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Fire and Thorns: Introduction
In the year 1932, the entire world was in an upheaval. Europe was still desperately trying to recover from
the First World War.
Revolutions and uprisings were exploding in South and Central America and parts of Asia. Famine was devastating Joseph Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union. A bloody civil war had just ended in Mexico, and one was soon to begin in Spain.
Japan annexed Manchuria and was threatening the balance of power in the eastern Pacific. Mussolini was in power in Italy. Adolph Hitler was advancing to power in Germany. And the stubborn, worldwide Great Depression was continuing to devastate the international economy.
That year, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical entitled “Caritate Christi Compulsi,” or, in English: “Constrained by the Charity of Christ.” In this letter, the Pope interpreted the signs of the times, and he described the world situation as more dire than in any period since Noah’s flood. He wrote:
Anyone who considers carefully the prolonged and
bitter series of sufferings, the unhappy heritage of sin, whereby, as by so many stages, we mark the course of fallen man in this mortal pilgrimage, can hardly find any occasion since the Flood, when the race of man was so deeply and so commonly tried by so many and such great distresses of body and of mind as those which we lament to see in the present troubles.
– Caritate Christi Compulsi, 2
And what was the Pope’s proposed solution to this cataclysmic situation? Did he call for political action, economic reform, and shrewd diplomacy? No. Not just those kinds of things. Instead, he went right to the heart of the matter — to Jesus’ Sacred Heart, in fact.
In that encyclical, he called on Catholics throughout the world to return in prayer and penance to that symbol and source of all saving grace. He assured the suffering multitudes that:
The divine Heart of Jesus cannot but be moved at the prayers and sacrifices of His Church, and He will finally say to His Spouse, weeping at His feet under the weight of so many griefs and woes: “Great is thy faith; be it done to thee as thou wilt” [Matthew 15:28].
– Ibid. 34
It may seem like a strange solution to us. But he wasn’t alone in making that appeal. Other popes who had to face the unprecedented challenges of the modern world did the same thing.
Pius IX had made the liturgical celebration of the Sacred Heart universal, for the entire Church, in 1856.
Leo XIII had arranged for a formal consecration of the entire world to the Sacred Heart in 1899.
Pius XII invoked the Sacred Heart at the outbreak of World War II, and devoted a lengthy encyclical of his own to its devotion at the dawn of the terrible Cold War just a few years later.
And in that encyclical, he described the Sacred Heart Devotion as absolutely central to the life of the Church and of every Christian. Here are his words:
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.
– Haurietis Aquas, 123
We have all seen pictures and sculptures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus — not all of which are exactly artistic masterpieces. Some of us may have even consecrated ourselves or our families to the Sacred Heart. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that most of us, here in the twenty-first century, feel that we don’t fully understand either the beauty and the power of this devotion, or how to effectively plug into it in our daily lives.
This Retreat Guide, Fire and Thorns, will try to fill that gap. We will take our cue from the Pope Benedict XVI’s explanation of Sacred Heart Devotion as including three dimensions:
In the first meditation, we will look at how the symbolism of the Sacred Heart invites us to recognize God’s personal and passionate love for each one of us.
In the second meditation, we will look at how that symbolism invites us to welcome God’s personal love into our hearts.
And in the conference, we will get practical and look at how Our Lord invites us to respond to this life-giving love.
Before diving in, let’s take some time to activate our awareness of God’s presence. He is here with us right now, looking forward to spending this time with us, and eager to grant us the graces we need to grow spiritually.
Let’s tell him we believe in that. And let’s ask him to bless this retreat, and to help us learn the precious lessons that he wants to teach us through fire and through thorns.