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The Heart of Christ in the Liturgy

Enrico Cattaneo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Nov 21st 2022

sacred heart of jesus

The new edition of the Roman Missal, has been adopted by all the Italian dioceses, with the exception of  Milan, which follows its own rite.[1] It contains numerous prayer texts on the theme of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Above all is the Mass for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Friday after the Second Sunday after Pentecost.[2] Then there is the Votive Mass of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and finally there are three optional prayers for the Masses of the Solemnity in years A, B and C. It is these texts that we wish to examine as to their theological and spiritual content.

A  historical perspective

The theme of the “heart” is certainly central to biblical anthropology, and it is also present in the Gospels, where Jesus shows himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29), and where he highlights the hardness of heart of some (cf. Matt 19:8).[3] The Fathers of the Church developed the theme of the heart, above all starting from the wound in the side of Jesus, from which came forth “blood and water” (John 19:34), the symbol of the sacraments and of the Church herself.[4] During the Middle Ages, with its various spiritualities, especially Franciscan and Dominican, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread among the people, but it was in  more recent times  that it gained liturgical recognition.[5]  


We owe to Saint John Eudes the composition of the first liturgical Office in honor of the Heart of Jesus, the solemn feast of which was celebrated for the first time, with the support of many bishops of France, on October 20, 1672. On February 6, 1765, Clement XIII, acceding to the requests of the bishops of Poland and the Roman Archconfraternity dedicated to the Heart of Jesus, granted the right to celebrate the liturgical feast in honor of the Sacred Heart, with its own proper Office and Mass. In 1856, Blessed Pius IX introduced the feast of the Sacred Heart into the calendar of the Latin Church. Leo XIII confirmed it, associating it with the request for the consecration of the human race to the Sacred Heart.[6] Pius XI, in the encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, gave the liturgical feast a new impulse, adding the invitation to recite the Act of Reparation.[7] Pius XII, perhaps seeing a weakening of devotion to the Sacred Heart, undermined by accusations of “naturalism” and “sentimentalism,” promulgated an encyclical rich in biblical and patristic content.[8] The Second Vatican Council in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, No. 22, recalled that Christ “loved with a human heart.”

This ecumenical perspective, however, has been misinterpreted in the post-Council period, where there has been a cooling of devotion to the Sacred Heart, along with other devotions, which people also loved. St. Paul VI tried, with little success, to remedy this with the Apostolic Letter Investigabiles divitias Christi of February 6, 1965, which acknowledged that “the cult of the Sacred Heart – we say this with sorrow – has waned somewhat amongst some people.”[9] Nevertheless, the liturgical reform he wanted has preserved, as we have seen, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, together with a votive Mass. This liturgical basis has certainly supported the numerous interventions regarding  the spirituality of the Sacred Heart present in the catecheses of Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.[10]

From a liturgical point of view, we cannot overlook here the addition of a new feast day, that of Divine Mercy, instituted by St. John Paul II in 1992, according to the visions of Sister Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun canonized by Pope Wojtyla in 2000. It is not really a new feast, but a title given to the Second Sunday of Easter. Its connection with the spirituality of the Heart of Christ is obvious, but it emphasizes other aspects, also important, of the “boundless riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).[11]

Theological and spiritual themes

Since liturgical prayer is always addressed to the Father, in the Mass for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (cf. MR 304-305) the Heart of Christ is seen above all as the Heart of the Son, “your beloved Son” (Collect). The Preface gives us the theological key to the solemnity, recalling the lance of which the Gospel of John speaks: “ Blood and water flowed  from his pierced side, the wellspring of the Church’s Sacraments.”[12] The Fathers had already commented on the symbolic richness of that event, seeing in it the birth of the Church. For just as from the side of the sleeping Adam, God brought forth the woman (cf. Gen 2:21-22), so from the open side of Christ, now in the sleep of death, God brought forth the Church.[13] This Heart, “wounded by our sins” (Collect B), thus becomes the “perennial spring of salvation” (Preface), an “inexhaustible fountain” from which to draw the “abundance” of divine gifts (Collect).[14] The liturgy invites the faithful to be “joyful” in  this celebration (Collect) and to live it “in joy” (Preface).

