From Simply Sentimental to Strong and Sure – A Consideration of Devotion to the Sacred Heart

062614I must say that in the past I was not always as on board as I should have been when it came to the Feast of the Sacred Heart. As a man, I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that, frankly, made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin, “come-hither” look, “feminine” head tilt, long slender fingers, and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me.  See for example the image here:  Sacred Heart. Frankly, the feminized portrayal of Jesus made me cringe. “Maybe this works for some,” I thought, “but not for me.” Women are beautiful, but men shouldn’t look like women.

Then too, the whole notion of the heart has become rather distorted. The heart is thought of by most as the domain of sentimental feelings and romance. Stronger biblical notions of the heart were lost in favor of these sentimental and romantic ones.  So there was Jesus, pointing to His heart to indicate His love, but I experienced it through the current notion of sentimentality and romance. While the true teaching on the Sacred Heart was much richer and more proper, the version that reached me was distorted and had little appeal.

In recent years, I have tried to recover a more proper notion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I have done this by coming to understand the heart in a more biblical way. I have also done this by learning to understand the heart of Christ in a stronger way that is more helpful for me.

Recovering a more biblical understanding of the heart – In celebrating the heart of the Lord Jesus, we ought to see it in a more biblical way. In the biblical world, the heart did not exclude feelings, but feelings were thought of as more located in the gut. Things such as tenderness, mercy, love, and emotions were spoken of in terms more visceral than we are comfortable with today. Most of our modern translations do not render the Hebrew and Greek references, which speak of the “bowels of mercy”  in God or in the human person, literally.  Most modern translations render the Hebrew “bowels of mercy” as “tender mercy” and expressions such as “my bowels are moved within me” as “my heart is moved within me.” We just don’t talk about bowels today in polite company!

I say this to indicate that for the biblical writers, feelings, sentiment, and mercy were not usually located in the heart but elsewhere. You can see this if you get a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek such as the Douay Rheims or Young’s Literal Translation and refer to passages such as these: Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Song 5:4; Is 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 2:11; 2 Cr 6:12; Phil 1:8; Phil 2:1; Col 3:12. While feelings such as anxiety, fear, romance, and tenderness were pondered in the heart, their real “place” was shifted down one level to the “gut” or viscera. We do have some vestiges of these ancient notions in expressions like “gut reaction” or “butterflies in my stomach.”

So what then IS the biblical notion of the heart? While not wholly excluding feelings, the “heart” in the Scriptures is the deepest part of us; it is where we “live.” It is where we deliberate, where our memories and thoughts are. It is where we process feelings and events. It is where we ponder what to do and then decide. It is where we reflect and consider the direction of our life and most deeply understand who we are and how we are related to God and others. It is the place of our decisions and where we set priorities. In short, it is the place where “I am” in the deepest sense. Most moderns locate this in the brain (or mind, a word that the Scriptures often use for a similar understanding), but the ancients located all this in the heart.

A broader and stronger notion of the heart – Hence, as we ponder the Heart of Christ on this feast of the Sacred Heart we do not wholly exclude His tender feelings for us. But we must also broaden our notions of what it means to celebrate the Heart of Christ. The Heart of Christ is where He lives and is most essentially His very self. Hence His human heart is a heart that first of all worships and obeys His Father. It is in His heart that He ponders His Father’s will and sets out to obey it. It was in His heart that He set his face like flint for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) and said to this apostles, “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). It is in His heart that He decides to lay down His life for us: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father (Jn 10:18). Isaiah had said of Jesus, Oblatus est quia ipse voluit (He was offered because he himself willed it) (Is 53:7). It is ultimately by Christ’s obedience that we are saved, and this was determined in His heart. His love was manifested by His decision to both obey His Father and die for us. This is deeper than emotion or feeling, though it does not exclude them. When the solider thrust a lance in His chest and heaved it open, there was revealed the human heart of Christ who resolutely chose to save us. There was also revealed the very heart of God, who loves us infinitely.

A heart tender but also strong – On this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate not just that He loves us in an emotional sense, but even more, that He decided to die for us. He freely pondered what our salvation would cost Him and took up the cross. He chose to obey the Father for us. His love is tender but it is also decisive. The warmth of His love is sure but the wounds of His obedience also speak of a love that is strong and enduring unto the end.

Sentiment has its place but (perhaps because I am a man) I need more. On this Feast of the Sacred Heart, I am glad to point to a love that is strong, obedient, loyal, and sacrificial; a love that engages the battle on my behalf and summons me to follow; a  love that is not just visceral but is of the true and deep Heart of Christ, a heart tender but also strong.

