Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Worship Of The Physical Heart Of Christ

by Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J.


This essay replies to some of the objections to the cult of the Heart of Jesus, first on the doctrinal level, then on the spiritual and pastoral level.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


26 - 32

Publisher & Date

Catholic Polls, Inc., New York, NY, June 1977

It is sometimes said that the cult of the Heart of Jesus is permissible but not obligatory. It is thought that it would be sufficient to love what this Heart symbolizes, that is, Christ's human and divine love for the human race, without any real obligation to honor the Heart itself. For, it is believed that this cult is not accessible to everyone.

We propose here to reply to these objections, first on the doctrinal level, then on the spiritual and pastoral level. Moreover, we do not pretend to separate these two levels but rather distinguish between them. However, let us observe that the objection to the cult of the Heart of Christ is not entirely new. Those who present it are often unaware that the Jansenists in the eighteenth century proposed similar objections.

I. Doctrinal Response

1. First of all, from the point of view of religious psychology, those who object to the cult of the Heart of Jesus seem to presuppose that man can think without accompanying images, or even that these images which nourish the imagination would prevent his intelligence from seizing its object proper. However, in his remarkable sermon of June 11, 1787, on the Heart of Jesus Blessed Nicolas-Marie Verron S.J., who was probably influenced by Father de Gallifet, already observed the following:

The adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has . . . an indivisible double object . . . one tangible and corporeal, the other invisible and spiritual. However, the enlightened soul never separates them — and I even dare to say that the most simple soul reunites them easily in his heart. Yes, if I were to interrogate the most sophisticated person, but one who is able to be moved by the wounds of Jesus Christ . . . he would, no doubt, answer me by saying that he adores these pierced and torn hands and feet, this open and bleeding side. But the mystery of the sufferings of Jesus, the great love which makes Him victim is, at the same time, the object of this man's adoration and the motive of his tears: his whole soul is elevated from the tangible object to the spiritual and individual one.1

In virtue of his double nature, each man is, at the same time, corporeal and spiritual, a creator of symbols, living in a symbolic universe. Thus, he is a being capable of recognizing and embracing the symbols through which God the Revealer addresses himself to him as well as a being capable of expressing in a symbolic manner his return to his Creator. In this respect, the cult, which the Church asks us to render to the Heart of Christ, is eminently in accord with human nature and its aspiration.

2. The liturgy never proposes for our worship purely abstract objects. If the cult of the human and divine love of Jesus for the human race could and should be practiced without any reference to his bodily heart, the liturgy would not even propose it. For the liturgy's manner of instruction proceeds from the visible to the invisible, from the tangible to what goes beyond the senses. The Church has never presented the cult of the Heart of Christ as having for its object only his human and divine love for the human race to the exclusion of his physical heart. Neither is the liturgical cult rendered to the Heart of Christ presented to us today as optional. In the Latin Rite, the annual celebration of the feast of the Sacred Heart is obligatory for priests who want to say Mass on that day as well as for the faithful who want to participate in the Holy Sacrifice on that particular day.

3. The objection, which pretends to separate the cult of divine love from the flesh of Christ, from his bodily heart, minimizes the importance of the flesh of the Savior in the economy of Redemption or even implicitly denies it. This objection constitutes a sly return to Docetic Christology; it insinuates a gnostic separation of the tangible from the transcendent in the mystery of Christ. And by refusing the cult due to Christ's bodily heart, it imperils the real sorrowful and bloody character of the work of the Redeemer. It is precisely against this erroneous tendency that Saint John wrote his Gospel, which alone narrates the scene of the piercing of Christ's side, and his Epistles.

In fact, the erroneous tendency studied here practically converges with the quietism condemned by Blessed Innocent XI, a heresy whose consequences in relation to the Heart of Christ and its worship Pius XII demonstrated in his encyclical Haurietis Aquas:

It is not permitted to pretend that the contemplation of the physical heart of Jesus prevents [a soul] from achieving the interior love of God and that it stops the soul in it ascent to the highest virtues. The Church absolutely condemns this false mystical doctrine . . . This manner of interpreting the symbolism of sacred images is completely erroneous because it wrongly diminishes their transcendental meaning . . . Thus, it is to the Person of the Word, as to its end, that this cult rightly understood addresses itself, [this cult] which is rendered . . . to the image which surpasses all others because of its signification, that of the pierced Heart of Christ crucified.2

Whoever reads the encyclical Haurietis Aquas in its entirety will observe that it is not merely in passing but repeatedly that the bodily Heart of Christ is presented as a symbol of his love. On the contrary, the objection studied here seems to suggest that Christianity, which is however the religion of the Incarnate Word, could do without matter and flesh.

