A call to transformation


Homily by Fr Provincial Damian Howard at the Final Vows Mass of James Conway SJ, 8th June 2018.

It is traditional for a Jesuit to take his final vows on some notable Jesuit feast. Fr Jim Conway has chosen the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion championed early on by the Society of Jesus and one which has given its name to so many of our parishes and other works around the world. The revelation given to St Margaret Mary Alacoque takes us right back to the very heart of the Christian message, and allows us to celebrate a kind of ‘Good Friday in Ordinary’.

The Lord’s Passion is very much to the fore in this feast, as the reading of St John’s Gospel makes clear. It’s easy to assume that that rather Gallic spirituality of expiatory suffering is central to its message. But the original call of the Sacred Heart was to ponder the scene of the agony in the Garden. There, Jesus wrestles with the will of His Father and in finally accepting to drink the bitter cup which is His, shows us what total surrender to God means.

It is entirely suitable that we are surrounded by a spiritual impulse which welled up in the groves of Gethsemane as we celebrate an act of definitive self-offering to Christ and His People. Jim has done his fair share of wrestling with God’s will over the last twenty-four years. I don’t want to exaggerate that, of course; there has been a great deal of simple, uncomplicated submission too. But in a few minutes’ time, he will kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and pronounce his final “yes” to the Lord. And it’s good that we are all here to celebrate that because it is a real victory, and just as we are called to share in the Lord’s agony, so we are invited to participate in His glory, in a modest way, even in the here and now.

But why the struggle in the first place? To ask that question is to get right to the heart of the message of the Sacred Heart. Why is it so important for God to get through to the human heart, the seat of our personality, the epicentre of our will? Geoffrey Hill asks the same question more lyrically in a colloquy with the Lord:

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbour you […] ?

If we are to understand the power of the Sacred Heart, the accent must initially be on our indifference to God, our Lord and Creator. We hold out, tenaciously, stubbornly, perversely, against the advent of the Divine Visitor. Our hearts turn out to be fashioned from stone; we are seized by a deep frozenness which masquerades as strength. Perhaps this apathy towards God is even at the roots of our dislike of certain portrayals of the Sacred Heart; not so much our distaste for the fake sentiment of kitsch but dislike of the real thing…

And yet, it turns out that our forthright resistance to God’s fierce pursuit is itself the measure of the tenacity of the One who seeks us out, intent on mercying us. Hill’s intimation of a Lover God, of a Spousal Christ who will not unhand us, confutes the effete “Jesus meek and mild” once and for all.

And rightly so. Divine Love needs to burn long and slow. Because we make the journey such a long haul. Even when we do finally cede to Him, then comes the terror of a new knowledge: we see that our hearts are not what we had fondly imagined but feeble and sickly things.

Nothing is more wounding to our pride than this: that we can’t love. Even the abyss of extinction can seem a more welcoming sanctuary than the humiliation of our poor old hearts. God delivers this most personal of insights not as accusation but in parable and oblique aside, holding us tenderly as we squirm, imparting to us all the while a new inner resolve, that poise of unbreakable fragility we call humility.

And if, thus far, we have been the passive ones, recipients only of grace and mercy, now the Divine Heart astonishes us by not only calling us to join Him in the outreach of His loving but enabling us to do so. To bear the embrace of mercy to others. To host His love in our freshly humbled hearts, now made supple and real and strong. In all humility, we set out at last as active participants in the love that changed our lives.

So, that was what the stranger at the door was suing for. The Sacred Heart is, above all, a call to transformation. The love He radiates is most surely Divine Love. But it burns in a heart of human flesh, one like ours. So why not in ours?

Majestic Divine love filling the humble human heart. That is precisely what the Contemplatio, the terminus of the Spiritual Exercises, is all about. It’s not hard, then, to grasp why the Sacred Heart has left such an indelible mark on our Society. It represents, as Pedro Arrupe put it, “the centre of the Ignatian experience”. And how surprised and delighted he would be to learn that today the Church’s Magisterium locates in the sweeping repertoire of the love to which we are called that “civic and political love” of which Pope Francis speaks in Laudato Si’, and of which Jim is such a gifted exponent.

Fr Arrupe also laid down this half-forgotten challenge:

I am of the belief that there are very few proofs of the spiritual renewal of the Society of Jesus that could be as clear as an efficacious and general renewal of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Our apostolate would receive new courage, and we would not be long in seeing the effects, as much in our own personal lives as in our apostolic activities.

He might be right. For there is undeniably a longing in the Sacred Heart to give everything of itself in the struggle for justice. Before his episcopal ordination, Blessed Oscar Romero made a retreat in which it came to him to desire to be “the bishop of the Sacred Heart”. Jim, I hope you won’t mind my suggesting that in making your final profession tonight, and as a contribution to the spiritual renewal of the Society, you might, in your turn, choose to offer yourself as a Jesuit servant of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Damian Howard SJ