Pope Benedict XVI’s Christology of the Sacred Heart

The late Pope Benedict XVI, in the first part of his book Behold the Pierced One, defends the devotion to the Sacred Heart primarily by drawing upon Pius XII’s Haurietis Aquas and the Gospels to show its precedents in Tradition and Scripture. In Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, Spirit of the Liturgy, and his reflections on the Eucharist, he lays out his “Spiritual Christology,” in which the Sacred Heart serves as a crucial image, for “in the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us.”[1] After examining Benedict’s “theology of the heart” and his focus on the Gospel of John, this essay will explore “especially those works which manifest more clearly His [Christ’s] love for us—such as the divine institution of the Eucharist, His most bitter sufferings and death . . . and finally, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon us” (HA §59). Then will follow a discussion of Benedict’s theology of images and his reflection on the episode of Doubting—or rather, Believing—Thomas.

What is the Heart? Against the Accusation of “Emotivism”

The devotion to the Sacred Heart suffers two primary attacks, from excesses in the Liturgical Movement and excesses in an Enlightenment-era intellectualism, which claims that the devotion is too emotivist, sentimental, and sensory. The former claims that this “emotionalistic piety” needs to be “subordinated” to the more “objective” Latin liturgy.[2] In response, Pius XII’s Haurietis Aquas, as Benedict writes, “was concerned to overcome the dangerous dualism between liturgical spirituality and nineteenth-century devotion, to let each of them stimulate the other . . . without simply dissolving the one in the other.”[3] Prioritizing the liturgy, he argues, should not come at the expense of healthy devotions, since “the liturgy itself can only be celebrated properly if it is prepared for, and accompanied by, that meditative ‘abiding’ in which the heart begins to see and to understand, drawing the senses too into its beholding. For ‘you can only see properly with your heart.’”[4]

But what exactly is this “meditative abiding,” this seeing and understanding, this “beholding with the heart”? What is the heart? In the Biblical and Patristic tradition, the heart is the core of one’s being, a core not separated from the whole “self” but instead serving as its unifying locus.[5] Benedict summarizes his theology of the heart in Jesus of Nazareth: it is “the organ for seeing God” and a way of speaking about the fully integrated person.[6] Under this schema, the heart is “the wholeness of man” and its “totality,” rather than being “merely” the seat of the senses and emotions. With this holistic understanding of the heart, the senses and passions are not a distortion of man, but rather one of his crucial dimensions. Thus, Benedict writes, “The senses are not to be discarded, but . . . should be expanded to their widest capacity. We see Christ rightly only when we say with Thomas: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[7] To see God aright is to orient the whole of one’s being to him.

Building off the work of Hugo Rahner and Haurietis Aquas, Benedict briefly summarizes the Patristic theology of the heart in Behold the Pierced One.[8] The Fathers, especially Origen and Augustine, undergird the devotion via their “theology and philosophy of the heart”[9]. Continuous with the Biblical image of God’s loving and merciful heart (see Hosea 11), “the new [patristic] synthesis” of the Old and New Testament, Benedict writes, firmly places the heart as “the locus of the saving encounter with the Logos.”[10] The “image of the Pierced One”[11] in John’s Gospel, taken from Zechariah, is fulfilled in “the pierced Heart of the crucified Son . . . which overthrows its righteousness by mercy and by that very action remains righteous.”[12] This line of thought continues in the Medieval mystics’[13] focus on the Song of Songs “as expressing the theme of God’s love for the Church and the soul and also that of man’s response” and their use of its language “to integrate all the passion of human love into man’s relationship with God.”[14] Here again we see the integration of the passions into a relationship with and a turning of oneself to God, who pours himself out for us recklessly in his Incarnation and Death, bringing forth the Church with the blood and water flowing from his side. Whereas for the Stoic, “the task of the heart [was] self-preservation,” Benedict writes, “the pierced Heart of Jesus . . . is not concerned with self-preservation but with self-surrender. It saves the world by opening itself.”[15]

To be devoted to the Sacred Heart, then, to involve the senses and emotions, to gaze upon an image of Christ’s physical and wounded Heart, is neither “emotivist,” “anti-liturgical,” nor “weak”; rather, a “spirituality of the senses is essentially a spirituality of the heart, since the heart is . . . where sense and spirit meet, interpenetrate, and unite.”[16] This spirituality is Incarnational and Resurrectional—intrinsically Paschal—because it is rooted in “the passions of Jesus, which are summed up and set forth in the Heart.”[17] “Incarnational spirituality,” Benedict continues, “must be a spirituality of the passions . . . it is an Easter spirituality, for the mystery of Easter, the mystery of suffering, is of its very nature a mystery of the heart.”[18] Therefore, to meditatively abide with the Heart of Jesus, to behold his Heart with our own, is to meditate upon the mystery of suffering via Christ’s Paschal Mystery.