This video has many images of Jesus (some better than others). Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!

27 Replies to “From Simply Sentimental to Strong and Sure – A Consideration of Devotion to the Sacred Heart”

  1. Hello Monsignor Pope,
    I love attending 1st Friday masses for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I thank our priest,
    Fr. Nava for beginning this devotion at our parish 2 years ago. It is celebrated with
    such fervor and joy. The mass is preceded by confessions, the rosary, and the Divine
    Mercy chaplet. And a large statue of Jesus is placed near the altar with flowers and
    candles. Everyone wears their SHJ scapulars. I pray that now that Fr Nava is being
    reassigned, that the next priest will assist us in keeping it alive! The church fills up…

    Praise be to God always and forever in his most Sacred Heart, full of mercy and love.
    Yours in Christ, anna

    1. The promises revealed to St Margaret Mary Alcoque are amazing!

  2. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s book _The Heart_ treated the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a way entirely void of romance or saccharine sweetness. He explored how Jesus’ heart symbolized the paradigm of human interaction with God and with our fellow men. Jesus in the gospels perfectly reacts to each person He encounters in love and empathy, understanding each one as a whole person, sometimes knowing their hearts better than they knew themselves. Von Hildebrand, as a philosopher, considered the heart the center of human affectivity, and Jesus’ heart was not merely His holy aspect to be adored, but His essence to be imitated and taken up (as much as possible) as one’s own. This summary by Dr. John Crosby is worth reading, I think: .

  3. Thank you Rev.Msgr ., for the humble sharing , esp. on the difficulty with some of the images – may be a fact that is shared by many others too and for the informative facts on the gut and heart , aspects that possibly could have implications at more practical levels !

    Thank you for the very good video – a good witness also for children who need to see such , on how other little ones like them are there in His Presence …a place , where if more families spend time, it would take care of a whole lot of issues of the gut and heart !

    Having read how the ( Vilnius ) Image of Divine Mercy is the only icon done at the request of The Lord HImself ( true, He did ask for devotion to The Sacred Heart and early enough , may be knowing what ‘heartless ‘ times we are coming into! ) seems that image captures the Fatherly Heart /gaze of the Lord very well –

    The womb and the heart are said to share the same type of muscle tissue and thus, the Feast of The Immaculate Heart gives us occasion to celebrate – may be even 3 hearts !

    May be one day soon enough, we would also know more – well, it is already known enough – just that , the princes of this world do not want that better known , by those to whom it should matter !

    Knowing more about the devastating connections between the injuries done in and to the hearts – that manifests in so many ways – may The Sacred Heart have mercy on us all , to protect and heal !

  4. “As a man, I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that, frankly, made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin, “come-hither” look, ”feminine” head tilt, long slender fingers, and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me.”

    Good point, Monsignor. Why is it that some men in Catholic art are often portrayed in such an effeminate way? For example, here’s a site highlighting the often absurdly effeminate portrayals of John the Evangelist:

    Frankly, I am not sure whether many in the Church realize that this sort of thing can be an obstacle to evangelization and retention of men. There is a justified feeling among a number of young men that the Catholic Church as a whole is somewhat effeminate and less masculine than, for example, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and some of the Evangelical Protestant Churches.

    I would suggest that to help evangelize and retain men, we ought to place more emphasis on distinctly masculine Saints, such as Gregory the Great, Jerome, Hubert, Brebeuf, etc.

    1. A year or so ago, when I was looking for a more masculine slant for my teenage son, I found the following site maintained by Doug Barry: . Now I’m on his mailing list and follow him on Twitter as well.

      I’ve watched some of Mr. Barry’s videos, and in my opinion they are excellent. He has a distinctively masculine focus that I think is refreshing.


    2. I bet that effeminate versions of men in art is a distraction to women, too. Gosh I like icons. It removes so much of this problem from the equation. John of Damascus had it right!

  5. And Samuel said in rebuke to Saul: “But thy kingdom shall not continue. The Lord hath sought him a man according to his own heart: and him hath the Lord commanded to be prince over his people, because thou hast not observed that which the Lord commanded.” This was David.

  6. Dear Monsignor Pope,

    Wonderful article, but, I agree, very bad picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Please get the one painted by the Jesuit priest in 1986 in Ponce, Mexico, and post it. That is the one we have in our family room.