In other words, this objection would minimize the importance of the heart as the object of worship. Thus, the heart would no longer be a symbol but merely a metaphor. This view is inadmissible: it is not a metaphorical heart but a real bodily heart, which was pierced on Calvary. It is not a metaphor but a physical reality, which is proposed for our adoration as a symbol of the human and divine love of our bleeding Redeemer.

This Cult Is Special

It is not only if one considers Haurietis Aquas in its totality, the repetitions concerning the bodily heart as a symbol or the affirmations against a certain quietistic spirituality found therein that the encyclical of Pius XII is radically contrary to the objection proposed: it is so in an even more explicit and "topical" manner. In fact, Pius XII "deplores" among numerous other opinions "as completely contrary to the teachings of his predecessors" this one in particular:

By confusing this privileged cult [of the Heart of Christ] with the diverse forms of private piety that the Church approves and encourages but does not prescribe, certain people regard it as something supererogatory which each person is free to practice or not according to his taste.3

Now, we would like to emphasize once more that the obligatory character is thus attributed not to a cult which is vague in its object, but to "a special cult of veneration and love toward the physical Heart of the Incarnate Word as symbol of his ardent charity."4

4. This is not all: this teaching is implicitly found and even explicitly confirmed, partially at least, by Vatican II. On the one hand, the pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes not only makes abundant use of the symbolism of the ordinary human heart (Section 3, 10, 11, 13, 21, 22, 26, 41, 45, 39, 82 and especially 16 and 14, where the heart is practically identified with the moral conscience and the profound interiority of the human person), but it also emphasizes the fact that "Christ loved with the heart of a man" (human corde dilexit, Section 22). On the other hand, the Constitution on the Church (Section 3) emphasize that the Church was born from the open side of Christ crucified dying on the Cross. It is true that Vatican II does not use the expression "Sacred Heart of Jesus." However, the Council is not ignorant of the reality because it recalls (Lumen Gentium, Section 25) the duty that all the faithful have of according "religious assent of will and of intelligence to the authentic ministry of the Sovereign Pontiff" — a point which relates above all to the doctrinal teaching of the encyclicals of the Heart of Christ, crowned by Haurietis Aquas — and recommends "the pious exercises carried out by order of the Apostolic See" (Sacr. Conc., Section 13). According to the authentic interpretation of Paul in 1965, in his letter Investigabiles Divitias Christi, this is the case of devotion to the Heart of Jesus, generally speaking, especially the annual act of consecration to the Heart of the Savior and even the Holy Hour urged by the encyclical of Pius XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor, in 1928.

It is, therefore, perfectly legitimate to say that Vatican II has implicitly recommended the cult of the bodily Heart of Jesus understood as a symbol of his human and divine love for sinful humanity, and that this cult had been explicitly asked for by the Magisterium of the Church before the last council. The objection raised against this cult has really no psychological, liturgical or doctrinal bases. But what would be the most appropriate answer on the pastoral level?

II. Pastoral Response:

If the obligatory character of the cult of the physical Heart of Jesus as symbol of his love is clear, we must, however, attempt to render such an obligation more easily recognizable, acceptable and desirable for the faithful.

1. First of all, let us recall that the existence of an obligation in no way prevents its free accomplishment. An ethical obligation in no way signifies physical violence or moral constraint.

Once the existence of a personal obligation to worship the pierced Heart of the Redeemer is recognized, supplication to obtain the grace to venerate the physical Heart of Jesus as a symbol of his love presents itself as a path in perfect conformity with the ordinary ways of providence. The Council of Trent, elaborating the thought of Saint Augustine,6 said: "God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he exhorts one to do what one can, to ask for what appears to be impossible and he aids in achieving it:" "Deus impossiblia non jubet, sed jubendo monet et facere quod possis et petere quod non possis et adjuvat ut possis."

