness and service and mercy, we are removing a thorn from the Sacred Heart.
Every time we help someone find their way back to or deeper into a life of prayer and the sacraments, we are removing a thorn from the Sacred Heart.
Of course, those efforts would be kind of counterproductive if we ourselves hadn’t declared war against sin in our own lives; our ongoing commitment to virtue, therefore, to “not grow weary of doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13), as St. Paul puts it, is a key element in this devotion.
It’s worthwhile to remember that both of these things, helping sinners find their way back to Jesus and avoiding sin ourselves, require an ongoing, steady effort to get to know Jesus and his teachings through prayer and study.
Our daily time of personal prayer, our study of the Gospels and the faith of the Church, and all our other devotions, then, which help us to know Jesus more and more, fit right into this devotion.
And so, the first form of devotion to the Sacred Heart is simply removing thorns by spreading the light of Christ, through our Christ-like thoughts, words, and actions that God can use to lead sinners back to the Father’s house. It’s an every day thing. It’s a way of life. And it brings relief and joy to the heart of God.
This is the origin of what gradually became the practice of formal consecration to the Sacred Heart.
When we consecrate ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we commit ourselves, out of love, to let
him be the King and Lord of our lives, to obey his commandments and his will, to be dedicated to him and to serve him in whatever way the Holy Spirit may ask us.
We can make this consecration in our own words, maybe even writing out a personal prayer of consecration. Or we can use one of the many formulas that others have written through the years; St. Margaret Mary herself wrote out a prayer of consecration.
We can also consecrate our families to the Sacred Heart — this is often done by putting an image of the Sacred Heart in some prominent place in the family’s home. (This practice gradually came to be called the Enthronement of the Sacred Heart.)
We can also consecrate our parishes, our apostolates, even whole nations have consecrated themselves in this way. And in 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole world to the Sacred Heart.
It is a beautiful thing to make this consecration. And when we renew it frequently, we give great pleasure
to the Sacred Heart, because we show him the loyalty and friendship that he deserves and desires, but that he so often seeks and doesn’t find. And we also remind ourselves of our commitment to keep removing the thorns that cause him such sorrow.
At the end of this Retreat Guide we have reproduced a common prayer of consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Making Reparation

In Jesus’ conversations with St. Margaret Mary, he singled out a particular sin that causes him more pain than any other. And this was something new in the history of this devotion.
In the early centuries of the Church, Christians developed a devotion to the five wounds of Jesus on the cross: the nail wounds in his hands and feet, and the spear wound in his side. These were contemplated as symbols and proofs of his humanity, and of his real, self- sacrificial love.
But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that devotion to Christ’s heart became explicit. We begin to find it in the writings of St. Anselm, and especially St. Bernard of Clairvaux, among others.
And we also find it in special revelations that Jesus gave to some consecrated women, especially to two nuns from the Cistercian convent of Helfta in Germany. These were St. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, and St. Gertrude the Great.
Later, devotion to the Sacred Heart continued to spread and appear in theological and popular writings and preaching, and it found especially strong devotees in
the sixteenth-century saints, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, who together founded the religious order
of the Visitation — the order that St. Margaret Mary would eventually join.
Then with the Lord’s work through St. Margaret Mary and her spiritual director, St. Claude de la Colombiere, devotion to the Sacred Heart gradually became universal in the Church, and it has been praised and spread by all the modern popes.
Throughout this long history, the Sacred Heart was seen as a symbol of love, and a source of great comfort for those who were suffering — because they knew that they could unite their sufferings to Christ, who also had suffered so much.
But only with the revelations that Jesus made to St. Margaret Mary did our Lord bring up the emphasis on one particular sin, and on making reparation for this sin.
What was this sin? Ingratitude.
Jesus himself explained this to St. Margaret Mary during the fourth “great” apparition, on June 16, 1675, when he appeared to her standing above the altar, and pointing to his Sacred Heart. He told her:
Behold this heart, which has so loved mankind that
it has spared itself nothing, even to being spent and consumed to prove its love for men. And yet it has received in return from the majority of mankind only ingratitude, coldness, and the neglect of me in the sacrament of my love. But what is even more painful to me is that it is hearts consecrated to me which use me thus.
Jesus has not only been ungratefully ignored and taken for granted over the centuries, but he has also been ungratefully persecuted, insulted, and grossly abused – especially through the sacrileges committed against the sacraments, and most especially against the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Obviously, those who are committed to Jesus want
to be able to make up for — to repair for — all these offenses, for all this ingratitude. And in his revelations to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus himself gave to the Church a series of prayerful practices that can serve as a channel for that spirit of loving reparation.
Four of these became especially associated with devotion to the Sacred Heart. What’s striking about them, for us busy modern Christians, is how nicely they can fit into our schedules. By taking them up, we can easily find a way to express our commitment to Christ, and to keep the fire of his love burning strong in our own hearts.