  7. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    Ever so often you include this lovely video. It is my favorite of all. Mainly the music stirs me. I have never heard it sung in this country but remember it well from my childhood and can sing the German text 65 years later.
    Today, the feast of the Most Blessed Sacrament I attended a funeral. You made my day again!!!
    Thank you.

  8. You may find the following information I sent to a Catholic men’s bible study of which I am a part. I have found devotion to Christ’s Sacred Heart very strengthening to my Catholic faith.

    The Beatification of John XXIII and John Paul II – April 27th

    We hear a lot about the upcoming beatifications of Pope John XXIII and of Pope John Paul II, but proportionately much more about John Paul II then we do about John XXIII — for instance in the Columbia magazine 23pages were devoted to JPII and only 4 pages to JXXIII.

    However John XXIII was instrumental in drawing me to the Roman Catholic Church through his journal and biography so I have a heightened interest in his beatification, and consequently I decided to re-read Journal of A Soul during this past Season of Lent.

    I learned that Pope John had a life long devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He was consecrated to SHJ at his baptism by his godly uncle. He relied heavily upon this devotion for guidance and direction throughout his life and after some 10 years as a priest he formally joined the Congregation of the Sacred Heart (a voluntary association of priests who observe this devotion to the SHJ).

    Devotion to Sacred Heart of Jesus didn’t mean a lot to me until I ran across some writings on it in a prayer book about 3 years ago. Saint Josemaria Escriva was very helpful in explaining what this devotion to the SHJ was all about;

    “When we speak of a person’s heart we refer not just to his sentiments, but to the whole person in his loving dealings with others. In order to help us understand divine things, Scripture uses the expression “heart” in its full human meaning, as the summary and source, expression and ultimate basis, of one’s thoughts, words and actions. One is worth what one’s heart is worth. . . .

    “When we talk about the heart of Jesus, we stress the certainty of God’s Love and the truth of his commitment to us. When we recommend devotion to the Sacred Heart, we are recommending that we should give our whole selves to Jesus, to the whole Jesus—our souls, our feelings and thoughts, our words and actions, our joys.”

    Three years ago I also ran across Saint Mary Margaret Alacoque’s Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I didn’t think this Act of Consecration was something someone did on their own in isolation, but I also didn’t know of any group centered around this devotion here in Colorado Springs. But I thought it held some profound concepts so I simply personalized it and made it into prayer which I have used 3-4 times a week for the last 3 years.

    I don’t always pray this prayer in total — but frequently meditate and pray over one or two segments of it each day, and work my way through it. I think it is a good prayer for Knights, (and for men in the Friday bible study) since it has been influential in helping shape my attitudes, desires, and behavior. I would like to recommend it to you not only as a way of honoring Blessed John XXIII but as a prayer and focus that will help you give yourself more fully to Christ.

    Here is the Act of Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus made into a prayer of devotion to Jesus.

    Jesus, to you and to your Sacred Heart O Lord, I desire to give myself
    and consecrate my person and my life, my actions, pains, sufferings,
    so that I may be unwilling to make use of any part of my being
    other than to honor, love and glorify thy Sacred Heart.

    Please help me to make this my unchanging purpose,
    namely, to be all yours and to do all things for the love of you,
    while at the same time renouncing with all my heart whatever is displeasing to you.

    Help me therefore to take you, O Sacred Heart, to be the only object of my love,
    the guardian of my life,
    my assurance of salvation,
    the remedy of my weakness and inconstancy,
    the atonement for all the faults of my life,
    and my sure refuge at the hour of death.

    Thank you Lord Jesus, O Heart of goodness,
    for being my justification before God the Father,
    and for turning away from me the strokes of his righteous anger,
    by wrapping me in the Robe of thy salvation (Isaiah 61:10-11)

    Jesus, O Heart of love, I put all my confidence in you,
    for I fear everything from my own wickedness and frailty,
    but I hope for all things from your goodness and bounty.

    Remove from me all that can displease you or resist your holy will;
    let your pure love imprint your image so deeply upon my heart
    that I shall never be able to forget you or be separated from you

    Thank you for letting me obtain from your loving kindness
    the grace of having my name written in your heart,
    for in you I desire to place all my happiness and glory,
    living and dying in loving service to you.