One can even add: grace itself solicits us to ask for that grace of devotion to the Heart of Christ that the Church presents to us as an inestimable gift.7

2. Moreover, if it is true that one individual cannot impose a form of spirituality or devotion on another, it is also true that the Church can declare the duty of both practicing a devotion and making an effort to obtain the grace to do so.

3. It is not enough to establish, as one sometimes does, that numerous good Christians, priests and religious not only feel no special attraction to this cult, but even feel repulsed by it. For this absence of attraction and this repulsion should be analyzed with the aid of The Rules of Discernment of Spirits, which Saint Ignatius of Loyola elaborated in his Spiritual Exercises especially of the first week (cf. Section 318-322).

And, would it really be possible to devote oneself in prayer to a persevering effort to practice, spread and deepen by means of reading the cult of the Heart of the Savior without receiving at any time the grace of a tender devotion toward him? The least one can say is that such a continuous desolation would not be in accord with the ordinary ways of the Lord. It is especially appropriate here to cite Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

In order to follow the best part, the movement of reason is sufficient, the other (that of sensibility) could easily follow, for God repays abnegation by giving a great taste.8

The exercise of discernment of emotional response in regard to the cult of the Heart of Christ will enable us, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to recognize the temptations and ruses of Satan, the liar, who disguises himself as an angel of light and tries to make us believe that it is impossible to accomplish the Divine Will.

4. Particularly in the presence of difficulties derived from a non-catholic education, one can clearly recognize what is moreover universally true: this devotion was already contained in germ in the worship rendered by Mary, the Apostles and many Christians to the wounds of the glorified Christ. Implicitly, inasmuch as it belongs to the permanent essence of Christianity, devotion to the Heart of Jesus has always been present, is still present and will always be there, wherever there has been, wherever there is and wherever there will be a true Christianity, even if it happens that it is not explicitly recognized as such.9

Practice The Divine Will

In other words, all those who love unconditionally and above all else the Divine Will practice it, even if they are unaware that they are doing so. Under these circumstances, in the face of certain psychological difficulties, one can propose first of all the symbolized reality, the love of Christ for men and for his Father, as the object of worship, and speak only afterwards of the symbol of the Pierced Heart. For pedagogical reasons, then, one will follow the path which is the opposite of the more normal one proposed by Pius XII: "From the corporeal element which is the Heart of Jesus Christ and from its natural symbolism, we can and should, sustained by faith, elevate ourselves to the contemplation of his tangible love, even to the adoration of his innate love, and finally to the divine Love of the Incarnate Word."10 In this manner, one will proceed not from the heart to love, but from love to the heart. These are two approaches which are not contradictory but rather complementary and which, in reality, tend to coincide in time as the text of Blessed N.-M. Verron cited at the beginning of this essay demonstrated.

III. Conclusion

In fact normally for many, in principle for all, the symbol of the Heart of Christ draws men to the exercise of love toward their Redeemer. As Pius XII wrote in Haurietis Aquas:

By revealing His Sacred Heart, Our Lord Jesus Christ especially wanted to invite men to contemplate and worship the merciful love of God for the human race.11

But why did Christ choose this symbol?

The Church does not deny that "all the other parts of Christ's body are also natural signs and symbols of his immense charity, but she adds that the Heart, more than any other part, is the most fitting symbol."12 It is this fundamental appreciation of the morally universal aptitude13 of the human heart to symbolize love which enables us to understand Christ's choice and the Church's recognition of it:

By this exceptional manifestation (that is, the revelations made to Saint Margaret Mary), on several occasions Christ showed His Heart as the symbol by which men would be drawn to the knowledge and the recognition of His Love (ad cognitonem et agintionem amoris sui allicerentur).14

Let us note the force and the precision of this declaration of Pius XII in Haurietis Aquas: It presents Christ's choice of the symbol of the heart as united to his will to draw all men to himself (cf. John 12-32: The bridegroom wants to draw to himself the bride which he fashions for himself in dying for her). Thus, the symbol is not only a declaration of the divine love for sinful men, but also an attractive force destined to provoke their response of love.

