By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 17 September 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My Christians have the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which is observed on the first Fridays of the month for nine months. Because of another pastoral commitment, when I am not available to offer Mass for them on one of the first Fridays, can I authorize a change of the first Friday to the second Friday of the month? — D.M., Nairobi, Kenya
A: This question relates to the promise of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). Among other promises he stated:
"I promise you, in the excessive mercy of my Heart, that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who communicate on the First Friday of nine consecutive months, the grace of final penitence; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments, my Divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment."
While the devotion to the Sacred Heart gained great popularity after the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary, it does not depend on these visions. In some form or other it is rooted in Christianity itself as a particular way of approaching Christ. As St. Augustine says, it is reaching Christ God through Christ the man.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart was already implied in many masters of the spiritual life. Blessed Henry Suso, a Dominican religious inspired by St. Augustine, said, "If you desire to attain knowledge of the divinity, it is necessary to ascend gradually through the humanity and the Passion of this humanity as the easiest path."
The devotion was inculcated over the centuries by the meditations on Christ's wounds and especially the wound to his heart. These reflections were aided by biblical texts such as John 19:34 and Isaiah 53:5. Especially influential was Song of Songs 4:9: "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse, you have ravished my heart." Many writers such as Origen, St. Ambrose and St John Chrysostom applied this text to the Passion. This tradition was later strengthened by the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible which translated the text as "wounded" (vulnerasti) rather than ravished.
During the Middle Ages these initial reflections were deepened and broadened with new ideas, especially with more personal and tender elements. Among the writers who influenced this development were St. Bede the Venerable, Haimo of Auxerre, and John of Fécamp, a Benedictine. Their meditations on the Passion inspired numerous imitations. The figure of St. Bernard of Clairvaux dominates his epoch, and his meditations on the Song of Songs gave new impulse to this devotion. His devotion directly influenced many others such as his friend Aelred of Rievaulx and Ekbert of Schönau whose "Stimulus Dilectionis" was incorporated by St. Bonaventure in Nos. 18-31 of his work "Lignum Vitae."
These works also influenced popular piety and devotions as well as the liturgy with many hymns and feasts related to themes of the Passion, such as the feast of the "Transfixation" of Christ's heart. For example, we offer a rough translation of the 12th-century hymn "Summi Regis Cor Aveto," composed at the Premonstratensian Abbey of Seinfield near Cologne.
"Let me sing to you, Heart of my God, and present you a cheerful and cordial greeting. My heart desires to joyfully embrace you. Let me speak to you. What love is it that has forced you? What pain has penetrated you, so that you empty yourself so fully, and, lover, you surrender yourself to us, and thus not even death can overpower us?"
In the following centuries other saints influenced the spread of this devotion, such as Matilda and Gertrude the Great, and the Carthusians of St. Barbara of Cologne. Among the disciples of the doctrine propagated by this monastery were the early Jesuits St. Peter Canisius and Peter Fabro. This devotion to the Sacred Heart promoted by the early Jesuits prepared the terrain which years later led fellow Jesuit St. Claude de la Colombiere to understand and accept the visions of his penitent, St. Margaret Mary. It also explains in part the strong impulse and support that this order would give to this devotion in the centuries to come.
With respect to the precise question, I believe there are two possible solutions to this difficulty regarding the impossibility of fulfilling the First Fridays.
First of all, since the promise is united to receiving Communion, and not necessarily to attending Mass, a Communion service could be arranged on the Friday when Mass is impossible. This would appear the safest solution.
Second, a few authors point out that the object of this devotion is to inflame our hearts with an ardent love for Jesus and make reparation for the offenses committed against him, above all in the Blessed Sacrament. Since this can be done on a daily basis, these authors suggest that the pious practices tied to the First Fridays are not confined to this particular day. Therefore if someone is legitimately prevented from carrying out the practices on a Friday, he may offer the devotions in the same spirit on any other day.
This is a legitimate, but far from universal, opinion based on God's infinite mercy and knowledge. Most authors make no mention of exceptions, as the grace is tied to a specific promise made in a private revelation. It is clear, however, that someone who carries out these practices with the proper intention will be duly assisted by divine grace.
There does not appear to be any Church law on the subject. In general, except in granting indulgences, the Church refrains from legislating on matters related to private revelations, even if they are officially approved and recommended as this devotion certainly is.