In the eleventh and twelfth centuries we find the first indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart. It was the Benedictine or Cistercian monasteries, in the world of Anselmian or Bernardine that the devotion began. We cannot state with certainty to whom we are indebted for the "Vitis mystica". Until recent times its authorship had generally been ascribed to Saint Bernard but the publishers of the Quaracchi edition attributed it to Saint Bonaventure. Saint Gertrude on the feast of Saint John the Evangelist laid her head near the wound in the Saviour's side and heard the beating of the Divine Heart. She asked John if he had felt these pulsationson the night of the Last Supper and why he had never spoken of this experience. John replied that this revelation had been reserved for subsequent ages when the world, having grown cold, would have need of it to rekindle its love. ("Legatus divinae pietatis", IV, 305; "Revelationes Gertrudianae", ed. Poitiers and Paris, 1877)
On 31 August 1670 the first feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated in the Grand Seminary of Rennes . Coutances followed suit on 20 October. The feast soon spread to other dioceses and the devotion was adopted in various religious communities.
Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), Visitandine of the monastery at Paray-le Monial, was chosen by Christ to reveal the desires of His Heart and to confide the task of inspiring new life to the devotion. There is nothing to indicated that this pious religious had known the devotion prior to the revelations. These revelations were numerous, and the following apparitions are especially remarkable: that which occurred on the feast of Saint John, when Jesus permitted Margaret Mary, as He had formerly allowed Saint Gertrude , to rest her head upon His Heart, and then disclosed to her the wonders of His love, telling her that He desired to make them known to all mankind and to diffuse the treasures of His goodness, and that He had chosen her for this work (27 Dec., probably 1673); that, probably distinct from the preceding, in which He requested to be honoured under the figure of His Heart of flesh; that, when He appeared radiant with love and asked for a devotion of expiatory love frequent Communion , Communion on the First Friday of the month, and the observance of the Holy Hour (probably June / July, 1674); that known as the "great apparition" which took place during the octave of Corpus Christi, (1675, probably 16 June), when He said, "Behold the Heart that has so loved men, instead of gratitude I receive from the greater part of mankind only ingratitude", and asked her for a feast of reparation of the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi, bidding her consult Father de la Colombière , then superior of the small Jesuit house at Paray; and finally, those in which solemn homage was asked on the part of the king, and the mission of propagating the new devotion was especially confided to the religious of the Visitation and the priests of the Society of Jesus . A few days after the "great apparition", of June, 1675, Margaret Mary made all known to Father de la Colombière , and the latter, recognizing the action of the spirit of God, consecrated himself to the Sacred Heart, directed the holy Visitandine to write an account of the apparition, and made use of every available opportunity discreetly to circulate this account through France and England. At his death, 15 February 1682, there was found in his journal of spiritual retreats a copy in his own handwriting of the account that he had requested of Margaret Mary. This journal, including the account and a beautiful "offering" to the Sacred Heart, in which the devotion was well explained, was published at Lyons in 1684.
The death of Margaret Mary, 17 October 1690, did not dampen the ardour of those interested; on the contrary, a short account of her life published by Father Croiset in 1691, as an appendix to his book "De la Dévotion au Sacré Cœur", served only to increase it. In spite of all sorts of obstacles, and of the slowness of the Holy See, which in 1693 imparted indulgences to the Confraternities of the Sacred Heart and, in 1697, granted the feast to the Visitandines with the Mass of the Five Wounds, but refused a feast common to all, with special Mass and Office, the devotion spread, particularly in religious communities. The Marseilles plague, 1720, furnished perhaps the first occasion for a solemn consecration and public worship outside of religious communities. Other cities of the South followed the example of Marseilles, and thus the devotion became a popular one. In 1726 it was deemed advisable once more to importune Rome for a feast with a Mass and Office of its own but in 1729 Rome again refused. However, in 1765, it finally yielded and that same year, at the request of the queen, the feast was received quasi officially by the episcopate of France. In 1856 Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church under the rite of double major. In 1889 it was raised by the Church to the double rite of first class. The acts of consecration and of reparation were everywhere introduced together with the devotion. Since about 1850 groups, congregations, and States have consecrated themselves to the Sacred Heart. In 1875 this consecration was made throughout the Catholic world. Still the pope did not wish to take the initiative or to intervene. On 11 June, 1899 by order of Leo XIII and with the formula prescribed by him, all mankind was solemnly consecrated to the Sacred Heart. The idea of this act, which Leo XIII called "the great act" of his pontificate, had been proposed to him by a religious of the Good Shepherd from Oporto (Portugal) who said that she had received it from Christ Himself. She was a member of the Drost-zu-Vischering family, and known in religion as Sister Mary of the Divine Heart. She died on the feast of the Sacred Heart, two days before the consecration, which had been deferred to the following Sunday. Whilst alluding to these great public manifestations we must not omit referring to the intimate life of the devotion in souls, to the practices connected with it, and to the works and associations of which it was the very life. Moreover, we must not overlook the social character which it has assumed particularly of late years. The Catholics of France, especially, cling firmly to it as one of their strongest hopes of ennoblement and salvation.