By Rev. Joseph J. C. Petrovits, J.C.B., S.T.L.
THE PRIMARY OBJECTS OF WORSHIP ADUMBRATIONS OF THE CULT OF THE SACRED HEART
The anthropologists of our time agree that even the pagan nations worship a superior being. Their statements are founded upon the science of comparative religion. The early Fathers of the Church came to the same conclusion from their knowledge of pagan literature and customs. Their observations based on the facts of pagan history proved the untenableness of Descartes' excessive intellectualism concerning the idea of God. It is now generally admitted that all the nations had a more or less clear idea of a relatively superior being whom they worshipped as Creator, Supreme Ruler, Preserver, Supernatural Force and Power. All these concepts are spontaneous with man, for he cannot fail to realize his dependence on One Whose existence is eloquently proclaimed by the " good things that are seen," (Wisdom, XIII. i.) and of whom the royal psalmist chants the beautiful strain " the Heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of His hands." (Ps. XVIII. i.)
In the Old Covenant the Jewish nation alone had a true knowledge of the true God, and worshipped Him as He commanded. This worship was not the most perfect that man was capable of rendering to his Creator, for some of its acts were only prototypes of the higher cult which the Son of God came to establish. By the light which Christ brought down from heaven we were helped to form a clearer knowledge of God and of His relation to mankind. The divine manifestations which accompanied His teaching became irresistible criteria of credibility. He gained adherents, selected twelve Apostles, and founded a spiritual kingdom on earth. He perfected the former worship by retaining some of its phases, and abolished others, introducing new ones in their place. Christianity thus supplanted Judaism. Finally, He laid down His life as a victim of love, in order to satisfy divine justice, and to restore the race to its lost supernatural status and privileges. Thus, He became the object of a special worship on account of the infinite love visualized in the work of His Incarnation and Redemption. A Christian's worship of Christ, therefore, ought to be just as spontaneous as the worship shown to God by one who never heard of the mysteries of Redemption.
These two worships, viz., of God and of the Incarnate Word, belong to the very essence of religion. They are the two sources from which all devotions practised by the faithful and approved by the Church originate. All the honors thus externalized redound ultimately to their glory. Every act of homage is calculated to terminate in them directly or indirectly. Even when we honor a Saint, as a proximate object, our homages in their final analysis must refer to a remote object, viz., God, Whose goodness and sanctity are reflected in His Saint. Hence, it follows, that a devotion, having a theological justification, does not detract from the external glory of God simply because He is not its proximate object. The history of the various devotions shows this principle to have been adopted by the Church. In our own days one could point out many objects of worship which were unknown in the early ages of Christianity except so far as it is possible in certain instances to detect adumbrations.
There were private devotions in the past, of which, for a time, the Church took no official cognizance. With such, as a rule, it does not concern itself unless they are of so dangerous a character as to necessitate an interference in order that the spiritual welfare of the individual may not be jeopardized. History proves that the Church has never failed to make an authoritative pronouncement of commendation or reprobation when a new devotion became extensively diffused. Being the depository of truth, the supreme guardian of matters touching things spiritual, it always raised its voice when a tendency, not in conformity with revelation and tradition, was perceptible within the fold. To substantiate this fact it will suffice to bear in mind the many propositions it condemned, the dogmas it clearly defined, the false teachings it interdicted, the numerous devotions it discountenanced, and the many heretics it anathematized. The Church is the official judge as to the legitimacy of any certain cult or devotion.
The history of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart is an example showing that the Church exercises all possible precaution in this matter before a final judgment is pronounced. It is not the purpose of this work to present a lengthy historical treatise. We must content ourselves with what is absolutely necessary in order that we may be enabled intelligently to connect with the history of this Devotion those aspects which are to claim our special attention.