The Heart is the living expression of the “immense charity” of Christ (Over the Gifts), that is, of his “boundless love,” in which he “gave himself up for us” (Preface). In it are also manifested the “wonders” of the Father’s love (Collect), which in the Heart of Christ has opened “the infinite treasures” of his love (Collect B). This message should cause “all” to be “won over to the open heart of the Savior” (Preface), “drawn always” to him (After Communion). This attraction should “make us fervent with the fire of holy love” and teach us “to see him in our neighbor” (ibid.).

Collect B, addressed to the “merciful Father,” also touches on the theme of reparation: “Grant that […] we may also fulfill  the duty of a worthy reparation.” This theme is not easy to treat, because it is connected to the concepts of sin, expiation, vicarious satisfaction, all topics that require significant  theological effort.[15]

However, it is not difficult to find a biblical basis. In fact, according to Revelation, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive honor and glory and praise!” (Rev 5:12). Jesus has loved his own, and he asks them  to “now remain in his love” (John 15:9); therefore, he wants to be loved back, as he expressly asked Peter (cf. John 21:15, 19).[16] In Gethsemane, Jesus asks his disciples to “keep vigil one hour” with him (Matt 26:40). As for Paul, he exhorts the faithful in this way: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1), and he himself says that “I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24).[17] It is then clear that the best reparation is that which is made practical in fraternal love, even to the gift of self (cf. 1 Jn 3:16).[18]

The alternative Collects for years A, B and C contain a rich set of ideas. Collect A recalls themes that are distinctly Johannine: the “faithful and merciful God” “sent his Son into the world” (cf. John 3:17) “that men might have life” (cf. John 10:10) and “let us learn to love one another” (cf. John 15:17), “to abide in you who are love” (cf. John 15:9). Alongside these Johannine insights there is also a text from Matthew, with an invitation to put oneself “in the school of Christ, meek and humble of heart” (cf. Matt 11:29).

Collect B connects various themes: that of the “tenderness” of the Father, who “nourishes” with his “hand” and “sustains” his children. This recalls the theme of the manna, and therefore of the Eucharist (cf. John 6:32: “My Father […] gives you bread from heaven, the true bread”). Furthermore, the “Heart of Christ pierced on the Cross” becomes the source of a “sublime knowledge”: that of the love of the Father. It is not, however, an abstract knowledge, but that which “renews us with the power of the Spirit,” in order to announce, “to all men the riches of your grace.” In the background we can see an allusion to the text of Titus 3:5, which speaks of “renewal in the Spirit,” and to that of Eph 3:8, which speaks of proclaiming to the nations the “unfathomable riches of Christ.”

Collect C touches on the theme of the shepherd: God is the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), who manifests his omnipotence “in forgiveness and compassion,” and thus gathers together “the scattered children” (John 11:52), restoring them “to the stream of grace that flows from the Heart of the Son” (Ps 36:8: “you give them drink from your river of delights”). The theme of the shepherd is recalled in the antiphon to communion C: “Rejoice with me, for my lost sheep have been found” (Luke 15:6). The gathering together of the lost makes for a “great feast in the assembly of the saints.”

The Votive Mass touches on other important aspects of spirituality. The Collect invites us to  ask the Father to be “inflamed with the sentiments of the Heart of your Son.” We recognize here the Pauline theme expressed in Phil 2:5: “Have in yourselves the same sentiments as Christ Jesus”: not therefore sentiments of “rivalry or vainglory,” but of “humility” (Phil 2:3). These are the “virtues” with which we must “clothe ourselves” (ibid.). This too is a Pauline theme: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). The request to be “conformed to Christ” (After Communion) and “transformed into his image” (Collect) is also of Pauline derivation (Rom 8:29: “. . . predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”). 

The meaning of the liturgical feast

The Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus belongs to those introduced late into the liturgy, such as the feast of the Most Holy Trinity and that of Christ the King. The liturgists call them “feasts of ideas,” because they “lack a true and proper basic memorial element, which would allow the liturgical action to be based on a precise historical-salvific event.”[19] They are also called “feasts of devotion,” “because they draw their origin from the particular piety of a group.”[20] However, when a form of devotion is taken up by the liturgy, it receives a form of official recognition. The prayer formulas, introduced into the Missal and accompanied by the appropriate biblical readings, set out the tracks along  which to channel devotion, avoiding the always possible deviations.

