My fundamentalist Granny likes to tell a story on herself as a young wife. It seems she felt smugly superior to a little Catholic housewife she knew, on account of the exceptionally syrupy, hideous portrait of Jesus displayed prominently in the woman's living room.

One day in conversation, the woman happened to remark she knew the painting wasn't an aesthetic treasure, but at least no one could doubt who was head of her household.
That left an indelible impression on my grandmother, who often resented the materialism of the corporate bosses she and my grandfather entertained in order to maintain his career, and wrestled with her conscience over what she perceived as concessions she made against her own principles to “get ahead.”

To my mind, these “compromises” of hers were more perceived than real, but that's another matter. She came to respect that tacky portrait as a bold, almost rebellious statement. “Christ reigns here.”

From my grandmother’s description, the portrait was unquestionably a picture of the Sacred Heart.

In his lovely essay, “Defending Devotion to the Sacred Heart,” Prof. Timothy O’Donnell defends this devotion, to which the entire month of June is dedicated, against the charge that it’s archaic, old-fashioned and saccharine.

Truth be told, some of the art associated with the Sacred Heart is a little…unfortunate.  Sentimental, rather than muscular, piety surrounding the devotion was already a problem in the 1950s, when Pope Pius XII wrote an encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart that urged the faithful to leave sentimentalism aside and discover the genuine depths of Christ’s love.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart does not consist primarily in toleration of tacky representation of Him, fortunately. A succession of popes has recommended worship of Christ’s Divine Heart as a means of countering the increasing coldness and isolation of our age. Prof. O’Donnell highlights the recommendation of three popes:

•    “[Devotion to the Heart of Jesus] is the extraordinary remedy for the extraordinary needs of our times” (Pius XI, “Caritate Christi Compulsi,” May 3, 1932).
•    “Devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is so important that it may be considered, so far as practice is concerned, the perfect profession of the Christian religion.... It is no ordinary form of piety which anyone at his own whim may treat as of little consequence or set aside as inferior to others” (Pius XII, “Haurietis Aquas,” May 15, 1956).
•    “The cult rendered to the Sacred Heart is the most efficacious means to contribute to that spiritual and moral renewal of the world called for by the Second Vatican Council” (Paul VI, “Address to the Thirty-First General Congregation of the Society of Jesus,” Nov. 17, 1966).

And we can offer two more:

•    In a discourse in 1988, John Paul II taught that “for evangelization to be effective today, the Heart of Christ must be recognized as the Heart of the Church."
•    Celebrating the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Pope Benedict XVI once observed simply: “The very core of Christianity is expressed in the heart of Jesus.”

Pragmatic beings that we are, even with the best intentions our practice of the faith can become cold and formulaic; Christianity is always at risk of being reduced by its own disciples to a list of rules to follow. This is no way to win over a skeptical world.

As Pope Benedict XVI constantly reminds us, Christianity does not consist primarily in a set of moral strictures, but in the joy of a personal relationship with Christ.

The effort to get to know Christ’s heart intimately, unite our own hearts to his, and imitate him in our own lives is the best means of assuring that our own hearts don’t grow cold.

Prof. O’Donnell puts it nicely: “Coldness and hatred can be melted and overcome only by the fire of love.”