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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

Sexual Abuse and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

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Today Catholics mark the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Permit me a meditation on the Sacred Heart and, believe it or not, the way that this traditional devotion, typically derided as outmoded and old-fashioned, can help the Catholic Church address some of the factors behind the sexual abuse crisis.

(Now some advice for my atheist and agnostic friends: You'll want to skip the next few paragraphs, because what follows is some heavy-duty Catholic piety that I promise you're not going to like. )

In the late 1600s in Paray-le-Monial, France, Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation sister, began receiving visions of Jesus. In a series of mystical experiences, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, showing her his "Sacred Heart." Unfortunately, Margaret Mary had a tough time getting anyone in her convent take her or her intimations in prayer seriously. (This if often the lot of the saints in religious orders: no one believes them.)

Close to despair, Margaret Mary heard Jesus in prayer tell her that he would send his "faithful servant and perfect friend." A short time afterwards, Fr. Claude la Colombière, a French Jesuit on his "tertianship" assignment (the last stage of formal Jesuit training) showed up at her convent to be a spiritual director to the sisters. To the young Jesuit she confided her astonishing experiences in prayer, which Fr. Claude concluded were authentic.

An aside: being the "faithful servant and perfect friend" of Jesus is a good way of expressing the goal of every Christian life. (Perfect Friend is also the title of a now hard-to-find biography of St. Claude by Georges Guitton, first published in 1956, which made a deep impression on me as a Jesuit novice.)

Since then, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been part of the mission and spirituality of the Society of Jesus, aka the Jesuits. But lately the devotion has been viewed by many in as "outmoded" in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. Too many kitschy dime-store paintings of the Sacred Heart, too many cheesy statues where Jesus has a dopey look on his face, seemed to have doomed this devotion to spiritual obscurity and religious irrelevance. But we neglect it at our peril: It is a powerful symbol of the Love of God that needs to be recovered in a world filled with hatred and bitterness. And it can help us as we address a church riven by the scandal of sexual abuse.

But first let me share a favorite contemporary meditation on the Sacred Heart. The first is an essay from America magazine (later collected in a book on devotions called Awake My Soul) by Christopher Ruddy, a theologian who teaches at Catholic University. Here's my favorite part:

I did not grow up with any devotion to the Sacred Heart, and it is only in the last few years, as I have struggled with vocation and the demands of family life, that the practice has spoken to my own heart: the fearful heart that paralyzes me when I think of the future, rendering me unable to open myself in trust to God; the cramped heart that refuses to admit my wife and infant son, but clings to my own prerogatives, choosing to watch Peter out of the corner of my eye as I read the morning newspaper rather than get on the floor and play with him; the oblivious heart that holds forth at dinner on the recording history of The Beatles's Abbey Road, but forgets to ask Deborah how her class went that afternoon. At times like these I wonder, have I really let into my life those I love so much? Have I gone out to them? Are they part of my flesh or merely fellow travelers?



On a particularly difficult afternoon last summer, I took Peter for a walk. We wound up at a church in our neighborhood, and, almost unable to bear the despair and self-loathing that was consuming me, I went in to pray. I lit a candle before Mary for my wife and one for myself before Joseph. Almost accidentally I stopped in front of a wood-carving of the Sacred Heart. Caught somewhere between rage and tears, I looked up at the heart and, for the first time, saw beyond the barbed-wire crown of thorns encircling it, into its gentleness. A prayer rose up in me, "Jesus, give me a bigger heart." I looked at Peter in shame and in hope, and I went out into the day.



I remain irritable and irritating. I continue to struggle with a stoniness that shuts out so many. I know ever more clearly my deep sinfulness. But in continuing to pray to the Sacred Heart, I have also come to know God's still deeper mercy. I am strengthened by a heart pierced but unvanquished. I am welcomed by a heart that knows only tenderness and so makes me tender. I look on that pulsing, fleshy heart: courageous and vulnerable, compact and capacious, never one without the other.

The image of the heart of Jesus still has a great deal to teach Christians, Catholics and the Catholic Church today. Especially today -- in light of the sexual abuse crisis. To that end, a story.

Yesterday I was speaking with a Jesuit in my community about the idea of Jesus as a joyful person (part of a new book I'm working on). And he said spontaneously, "Oh he must have been!" I was surprised by his utter confidence in this.

"Why do you think so?" I asked.

"Because children wanted to be around him," he said. "To me that indicates that he was a joyful and gentle person. Children don't want to be with someone who is an ogre."

Good point. Not surprisingly -- since my friend mentioned children -- I was put in mind of the sex abuse crisis. And I started to think about what the Sacred Heart can teach us.

In 2003, soon after the scandals broke in the United States, I participated in a panel discussion, at a large teaching hospital in New York City, on the topic of sexual abuse in the church. The audience was mainly health-care professionals, clergy and several victims of abuse. The panel included several psychologists and psychiatrists. After I gave my talk on what I saw as the causes of the abuse, a psychiatrist outlined the two main characteristics of abusers. (The proceedings were later gathered into a book called Predatory Priests, Silenced Victims.) It was an illuminating presentation that I've never forgotten. The two characteristics were narcissism and grandiosity.

The narcissist, said the psychiatrist, does not care how uncomfortable he makes a child -- or anyone, for that matter -- even if a child expresses or indicates discomfort. That is, an emotionally healthy person would know when another person is feeling uncomfortable. The narcissist does not, and so he persists in his abusive behavior. And, after the abuse is revealed, or the abuser is convicted of a crime, the narcissist personality mainly feels sorry for himself (or herself). Because, as the saying goes, it is all about him.

The abuser with grandiose feelings, the psychiatrist explained, is the "Pied Piper," the larger-than-life personality, the frequent Lone Ranger, who figures into so many abuse narratives. The person who attracts children into his orbit through the sheer force of his personality. The person in whom parents mistakenly place their trust because of his "gifts" with children. The person whom bishops and religious superiors give a wide berth, or even give a pass, because of his "unique" ministry.

Both of these characteristics -- narcissism and grandiosity -- are devastating for anyone in ministry. Yet they are the hallmarks, said the psychiatrist, of the abuser. And the priest-abuser.

How much the Sacred Heart still has to teach Catholics -- especially today. For narcissism and grandiosity are the opposite of the way that Jesus loved. He did not love to serve himself, nor did he love to be seen as "more than" others. Indeed, he "emptied himself," as St. Paul said in the Letter to the Philippians. And though Jesus naturally attracted people to himself, it was never to fulfill his own desires for grandiose plans: indeed, he rejected all of those plans in the desert.

The Sacred Heart is not narcissistic and grandiose but selfless and humble. Jesus's heart is the model for the hearts of all in Christian ministry, and for all who wish to be his "faithful servant and perfect friend."

May all Catholics and the Catholic Church, with God's grace, be freed from narcissism and grandiosity. And may the Sacred Heart, this "courageous and vulnerable" love of Jesus, be our goal as we move ahead in a broken church.

James Martin, SJ, is culture editor of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. This essay is adapted from a longer post at "In All Things."