In turn, the phrase “feasts of ideas” has a truth of its own. Indeed, throughout the centuries the Church has countered various ideologies not only with dogmas or the interventions of the Magisterium, but also, and above all, in the liturgy.[21] In fact, formally defined dogmas are very rare,[22] and no more can be expected for the time being. As for the Magisterium, it is not always easily accessible to all, and often reaches the faithful only indirectly, through the mass media, which generally simplifies the teaching and sometimes misrepresents it. Liturgy, on the other hand, good or bad, remains stable over time. What Jesus commanded at the Last Supper, with the words over the bread and the chalice: “Do this in memory of me” (1 Cor 11:24; Luke 22:19), has been handed down unchanged for two thousand years. Rites are by their nature conservative, but it is necessary to distinguish the essential core from the incidental and culturally conditioned elements. The latter risk becoming fossilized, falling into formalism, or growing like parasites, suffocating the original meaning of the rite. For this reason, the liturgy not only embraces different rites, from East to West, but has also known reforms, such as that of St Pius V (1570) and that of St Paul VI (1969), desired by the Second Vatican Council.[23]

The liturgy then uses the language of symbols, which have a strong emotional impact. The 19th century saw the apotheosis of devotion to the Sacred Heart.[24] Numerous schools, churches, parishes and confraternities were dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and many congregations, both female and male, bore this name. It cannot be denied that this spirituality, which had already asserted itself in the 17th century against the rigidity of Jansenism, was able to “hold fast to the bodily and at the same time affective dimension of the faith, within an epoch in which religiosity risked, on the one hand, being thought of in an exclusively intellectual key and, on the other, being practiced in apparently irrational forms.”[25]

Not only within the Church, however, but also in relation to the modern world, the spirituality of the Heart of Christ has been a bulwark against a widespread rationalistic mentality, which fed  atheistic and anticlerical culture.

Already Leo XIII, in his encyclical Annum Sacrum, declared: “The reasons for performing the act of consecration, among other things, go beyond mere arguments of a theological-spiritual character, implying serious reasons of a social and political nature.”[26] The act of consecration proposed by the pope ends by invoking “freedom and immunity from harm” for the Church, and requesting the gift of “peace and order to all nations.”[27]

Pius XI’s encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor also highlights the value of the liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart as an increase in a more authentic faith and as a bulwark against ideologies, both internal to the Church itself and external, which foment “laws and motions of the people contrary to divine and natural law.”[28] In turn, Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart, does not fail to emphasize the importance of this devotion in opposing a “society polluted by religious indifferentism, heedless of every rule that discriminates true from false in thought and action, and loyal to the principles of atheistic materialism and secularism.”[29] Even now it can continue to play a central role in opposing what Pope Francis likes to call “the spiritual diseases of our time, namely Gnosticism and self-referential neo-Pelagianism.”[30]

Reviewing the enormous amount of theological study done on the theme of the Heart of Christ, we must recognize that we are faced with a spirituality well founded in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. The whole liturgy, in fact, is a theology in action, because in it the principal mysteries of our faith are actively proposed in a context of adoration and praise: Trinity, Incarnation and Redemption, in a clear eschatological perspective. In particular, however, the liturgical celebration of the Heart of Christ has a “synthetic” character, inasmuch as it summarizes in itself the mystery of the “Incarnation of the Word and His sacrificial offering on the Cross for the redemption of humanity.”[31] Hence comes its profound link with the Eucharist, sacrifice and sacrament of love, divine and fraternal. Rightly, then, the Roman Missal has preserved the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, placing it on a Friday, the day that recalls the gift of self that Jesus made on the Cross, the supreme manifestation of Trinitarian love.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.7 art. 5, 0722: 10.32009/22072446.0722.5

[1].    Archdiocese of Milan, Ambrosian Missal, Milan, Centro Ambrosiano 2021. The use of the Ambrosian Rite, however, does not correspond exactly to the territory of the diocese. There are exceptions both within and outside the territorial limits of that diocese.

[2].    This Solemnity extends to all the Catholic Churches of the Latin Rite which follow the Roman Rite. Catholic Churches of other rites, such as those of the Byzantine or Armenian or Coptic Rites,  are therefore excluded.

[3].    Cf. P. Scaravilli, Celebrare le “Investigabiles divitias Christi” (Ef 3,8). Analisi storica, liturgica e teologica delle Messe del Sacro Cuore di Gesù, Rome, Centro Liturgico Vincenziano, 2022, 21-48.

