I know that there is a Sacred Heart parish in the Vailsburg section of Newark, N.J. It was once a large parish, with a cathedral sized church. The area fell on hard times and the church was closed a few years ago. In its day, not that many years ago, it was a thriving parish of mostly blue-collar families. The Vailsburg section was home to a lot of fireman and policeman. After the Newark riots in the 1960s, the area changed drastically and the church struggled for years until it was closed.
There was also an Academy of the Sacred Heart and I think it is in New Orleans. The last I heard, the school is still open and thriving. There are also religious orders named after the Sacred Heart. Most of them are not doing well, from what I have read. Vocations are dwindling to the point that the orders may soon be phased out. There may be Sacred Heart universities and hospitals, as well as places for the homeless and even some orphanages, but I would guess that their numbers are diminishing as well in this age in which we live. For it is an age that has little need to shelter its institutions and life-choices under a sacred name, like the Sacred Heart. Times change and needs change, and so it is with the ways of being human and living in a time and place. But I wonder if the ways of God need diminish when we seemingly outgrow our need for the use and alleged strength of his name, his heart. I do not think so. God is alive and well amidst the ongoing changes of time, place and custom.
This week we celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart. A beautiful feast that finds its way into many places -- churches, names, books.
I have just started reading a book by Mary Relindes Ellis called "The Turtle Warrior." (Penguin Books, 2004). I am just getting into it, not much beyond the opening pages of the book. It is about a little boy named Billy and his early youth, growing up on a farm in Wisconsin.
Ellis is a warm and powerful writer. As I follow her writing on young Billy, her words bring back memories of my growing up, of so many ordinary events that took place on hot summer days a long time ago.
They are like memories that were sleeping and that have awakened through her writing. Memories of playing in the streets with my friends, of being called home by my mom for dinner. She writes of scenes that are so similar to what I knew -- warm afternoons sitting at my wooden desk in school, looking out the window wishing that the arrival of summer would come, and come fast. I closed the book, trying to remember more, and felt warm by what I could remember. Ms. Ellis's words were working their magic, like slowly developing photographs.
I do not think I ever thought of the Sacred Heart back then. Yet it was there, I know. Not in the big Newark church, or school, or hospital or religious name. It was all throughout my life, wherever there was a hunger for love, for the promise of summer, for all that made life rich and mysterious for me as a kid. The heart of Jesus beats through everything, pumping grace and life into every wondrous moment of life.
Of course, I never thought about it. I just lived it, ran to it when it called, and sat in it when the time came. Our cathedral was called the Sacred Heart, too. Named after a mystery that was best know outside its doors, on the streets and in homes, by as many names as there are loves and desires. All coming from and hoping for the Sacred Heart, without even having to know the name or keep the name. God cannot lose his heart. He gives it away, over and over again, naming it as he will, using every language ever spoken.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.