What is behind the theology of the Sacred Heart?

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Sacred Heart
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Behold this Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love. In return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this sacrament of love… It is for this reason I ask thee … to honor My Heart … making reparation for the indignity that it has received.”

The devotion to the Sacred Heart, which spread throughout the Church from the 17th century to the present day, began with these words spoken to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. The words accompanied a revelation: the Lord unveiled his Sacred Heart to the visionary. But why the heart? Why does beholding his heart matter? And what does our decision in response to his heart mean? These are three crucial questions about the Sacred Heart of Jesus which may only be answered theologically.

The Heart

Animals do not have “hearts” in the way that human beings do. Yes, animals have a physical organ that pumps blood through the body, as do human beings, but what we mean by the human “heart” is not reducible to this physiological reality. When we speak of the human heart, we mean and have always meant the whole of a person’s attitudes, the core of a person’s existence, the seat of the ultimate meaning of a specific person.

The Lord revealed his human heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. That heart is the Sacred Heart. It is not the mere heart muscle of a body organ, but rather the whole being, the entire reality of Christ. In revealing his heart, Jesus reveals who he is, most deeply: He is the suffering love that has been poured out for the life of the world. His heart is the total commitment of himself, the full dedication of his life in one complete direction. In giving his heart, he gives the whole of himself.

What gives unity to Jesus’ heart is, as the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner puts it, “not merely the human love of Christ (as the actualization of a capacity of his human nature), but the divine-human love, that is the divine love of the eternal Word Himself, which … is incarnate in the human love of Christ.” This is the seat of divine love in the world, divine love that has been communicated through human love and is the fundamental motivation, the genuine decision of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. In and through his heart, divine love has been translated into human life, human action, human flesh and blood and sacrifice. His physical heart is flesh full of blood. That singular heart is a singular image of the Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 1:14; 3:16).

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is not reducible to the flesh and blood of this physical heart, but that physical heart is nonetheless the symbol of the Sacred Heart. His flesh is the site of the Word’s dwelling in creation; his blood is divine love coursing through human flesh; his heart is the union of flesh and blood — the sign of the union of humanity and divinity — and what God has joined no one may separate (cf. Mt 19:6).


The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has always been and always will be proper to the Church’s faith, yet, this devotion was proposed and became explicit in a particular time and response to particular maladies. In 1928, Pope Pius XI explained one of the specific reasons why, in the wisdom of divine Providence, the Sacred Heart was revealed and proposed for universal veneration in the Church:

“When the Jansenist heresy, the most crafty of them all, hostile to love and piety towards God, was creeping in and preaching that God was not to be loved as a father but rather to be feared as an implacable judge; then the most benign Jesus showed his own most Sacred Heart to the nations lifted up as a standard of peace and charity portending no doubtful victory in combat” (Miserentissimus Redemptor, No. 2).

The Jansenists taught that only a predestined number would be saved and that, outside that number, there was no hope of salvation. Relatedly, they held to a rigid interpretation of Augustine’s teaching on grace, arguing that human freedom played no part in redemption. In giving his Sacred Heart for the world to behold, Jesus presented the central disposition of his life, death, and Resurrection, which is to make manifest the love of God for the life of the world. This love is what directs his heart and, as such, becomes the heart of the world.

In addition to responding to the errors of the Jansenists, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus increased in the lead-up to the industrial revolution, the horrors of the two World Wars, and the rapid technological advancements of humanity into the digital age. The closeness of human relations was strained or even fractured in these times. The coldness that human beings had for the suffering of Christ was manifested yet again in the coldness of human beings toward one another’s suffering. The revelation of the Sacred Heart was and is given for the warming of hearts in the Church and from the Church to the world.

The decision

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is revealed to the world as a gift, but also as a proposal — that is, the Sacred Heart provokes a decision. The gift is in apprehending and adoring the heart by which the divine-human love of Jesus was given for the world. The proposal is the invitation to accept and love this heart. The decision is what we do in response.

To behold the Sacred Heart that bears the suffering for the life of the world is not a matter of turning back the clock to adore Jesus only as he was in Gethsemane and Golgatha when he bore the ingratitude and sinfulness of the world. Rather, beholding that heart is encountering him in his hard-wrought love now — encountering the one who “having suffered” is now risen. He has entered into his glory, but only as the one who suffered, died and was buried. The risen one is the crucified one. Contemplating and drawing near to his suffering is the path to beholding him in his glory.

Our response to the Sacred Heart of Jesus matters: “For if the first and foremost thing in Consecration is this, that the creature’s love should be given in return for the love of the Creator, another thing follows from this at once, namely that the same uncreated Love, if so be it has been neglected by forgetfulness or violated by offense, some sort of compensation must be rendered for the injury, and this debt is commonly called by the name reparation” (Miserentissimus Redemptor, No. 6).

It matters very much, in other words, that we respond to God’s offer, that some part of humanity receives and responds to the love of God in Christ, that some sinners on behalf of the many willfully accept Christ’s sacrificial offering. The grace, the love is God’s in Christ, and yet what consoles the Lord are deeds done in his grace and love. Those who undertake the devotion to the Sacred Heart — accepting and offering themselves to the suffering love of the Savior — become emissaries of and sharers in the reconciliation of the one Body of Christ.

St. Augustine expresses the mystery of sharing in Christ’s redeeming work in his commentary on Psalm 86: “Christ suffered whatever it behooved Him to suffer; now nothing is wanting of the measure of the sufferings. Therefore, the sufferings were fulfilled, but in the head; there were yet remaining the sufferings of Christ in His body.” Christ’s sufferings are not repeated; instead, when his disciples contemplate, hold to, and offer themselves in union with his sufferings — his sufferings undergone once for all — what is happening is that the members of Christ’s one body are being united to Christ the Head in what he alone suffered. United to him in suffering is the means and path for being united to him in glory. In the end, there is only one Christ: Him in us and us in him (cf. Jn 17).

The theology of the Sacred Heart is a theology of grace and of freedom. It is a theology of grace because it deals with the incarnate love of God in the flesh and blood, the life and death, the passion and resurrection of the only begotten Son. It is a theology of freedom because, first, it deals with the eternal freedom of God to love this sin-sick world in his Son, and, second, it deals with human freedom that responds to this offer. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a matter of grace, of freedom, and ultimately of communion in the suffering and glory of the Body of Christ.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., is Professor of the Practice in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative and the Inklings Project, and hosts the podcast Church Life Today.