[4].    Ibid., 49-58.

[5].    Cf. ibid., 58-92.

[6].    Leo XIII, Encyclical Annum Sacrum, May 25, 1899, with attached Act of Consecration. Cf. E. Cattaneo, “Il centenario della consacrazione del genere umano al Sacro Cuore”, in Civ. Catt. 1999 II 439-449; P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 102-105.

[7].    Pius XI, Encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, May 8, 1928, at Cf. P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 105-110. Reparation is the central theme of this encyclical (cf. ibid., 499).

[8].    Pius XII, Encyclical Haurietis aquas, May 15, 1956. Cf. E. Cattaneo, “Una rilettura dell’enciclica ‘Haurietis aquas’ di Pio XII”, in Civ. Catt. 2006 II 417-425; P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 111-117.

[9]  .  Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Investigabiles divitias Christi, February 6, 1965. Cf. “Il Sacro Cuore di Gesù alle soglie del terzo millennio”, in Civ. Catt. 1990 III 3-15.

[10].   Cf. P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 117-120.

[11].   For those who wish to deepen their understanding of the analogies and differences between the two spiritualities, cf. D. Marafioti, Il Cuore di Gesù. La spiritualità dell’amore nell’oggi della Chiesa, Roma, AdP.

[12].   The passage in John 19:34 is quoted in the communion antiphon: “One of the soldiers opened his side with a lance, and at once there came forth blood and water.”

[13].   Cf. John Chrysostom, Catechesis 3, 13-19, quoted  in the Office of Readings for Good Friday: “A soldier pierced his side with a lance and water and blood came out. The one symbol of baptism, the other of the Eucharist. […] Now the Church was born of these two sacraments […], which came out of the side. So it is from His side that Christ formed the Church, as from the side of Adam Eve was formed.”

[14].   This theme is underlined by the communion antiphon: “Let whoever is thirsty come to me and drink. Streams of living water will flow from within the one who believes in me.” (John 7:37-38).

[15].   Some  theologians, such as Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Walter Kasper, Hans Urs von Balthasar have tried to revitalize these themes, with differing results (cf. P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 499-523).

[16].   On reparation as a form of redamatio, cf. P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 536-539.

[17].   Intimidated by Protestant exegesis, which denies any cooperation of ours with Christ the Redeemer, many preachers ignore this verse.

[18].   Cf. G. Mucci, “Un punto incompreso della spiritualità del Sacro Cuore”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 75-79.

[19].   P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 348.

[20].   Ibid., 372. Devotion is also nourished by certain practices, such as Confession and Communion on the first nine Fridays of the month, the Holy Hour, the Daily Offering. These practices were spread especially by the Jesuits, thanks also to the movement The Apostolate of Prayer, founded by them in 1844. “The association still today counts millions of members and, in  more recent times , Pope Francis wished to constitute it as a pontifical work, with  headquarters in Vatican City, giving it the new name of World Network of Prayer for the Pope” (ibid., 99).

[21].   Cf. ibid., 12: “The various formularies of the Masses which have been drawn up over time, […] represent a sort of ‘liturgical’ response aimed at opposing the  affirmation of certain forms of heterodox doctrine.”

[22].   The last dogma to be promulgated was that of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, proclaimed by Pius XII in 1950. In 1854, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. We will soon celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the  first dogma, that promulgated by the Council of Nicea in 325, which defined the divinity of Christ as “consubstantial with the Father.”

[23].   Cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, December 4, 1963.

[24].   In Paris, in 1875, the construction of the basilica of the Sacred Heart began, in the Montmartre district (“mount of the martyrs,” in memory of Saint Dionysius), and the project was voted on by the  National Assembly itself, after the defeat of 1871.

[25].   P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 529. Cf. G. Mucci, “Dal sacrocuorismo al Sacro Cuore”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 II 596-601.

[26].   P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 104.

[27].   Leo XIII, “Formula of Consecration to be Recited to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

[28].   Pius XI, Encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, op. cit.

[29].   Pius XII, Encyclical Haurietis aquas, op. cit.; italics in the text.

[30].   P. Scaravilli, Celebrare…, op. cit., 530.

[31].   Ibid, 375. Cf. G. Marchesi, “Il Cuore di Cristo: centro dell’incarnazione di Dio e della redenzione dell’uomo”, in Civ. Catt. 1988 II 440-452.

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