The Gospel of John and Christ’s Incarnate Heart

Hugo Rahner connected the Sacred Heart to Patristic interpretations of John 7:37–39 and John 19:34, both being “concerned with the open side of Jesus, with the blood and water which flow from it.”[19] Rahner is right to do so, Benedict implies, because John’s Gospel, taken as a harmonious whole,[20] shows the “indivisible unity” of “Christology ‘from above’ and ‘from below,’ the theology of the Incarnation and the theology of the Cross”: these two methods need to be taken together to avoid theological excesses.[21] If one takes the Evangelist at his word, if one accepts that he was an eyewitness and “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” then to use John to defend the Sacred Heart is even more fitting since it was this disciple who “was reclining close to his heart” (John 13:23)[22] and witnessed his side being pierced. Benedict writes extensively in praise of John’s Gospel as he lays out his Christology, noting that at the end of his Passion narrative, the evangelist “provid[es] a kind of framework in which . . . he portrays the whole meaning of Jesus’ life and suffering” through “the solemn and moving account of the opening of Jesus’ side (John 19:30-37).”[23]

Jesus’s incarnate Heart, Pope Pius XII writes, “more than all the other members of His body, is the natural sign and symbol of His boundless love” (HA §22). The love of Christ’s Heart, he continues, “expresses not only divine love but also human sentiments of love . . . . For the Word of God did not assume a feigned and unsubstantial body.”[24] Christ’s entry into our humanity was so complete that his body, which exists still today, “possesses full powers of feeling and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body.[25] It is through his Body that Christ “draws us all with him and . . . wipes away all our disobedience through his love.”[26] Jesus’ Incarnate Heart, then, “is the natural sign and symbol” of his embodied, boundless love: his Heart that felt more deeply than any other took all of our sufferings upon itself, saving us through its perfect obedience.

Christ’s incarnate Body, Benedict writes, is “where the divine is portrayed, uttered and rendered accessible to our gaze” and the means through which he “imparts to man and the visible world their ultimate and innermost meaning.”[27] Through this mystery, God has indicated that he “can be, and wants to be, represented as the Living One. God is the Wholly Other, but he is powerful enough to be able to show himself.” Since God wants to be “accessible to our gaze,” he has made us “capable of seeing and loving him.”[28] The Incarnation, then, invites us to meditate upon him with images.

“The Divine Institution of the Eucharist”: Christ’s Self-Giving Heart

In opposition to scholars who sunder the Paschal Mystery into isolated “parts” and restrict the roots of the Eucharistic Liturgy to the Last Supper, Benedict insists on the inner unity of the Paschal Mystery in the Gospels. To defend this unity, he uses Christ’s pierced heart:

The Lord’s opened side is the source from which spring forth both the Church and the sacraments that build up the Church . . . The Last Supper alone is not sufficient for the institution of the Eucharist. For the words that Jesus spoke then are an anticipation of his death . . . These words . . . were given content by his actual death. And then again, this death would remain empty of meaning . . . if the Resurrection had not come about, whereby it is made clear that these words were spoken with divine authority, that his love is indeed strong enough to reach out beyond death.[29]

The Last Supper was continuous with his life beforehand and afterwards—continuous with his self-sacrifice on the Cross, where blood and water (which traditionally correspond to the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism) sprung forth from his side.[30] His death, his being-pierced, provides the “content” for his words at the Last Supper. This connection between Cross and Eucharist is not one-sided, of course, since “without the Cross, the Eucharist would remain mere ritual; without the Eucharist, the Cross would be merely a horrible profane event.”[31] Benedict bases his liturgical theology on the inner unity of the Gospel of John, of the Apostle who rested on Christ’s side, beheld its piercing, and knew that neither could be sundered from the other nor from the Resurrection, which in turn provides each with the authority of the one whose love indeed conquers death.