  9. Msg., Yes the love of Chist is both tender and strong.

    But to understand better this love one reference that cannot be overseen is the Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (Per elle meme as the french would say). The very solemnity that we celebrate today was instituted after “The great revelation of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart” to her, when our Lord said to St. Margaret Mary “”Behold this Heart, which loved men so much, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself in order to testify to them Its love,” and in a another part of the same revelation said, “I ask thee that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special Feast to honor My Heart,” and “to make amends for the indignities which It has received during the time it has been exposed in the altars.” Thus this Feast invites us to contemplate the infinite love, ardent love, with which he loves us, and to beware that his Heart is hurt when we fail to correspond which love, dignity and respect. The call goes beyond our Church, but for all men.

    Perhaps the following poem by Sor Ma. Angelica Alvarez Icaza, Order of the Visitation, Servant of God, “Eco of the complaints of the Sacred Heart” can better shed light on such call:

    “Behold this Heart who has loved so much
    that all its riches has exhausted, and in return receives
    only insults, contempt, sorrow and negligence.

    Behold my heart who ardently calls,
    they make it suffer by how much he loves;
    in vain I invite, insist and appeal.
    ¡They refuse my ardent fire!

    If you come near, you’ll hear;
    each beat it is a groan, of love and pain.
    For the love of souls I die
    and find not what want.

    I seek after, I gift, I’m calling
    sometimes I retreat in sobs.
    I love so much that I am afraid to make them angry
    and hide the tears of my eyes.

    ¡If you only knew how much I love and my sorrow!
    ¡What is my Heart with all its love!
    ¡The bliss that for them I always eagerly desire!
    ¡The tenderness in my chest enclosed!

    I have loved endlessly until completely exhausted
    I have devised a thousand ways to give myself…
    Even to become their Bread and Beverage
    and to show them of love the wound on my side.

    Teared of love my chest aches.
    What else could I’ve done?
    Think of my aches at Calvary,
    My long hours at the Sanctum.

    And now, at least be my consolation,
    I want my new Heaven in thee formed.
    Be my love, by thee corresponded
    at a time I am so offended.

    Show me your love,
    trust me, be me thy peace
    your joy, your happiness,
    in my chest repose yourself
    in this wound start to enjoy eternal life…

  10. Msgr. Pope,
    I have never commented on your articles before, however, I am so moved today. First, I was so glad to hear
    someone else say they find some of the Sacred Heart images disturbing. I might go so far as to say even a little
    creepy. It’s a shame because it has kept me from really understanding the true meaning of the devotion. I’m so
    grateful for your alternate explanation and plan to read St. Mary Margaret’s biography. Secondly, I want to
    comment on the beautiful video. I have watched it several times now and have been moved to tears each time.
    I have always loved this beautiful, old hymn. It is not often used in churches today but it should be. If possible,
    could you email me the name of the composer/editor on this particular version with flute, organ and choir?
    I am a church musician and would love to share this with my choir.

  11. How very “lion hearted” of you to speak so boldly about the original phraseology of such as “bowels” that seem to have been euphemized (eu-fem-ized?) away.
    Seems more like inspired by the Lion of Judah, although maybe a bit of Richard Couer de Leon – of Crusader fame – who came some what between the Sacred Heart and this current post.

  12. +I have a very special personal devotion re the Sacred Heart of Jesus . . . and as I read . . . contemplated on . . . and then reread the above material . . . (though the following doesn’t specifically relate to the “Sacred Heart” of Jesus) . . . I could not help but remember the gorgeous little book “Heaven Is For Real” that has now been on the New York Times Non Fiction Top Ten Best Seller List for 188 weeks as of last week . . . where the heavenly experiences of little three-going-on-four year old Colton Burpo support completely the consideration that . . . perhaps . . . many . . . many . . . representations of Christ are . . . shall we say . . . somewhat wanting . . . ? . . . As little Colton’s heavenly experiences . . . which occurred during a harrowing time of a surgery . . . gradually and very naturally flowed out in everyday sharings with his family . . . his father mentions that they had developed quite a game with Colton in relation to asking Colton what Jesus looked like to Colton during his heavenly visit . . . Colton had shared he had spent some time sitting on the LORD’S lap . . . visiting . . . and the family got into the habit of . . . whenever they ran across a picture of Jesus . . . they would ask Colton if that was what Jesus looked like . . . and

    Quote from: “Heaven Is For Real,“ Chapter 17:
    “Invariably, Colton would peer for a moment at the picture and shake his tiny head. ‘No, …’”