But inasmuch as certain intellects because of original or actual sins are no longer in a position, either now or in the immediate future, to demonstrate rationally the existence of God and the freedom or immortality of the soul, even though they still possess the fundamental potentiality to do so15 by means of effort and prayer as a struggle against prejudices or temptations and vices, in the same way certain hearts, certain sensibilities are not immediately attracted by the symbol of the Heart of Christ, but they do not lose their radical capacity to feel this attraction once again by undergoing a spiritual therapy. Just as original sin has indirectly weakened the aptitude of the intelligence to recognize truth, an aptitude, however, intact in its essence, this sin has as a consequence a weakening of the attraction that the sensitivity or imagination of man feels toward the tangible aspects of Christian mysteries and notably toward the Heart of Christ as symbol of his human and divine love. From this derives the necessity of a catechesis of this image, par excellence, of the mercy of the Redeemer.

The fruit of this catechesis will be to help man's free will recognize the value of this symbol in the total context of the redemptive sanctification of all human sensibilities and imaginations.

We say: aid free will. The Church in setting forth this obligation does not compel men to obey it. Each man retains the capacity to refuse to fulfill his duty, even though he perceived it, and the potentiality of refusing to perceive it.

Honor This Heart

If God alone knows all the excuses which attenuate in his eyes the guilt of refusing a personal devotion to the physical Heart of his Son as the symbol of their unique love, he alone also sees all the guilt that could be attached to the conscious and persevering refusal to recognize, love and adore this pierced Heart as the symbol, par excellence, of his expiatory love, this Heart which, by the express will of Christ, is "a sign and a token of mercy for the needs of the Church in our time."16 If it is true, as Pius XII emphasized, that it "would be an offense against God Himself to discount this signal blessing given by Jesus Christ to His Church,"17 one must add that it is an offense whose gravity only offended love can measure.

By praying to obtain the grace of being more and more sensitive to the attraction and the radiance which emanates from the Heart of the Mediator, we will fulfill, by this very act, the wish of Paul VI:

It is absolutely necessary that the faithful of Christ, both in the expression of their private piety and in the homage of public worship, venerate and honor this Heart from which we have received all things.18


1. Blessed Nicolas-Marie Verron, S.J., Sermons, Paris, 1789, pp. 11-12. This volume published anonymously was later identified by Fr. H. Fouqueray, S.J., in Un groupe de martyrs de septembre 1792 (Spes, Paris, 1926, pp. 98-116) and Fr. A. Bessieres, S.J., in Une educatrice: la Mere Desfontaines (Beauchesne, Paris, 1925, pp. 139-152).

2. Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas — which we will refer to by the letter HA, followed by page number in the AAS, 48 (1956) 342-343; cf. Denz-Sch. 2335-2336; see also HA, 323-324 which treats extensively the anti-Docetic character of the cult of the Heart of Christ.

3. HA, 312-313.

4. HA, 317.

5. D.-B. 804; D.-S. 1536.

6. St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, c. 43, Section 50; P.L. 44, 271.

7. HA, 310: "inoestimabile donum."

8. St. Ignatius of Loyola, Monumenta Ignatiana, Ep. XI, 184-185.

9. Cf. K. Rahner, S.J., Le Dieu plus grand, Paris, 1971, p. 165; cf. HA, 338-340.

10. HA, 343 (D.-S. 3925).

11. HA, 340.

12. HA, 316; ". . . cor ejus magis quam caetera omnia ejus corporis membra." It is because the Heart of Christ, more than any other member of his body, symbolizes his love that the cult rendered to this Heart makes possible an easier and more rapid exercise of charity toward God: "religionis forma . . . cujus ope homo magis Deum diligit sesque facilius atque expeditius divinae devovet caritati." This definition of the cult of the Heart of Jesus (HA, 346) emphasizes one of the numerous and rich definitions proposed by Pius XII in his encyclical.

13. It is possible that some rare cultures constitute an exception to this universal symbolic law.

14. HA, 340: one will remark the subtle nuance by which "agnitio" completes "cognitio."

15. Cf. Pius XII, Humani Generis, D.-B. 2305 and D.-S. 3875; D.-B. 1785 and D.-S. 3004.

16. HA, 340; cf. 346: "One should hold in high esteem this form of worship . . . which Our Redeemer Himself has deigned to propose and recommend to the Christian people."

17. HA, 346.

18. Doc. Cath. 1965, col. 1273: the letter, Diserti interpretes, of Paul VI. Moreover, one could emphasize that no request would be more agreeable to God than that of love for the Heart of his Son, no request more sure to be heard.

Homiletic & Pastoral Review / Ignatius Press

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