Pope Paul XII writes about the power of devotion to the Sacred Heart to depict this love stronger than death (Song of Sol 8:6)[32] and to inspire “devotion to the Holy Cross in particular, and love for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.”[33] Meditating upon this Eucharistic Heart helps one reflect upon the conquering love of Christ, who remains with us and reveals his self-pouring-out through the Eucharist in a special way.[34] The image of the Sacred Heart, of the Incarnate Jesus pointing to his pierced, bleeding, thorn-encircled, and enflamed heart, presents the heart and face of Christ. To reflect upon these together, Benedict writes, should facilitate transformative prayer, since “anyone who gazes upon the face of the Lord, which the servants of the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s servants have spat upon, which they have slapped and covered with spittle, will see in his face the mirror of our violence, a reflection of what sin is, and their conscience will be purified in the way that is the precondition . . . for every improvement in human affairs.”[35] Meditating upon Jesus’s wounded and scorned Eucharistic heart shows us the ugliness of sin, not just others’ but our own, purifying our consciences and freeing our hearts for the purpose of effecting relational and social improvements.

“His Most Bitter Sufferings and Death”: Christ’s Suffering and Redeeming Heart

Benedict reflects on Christ’s sufferings, closely associated with his Heart, to help his readers understand what he endured for love of us in the Paschal Mystery. At Gethsemane Jesus endures the pain of “the betrayal of all ages, the pain caused by betrayal in every era,” utter anguish,[36] “final loneliness,” abandonment[37] by his disciples, and a “wrestl[ing] with his destiny for my sake.”[38] Jesus, always a “being-for,”[39] chooses to suffer, Benedict concludes, “because he is a lover.”[40] In this passage, the evangelist’s use of the word “garden” evokes Jesus’ identity (according to the Fathers)[41] as the new Adam, from whose side springs his Bride, the Church.[42] When the side of Jesus the Bridegroom (Mark 2, John 2) is pierced, John uses “exactly the same word as is used in the creation story to tell of the creation of Eve, where we normally translate it as Adam’s 'rib' . . . Jesus . . . goes down into the darkness of death’s sleep and opens within it the beginning of a new humanity” now sustained by the sacraments.[43] This “new humanity,” the Church, is “the new woman from the side of the new Adam.”[44]

The encyclical makes the connection to Christ’s Heart more explicit, saying, “From the wounded Heart of the Redeemer was born the Church, the dispenser of the Blood of the Redemption . . . as we read in the sacred liturgy: ‘From the pierced Heart, the Church, the Bride of Christ, is born . . . . And He pours forth grace from His Heart.’”[45] When we gaze upon Christ’s Sacred Heart, the best symbol of his love for us, we thereby adore “both the uncreated love of the divine Word and also its human love and its other emotions and virtues, since both loves moved our Redeemer to sacrifice Himself for us and for His Spouse, the Universal Church” (HA §86). Christ was pierced for his Bride, the Church, so to meditate upon his wounded Heart is to adore his nuptial Heart which sustains the Church today.

“Sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Upon Us”: Christ’s Resurrected Heart

Reminding the faithful that the Divine Heart is still beating in Christ’s glorified, wound-bearing, and ascended Body, Pius XII writes that Christ “remain[s] with His Spouse, the Church, by means of the burning love with which His Heart beats” (HA §61, 71). Benedict calls on us to “with listening hearts . . . entrust ourselves” to the resurrected Christ, to “with Thomas . . . place our hands into Jesus’ pierced side and confess: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[46] While Christ’s historical Body is no longer on earth, in Christ’s “communion with the Father, he is accessible and close to us in a new way,” for “if we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord . . . And let us not forget that for John . . . our own ever-necessary ‘ascension,’ our ‘going up on high’ in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus.”[47] To “touch the risen Lord” is to place our hand into his pierced side, to enter fully into our life of discipleship. What more fitting way to “travel in company” with Christ crucified than to meditate upon and abide with his Sacred Heart, surrounded by thorns, dripping with blood,[48] pierced with a lance, and aflame with love for us?