Frequent Holy Communion
First, there is the practice of frequent Holy Communion.
At the time of St. Margaret Mary, the Church in France was suffering under an influential heresy called Jansenism. Among other mistakes, Jansenism claimed that God’s love and mercy were actually limited to
a reduced number of select people. One of the consequences of that belief was a dramatic reduction in the reception of Holy Communion among Jansenist sympathizers — no one was really sure if they were among the spiritually elite, so they fearfully refrained from approaching the altar to receive the Eucharist.
By encouraging St. Margaret Mary, and through her
the rest of the Church, in just the opposite direction, Jesus was reasserting the vastness and power of his love and mercy; he was reasserting that his love and mercy extend to everyone.

First Fridays
This consists in giving special attention to the Sacred Heart, and its sufferings, on the first Friday of each month. It’s like making each first Friday into a mini- Good Friday. The practice consists of going to Mass and receiving Communion on those days, and some people also add going to confession.
In one of his revelations to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus even made a special promise to everyone who receives Holy Communion on nine First Fridays in a row (making a kind of novena out of the First Fridays). Here is how she described this promise in a letter to her superior:
One Friday during Holy Communion, he said these words to his unworthy slave, if she be not mistaken:
“I promise you, in the excessive mercy of my heart, that its all-powerful love will grant to all those who communicate on nine First Fridays of the month the grace of final repentance. They shall not die in its disfavor nor without receiving their sacraments, and my divine heart will be their assured refuge at the last moment.”
This promise seems so extreme and so specific that it caused a lot of controversy among theologians before St. Margaret Mary’s canonization. But after the Pope referred specifically and positively to this promise in his declaration of canonization, the controversy ceased.
It’s just one more sign of how wildly Jesus loves us and thirsts for our love. He knows that if we take the time and effort to open ourselves to his graces through simple practices like this, it will make a huge difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Holy Hour
This consists in an hour of prayer in the presence of the Eucharist. It began as an hour of prayer on Thursday night, but popular piety has made it overflow into any day and any time.
When Jesus gave this idea to St. Margaret Mary, he connected it with what he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane on the first Holy Thursday. On that night, he asked his three closest Apostles to accompany
him, to pray with him in his agony, but they kept falling asleep, and he had to suffer alone.
Jesus told St. Margaret Mary that through this weekly Holy Hour she would “keep me company in the prayer I then offered to my Father.” He asked her
to implore God’s mercy for sinners during that hour, and in that way, he said, she would “lessen in some way the bitterness I felt at that time because of the abandonment by my Apostles.”
Jesus wants to spend time with us, and he wants us to want to spend time with him — because he really does love us; the Holy Hour is a way for us respond to that desire.
Liturgical Feast of the Sacred Heart
Before his revelations to St. Margaret Mary, there had already emerged some localized liturgical celebrations in honor of the Sacred Heart, most especially under the inspiration of St. John Eudes, another French saint devoted to the Sacred Heart.
But in the fourth “great” apparition to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus asked for the universal institution of this feast, for the whole Church. It took awhile for this desire to be fulfilled, but the liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart did indeed become obligatory for the entire Church under Pope Pius IX in 1856.
The Mass for this day emphasizes all the themes we have been reflecting on: love and incarnation, suffering and reparation, and intimate friendship with Jesus Christ.