    Then his father received a report of another four year old’s strikingly similar heavenly visitations . . . her name is Akiane Kramarik . . . a child prodigy . . . who at the age of eight or so . . . had painted a phenomenally beautiful portrait of Christ called the . . . “Prince of Peace” . . . which is now world renown. In Akiane’s words: “He’s pure … He‘s very masculine, really strong and big. And His eyes are just beautiful.” (Quote from: Heaven Is For Real” Chapter 27 – and continuing with Colton‘s father‘s sharing in Chapter 27 re seeing the “Prince of Peace“ painting online) “I was struck by the similarities between his (Colton’s) and Akiane’s recollections: … and especially their descriptions of Jesus’ eyes. ‘And His eyes,’ Colton had said. ‘Oh, Dad, his eyes are so pretty!’ …I got up from the desk and hollered up the stairs for Colton …‘Take a look at this,’ I said, nodding toward the computer monitor, ‘What’s wrong with this one?’ He turned to the screen and for a long moment said nothing. ‘Colton?’ But he just stood there, studying. I couldn’t read his expression. ‘What’s wrong with this one, Colton?’ I said again. Utter silence. I nudged him in the arm. ‘Colton?’ My seven-year-old turned to look at me and said, ‘Dad, that one’s right.’

    “Prince of Peace” portrait on-line link:

    . . . all for Jesus+

  13. +By the way . . . Mother Angelica’s Catholic television network . . . EWTN . . . has broadcast Raymond Arroyo’s original personal interview with Colton and his Dad . . . several times . . . on EWTN’s World Over Live show . . .

    . . . all for Jesus+

  14. The third gender image is not appropriate for Christ, we bring persecution upon ourselves when artists distort our beliefs. Currently a collection of Italian masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo Del Prado is on show in Melbourne and for all to see, a Raphael, ‘ Holy Family with Saint John’ or ‘Madonna of the Rose’. The Christ Child
    is depicted as a gentile.

  15. The Divine Mercy image in yellow garment with pink blue and white colours and the same face as one of the
    Sacred Heart images is the one I love.

  16. @Annette Strachan

    I don’t understand quite what point you want to make. You wrote “we bring persecution upon ourselves when artists distort our beliefs.” How would we bring persecution upon ourselves IF an artist who lived from 1483-1520 “distorted our beliefs”?

    You wrote that in “a Raphael, ‘ Holy Family with Saint John’ or ‘Madonna of the Rose’ The Christ Child is depicted as a gentile.” I can only surmise that you think the image shows a baby with an uncircumcised penis but are you sure it’s not actually showing a Jewish baby’s penis which has been circumcised by a mohel in the ritual called brit milah? (Jewish people commonly call the ritual and accompanying celebration a bris, a Yiddish word, and it’s done on the eighth day after birth, unless there’s a medical reason it can’t be done then.) The ritual circumcision removes far less tissue than medical circumcisions do so it may be that the baby’s penis looks uncircumcised after the brit milah.

    In any case, Raphael, like all Italian Renaissance artists, was Catholic. Artists often worked on commission for a church, a bishop, or the Pope, and were not trying to “distort Catholic beliefs” but to illustrate them. Presumably they were all uncircumcised, unless they were converts from Judaism and I don’t know of any well-known Italian Renaissance artists who were. They would
    also be most likely to have done their sketching from Catholic models who were uncircumcised so they may have represented the Infant Jesus as ritually uncircumcised. If that is the case, should we destroy Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and his ‘David’ and all the great Madonnas painted by Raphael and Botticelli, and all other great Christian art produced during the Italian Renaissance?

    Italy is full of art depicting male nudes, particularly chubby little boy babies, and they are not medically circumcised. In Florence, though, where the original ‘David’ is, you can buy replicas of the statue in a wide range of sizes and, at least the last time I was there, you could buy a ‘David’ who was medically circumcised or a ‘David’ as Michelangelo actually sculpted him!

  17. Jesus Christ was Jewish, He died nailed to a cross with a sign above his head, ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.’

    1. I believe that the sign on the cross actually said “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum” since Jesus was crucified by Romans. That’s why crucifixes have I.N.R.I. on the sign on top.

      You apparently didn’t read my post very carefully. I never said Jesus was not Jewish or that He was not circumcised by a mohel.

  18. @ Msgr. Pope

    Very good article. I have a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and you’re correct, of course, that a lot of artwork portraying Jesus, especially showing the Sacred Heart, makes Him look effeminate and kind of sappy. The Divine Mercy image affects me the way the bad portrayals of the Sacred Heart do. I think it’s effeminate and kind of creepy. It is a cause of sadness for me that it has eclipsed devotion to the Sacred Heart, a far older devotion.

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