Benedict adds that John 7 and 19 “express the connection between Christology and pneumatology: the water of life which springs from the Lord’s side is the Holy Spirit.”[49] Rahner connects the outpouring of blood and water to Jesus’s words about “living waters” flowing from his Body, the New Temple; Benedict writes that here we see “the living Christ,” who has conquered death and provides us with living water even now.[50] The Body of Christ is not only life-giving but is itself living, since “the whole Christ . . . is transformed now in such a way that bodily existence and self-giving are no longer mutually exclusive but complementary.”[51] The Holy Spirit is also bound up with the Church, the Bride of Christ: “It is the Holy Spirit who makes the clay into a living Body . . . It is also the Holy Spirit who imparts new meaning to Adam’s becoming ‘one flesh’ with Eve,”[52] who was created from Adam’s side.

Through the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ’s Body, with the Heart of Christ at its center, we the faithful are drawn into the Trinity and Christ’s marriage to the Church. Benedict concludes his section on a “Spiritual Christology” thus: “This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth . . . and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world.”[53]

The Sacred Heart as Icon: Believing Thomas and Transformative Prayer

Benedict, discussing sacred imagery’s relationship to prayer and the liturgy, writes that “the icon of Christ is the center of sacred iconography. The center of the icon of Christ is the Paschal Mystery . . . . Every image of Christ . . . must be an image of Easter.”[54] Beholding the Pierced One is viewing “the center of sacred iconography,” for the image of the Sacred Heart, “the biblical icon,”[55] depicts his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Benedict writes that images which emphasize Christ’s suffering and death “are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so . . . bear within them the message of the Resurrection.”[56]

The devotion to the Sacred Heart especially reflects the Resurrection when it shows Christ gesturing towards his heart and looking outwards at the viewer, as if each one of us is being beckoned, like Thomas, to touch and believe. Benedict uses Thomas to show that “beholding the invisible in the visible is an Easter phenomenon,” since here the apostle “recognizes what is beyond touch and yet actually does touch it; he beholds the invisible and yet really sees it . . . ‘The wound of the body also reveals the spiritual wound . . . Let us look through the visible wound to the invisible wound of love!’”[57] This is all the more true for Christians today who travel with Jesus after his Ascension.

Benedict writes that icons[58] should open our hearts, enable us “to see more than what can be measured or weighed,” and allow “us to discern the face of Christ.”[59] Images “enable us to understand that mystery with a new vividness” and should “lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.”[60] Citing a “theology of corporality and of the Incarnation,” Benedict insists that “man needs to see, he needs this kind of silent beholding which becomes a touching, if he is to become aware of the mysteries of God.”[61] To encounter God, then, for Benedict, is to encounter God’s face, not just metaphorically but with our physical eyes. John the Evangelist “commands us to look upon” the Pierced One, noting that Zechariah 12:10 is

A description of the inner direction of our Christian life, our learning ever more truly to look upon him, to keep the eyes of our heart turned upon him, to see him, and thereby to grow more humble; to recognize our sins, to recognize how we have struck him . . . to look upon him and, at the same time, to take hope, because he whom we have wounded is he who loves us; to look upon him and to receive the way of life.[62]

Here we see the centrality of the Pierced Heart for Benedict. This image, he writes, should lead us to prayerful self-reflection, repentance, and our allowing him to transform our lives. In saying so, Benedict demonstrates how “Christology is born of prayer or not at all.”[63]

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 69. In Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII writes, “Is not a summary of all our religion and, moreover, a guide to a more perfect life contained in this one devotion?” (§15).

[2] Benedict discusses this “crisis in devotion to the Sacred Heart” further, where the movement “deliberately turned its back on the emotionalistic piety of the nineteenth century and its symbolism” (Behold the Pierced One, 47). This crisis has been worsened by a general decrease in images: “the destruction of images . . . eliminated a lot of kitsch and unworthy art, but ultimately it left behind a void, the wretchedness of which we are now experiencing in a truly acute way” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 80).

[3] Behold the Pierced One, 49.

[4] Behold the Pierced One, 54–55.

[5] The word “self” here is anachronistic, but roughly means “one’s individual being” insofar as we can be said to be individuated (but not individualistic) beings. As Benedict writes elsewhere, we are primarily relational beings, based on the relationship of the Trinity (see “Retrieving the Tradition: Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology”).