Exchanging Hearts: Conclusion & Questionnaire

Consecrating ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and staying close to that Sacred Heart through these prayerful practices of reparation, are concrete ways to keep the fire of God’s love burning in our hearts. It is good that Jesus gave us these tools, because being Christ’s disciples in this fallen world is not easy — in fact, it seems to be getting harder and harder. Jesus understands that.
When he appeared to St. Margaret Mary and asked her to give him some consolation for the ingratitude of so many others, she protested. She said she was too weak, too sinful to take on such an exalted mission. But Jesus replied by telling her that he would make up for all her weaknesses. And then he did a remarkable thing. Here is how St. Margaret Mary described it:
I protested my own inability. “See,” he replied, “this will enable you to supply for all your deficiencies.” And at that moment his heart opened, and there came from it so burning a flame that I feared I should be consumed by it. It was more than I could bear and I cried out for pity upon my weakness. “I will be your strength,” he said to me, “and so fear nothing…” Something similar had happened to St. Catherine of Siena, a third order Dominican who lived in Italy during the fourteenth century. Jesus came to her in a vision and seemed to take away her earthly heart. Suddenly, she was engulfed by a brilliant radiance. Then Christ approached her and in his hands was a heart, glowing with light. She fell to the ground, and the Lord drew nearer, placing the heart within her breast. Then he said,
My daughter, I have taken from you your own heart, and to replace it I give you mine that you may live by it forever.
Later, when she asked him why he permitted his side to be opened after his death, he explained:
My purpose, was to uncover to men the secret of my Heart, so that they might know my love is greater indeed than the external signs I give of it. For while there was an end to my sufferings, my love for men is without limit.

Personal Questionnaire

To be true apostles of his Sacred Heart, to spread the fire of his love and to remove the thorns that wound him, day after day, is indeed a high and difficult calling.
If we had to depend only on our own strength, it would be impossible. But we don’t. Jesus needs only our sincere desire and our decent effort — his limitless and all-powerful love will do all the rest.
Take some time to prayerfully review the ten questions in the personal questionnaire. The Holy Spirit may want to use them to give you some encouragement, guidance, and new ideas.

1. In my Christian journey so far, what things have most helped me get to know Jesus and his teachings?
2. What can I do in the coming months to continue getting to know Jesus and his teachings?
3. How firmly do I believe that my small acts of faith and love for God, and that my little prayers and sacrifices, can actually help make reparation for the sins and ingratitude of those who do not love Jesus? How do I typically manifest this belief in my daily life?
4. Which of the practices discussed in this conference (consecration, frequent Communion, the First Fridays, the Holy Hour, the liturgical Feast of the Sacred Heart) attracted me most and why?
5. Why does Jesus wants us to receive Holy Communion as frequently as we can?
6. What do I currently do to prepare myself to receive Holy Communion consciously and fervently? What could I do to prepare myself better?
7. Jesus is truly present (body, blood, soul, and divinity) in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And the sacrament of the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacles of almost every Catholic Church. How does he feel when I take time out of my busy schedule to visit him there, even just for a few moments?
8 Some people mock devotion to the Sacred Heart by saying that only a selfish God would complain about not being loved. How would I respond to that accusation?
9 When was the last time I tried to speak about Jesus Christ to a non-believer?
How deeply do I believe that God can make fruitful even my smallest effort to help others know better and respond more generously to the love of God as revealed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus?
A Common Prayer of Consecration to the Sacred Heart
Most holy Heart of Jesus, fountain of every blessing, I love You. With a lively sorrow for my sins I offer You this poor heart of mine. Make me humble, patient, and pure, and perfectly obedient to Your Will.
Good Jesus, grant that I may live in You and for You. Protect me in the midst of danger and comfort me in my afflictions. Bestow on me health of body, assistance in temporal needs, Your blessing on all that I do, and the grace of a holy death. Amen.

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