[6] Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 92–93.

[7] Spirit of the Liturgy, 75. Benedict returns time and time again to the story of Thomas the Apostle.

[8] See Behold the Pierced One, 56 and HA §94.

[9] Behold the Pierced One, 65.

[10] Behold the Pierced One, 68, emphasis mine.

[11] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 16. See Zech 12:10.

[12] Behold the Pierced One, 64. God’s righteousness is not “only” just, but also merciful.

[13] The main proponents of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, such as St. Gertrude, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, were mystics. See HA §94–99.

[14] Behold the Pierced One, 60–61.

[15] Behold the Pierced One, 69.

[16] Behold the Pierced One, 56.

[17] Behold the Pierced One, 60.

[18] Behold the Pierced One, 60, emphasis mine.

[19] Behold the Pierced One, 48.

[20] And harmonious with the other Gospels and the Old Testament (see chapter 8 of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration).

[21] Behold the Pierced One, 32.

[22] NRSVUE. Other translations read “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (DRA, KJV), “reclining at Jesus’ side” (NABRE), and “reclining next to him” (NRSVCE). See HA §34.

[23] “The Celebration of the Eucharist—Source and Summit of Christian Life” in Collected Works (CE), 260.

[24] HA §38–39. Pius cites Church Fathers such as Sts. Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and John Damascene.

[25] This body still exists (in glorified form). HA §57, emphasis mine.

[26] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 234–235. Here he also discusses Heb 10:5–10, where Christ quotes the psalmist’s “a body you have prepared for me.” See also HA §63.

[27] Behold the Pierced One, 52.

[28] See Spirit of the Liturgy, 76.

[29] Collected Works, 261.

[30] “Blood and water, Eucharist and Baptism, [spring forth] as the source of a new community” (Collected Works, 261).

[31] Collected Works, 336.

[32] “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave . . . . Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (NRSVCE).

[33] HA §122, quoting Leo XIII.

[34] See HA §122, which quotes St. Albert the Great’s “De Eucharistia.”

[35] Collected Works, 399.

[36] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, 68.

[37] This abandonment is intensified in Christ’s cry upon the Cross wherein “Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness upon himself—and in so doing he transforms it” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 214).

[38] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 149, emphasis mine.

[39] See Introduction to Christianity for a fuller account of his “being-for” Christology.

[40] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 58.

[41] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 226.

[42] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 149­–150.

[43] Collected Works, 261.

[44] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 226. See also Ephesians 5.

[45] HA §76, quoting a Hymn at Vespers for the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (as it was in 1956).

[46] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 277, emphasis mine. See also Behold the Pierced One, 49.

[47] Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 286.

[48] Christ’s “blood is shed, first on the Mount of Olives . . . then in the scourging, in the crowning with thorns, at the crucifixion, and after his death in the piercing of his heart” (Collected Works, 369, emphasis mine).

[49] Behold the Pierced One, 48.

[50] Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 247. See also HA §3.

[51] Collected Works, 369.

[52] Behold the Pierced One, 49.

[53] Behold the Pierced One, 69.

[54] Spirit of the Liturgy 82.

[55] Behold the Pierced One, 49–50.

[56] Spirit of the Liturgy 78–79.

[57] HA §53, quoting Bonaventure’s Mystical Vine. Haurietis Aquas sees in Thomas’ exclamation “a profession of faith, adoration and love, mounting up from the wounded human nature of his Lord to the majesty of the divine Person” (§92).

[58] Images and icons have distinct theologies in West and East, but the words are used interchangeably here.

[59] Spirit of the Liturgy, 74–75.

[60] Spirit of the Liturgy, 79, emphasis mine.

[61] Behold the Pierced One, 54.

[62] Collected Works, 270. Benedict further notes that John the Evangelist “begins his Revelation” with Zech 12:10.

[63] Behold the Pierced One, 46. See also Behold the Pierced One, 46; Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 234, 237; The Spirit of the Liturgy 74 and 82; Collected Works, 287; and HA §6, 15, 97, and 104.

Featured Image: Japanese portrait of Francis St. Xavier, c. 17th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Mary Biese

Mary Biese is a graduate student in the Master of Theological Studies program at the University of Notre Dame.

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