POPE BENEDICT XVI AND THE HEART OF CHRIST
Rev. Peter Schineller, S.J. – President of Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja
INTRODUCTION. The first encyclical letter of a new Pope is always eagerly
anticipated. It might well set the tone and direction of that papacy. Dated 25 December,
2005, the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI has been issued, and is entitled DEUS
CARITAS EST, God is Love. It has been very well received by Catholics and many
others. While the letter does not explicitly refer to the devotion to the Sacred Heart, it
clearly affirms and confirms very much that is at the center of the devotion to the Sacred
Heart, and central to the mission of the Apostleship of Prayer. As we will see, the words
of Pope Benedict should spur us on to even greater dedication and devotion to the Sacred
Heart, and spur us on to give strong witness to the love of Jesus Christ by our words and
Some years before he became Pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he had written
an article entitled “The Mystery of Easter: Substance and Foundation of Devotion to the
Sacred Heart.” This is found in a book entitled Behold the Pierced One, published in
English in 1986. Many of the themes and insights of that early article are found again
and developed in the recent encyclical. One important example would be the image of
the pierced Heart of Jesus as the revelation of God’s love, and as the center of
Christianity. This image appears prominently in the new encyclical.
GOD IS LOVE. Let us therefore turn to the encyclical God is Love, and see how
it confirms the power, direction and importance of devotion to the Heart of Christ. By
putting love at the center, is the Holy Father not confirming what is at the center of
devotion to the Sacred Heart? For the most part, we will rely upon the words of Pope
Benedict. We let them speak for themselves. The Holy Father first of all explains why
he has written this encyclical:
God is love…In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with
vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely
and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the
love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with
others. That, in essence, is what the two main parts of this Letter are about
In the thought of Pope Benedict, the statement that “God is Love” is the high
point of God’s revelation in the Bible. This phrase occurs in the lst Letter of John (1 Jn.
4:16), yet it is prepared for in the Old Testament. The Pope refers to the Song of Songs,
for example, but especially turns to the prophet Hosea for this insight into the love of
God. He quotes where Hosea speaks passionately of the heart of God as a heart of love.
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ...
My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will
not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God
and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God's passionate
love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is
so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here
Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great
is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death,
and so reconciles justice and love (No. 10).
LOVE REVEALED MUST FULLY IN JESUS. While the Old Testament
presents various examples and aspects of the love of God, the most complete revelation
of the love of God comes only with Jesus Christ. In him the love of God becomes visible.
It takes on human flesh. Thus the Pope describes how Jesus manifests the love of God
and how this is seen most clearly in the pierced Heart of Jesus Christ. Once again, the
Pope clearly echoes what devotion to the Sacred Heart is constantly putting before the
Divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God
himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost
humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes
after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father
who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words:
they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on
the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in
which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love
in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf.
19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter:
“God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It
is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation
the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move
Devotion to the Sacred Heart surely involves this contemplation of the love of
God seen in the pierced heart of Christ. Yet as the Pope will remind us, it cannot
stop there. The love of God manifest in the heart of Jesus Christ must also
become our love. We must constantly turn to this source of love and let it enter
our hearts. We must become a source of love for others.
Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of
living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must
constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from
whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34) (No. 7).
LIFE FROM THE SOURCE, THE PIERCED SIDE OF CHRIST. In words
that are very familiar to devotees of the Sacred Heart, words found in other papal writings
on the Sacred Heart, for example in the encyclical of Pope Pius XII on the Sacred Heart,
Pope Benedict refers again to the one whose heart was pierced, and from whose side the
water of life flows. Thus he writes:
In the foregoing reflections, we have been able to focus our attention on the
Pierced one (cf. Jn 19:37, Zech 12:10), recognizing the plan of the Father
who, moved by love (cf. Jn 3:16), sent his only-begotten Son into the world to
redeem man. By dying on the Cross—as Saint John tells us—Jesus “gave up
his Spirit” (Jn 19:30), anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would
make after his Resurrection (cf. Jn 20:22). This was to fulfil the promise of
“rivers of living water” that would flow out of the hearts of believers,
through the outpouring of the Spirit (cf. Jn 7:38-39). The Spirit, in fact, is
that interior power which harmonizes their hearts with Christ's heart and
moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down
to wash the feet of the disciples (cf. Jn 13:1-13) and above all when he gave
his life for us (cf. Jn 13:1, 15:13) (No. 19).
EUCHARIST AS SOURCE OF LOVE. As in the devotion to the Sacred Heart
and in the statutes of the Apostleship of Prayer, it is especially in the Eucharist that we
touch the source, Jesus Christ. There we encounter and touch the love of God.
In Jesus we are able to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). He encounters us ever anew,
in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments,
and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer, in the
living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his
presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has
loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love.
In a beautiful expression, the Pope explains that because God loved us first and because
his love is so powerful, “love can also blossom as a response within us” (No. 17).
By frequent attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, and
also through the Daily Offering, members of the Apostleship of Prayer join
themselves with Masses being offered around the world. We join the offering of our
lives with the offering of Jesus. This is what the Pope is saying when he writes:
The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just
statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of
his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now
realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's
presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus'
self-gift, sharing in his body and blood (No. 13).
PUTTING ON THE HEART OF CHRIST. Gradually, from day to day
through the sacraments, through prayer and the Daily Offering, we begin to put on
the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, a heart that sees and feels as Jesus. The Pope
desires that this happen in the life of every Christian.
The Christian's programme —the programme of the Good
Samaritan, the programme of Jesus—is “a heart which sees”. This
heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly No. 31).
Putting on the heart of Christ surely leads to a life of love, love that extends out to
others, to the neighbor, to the person in need. Attendance at Mass, receiving Holy
Communion is thus the beginning of a life of action. Impelled by our devotion to
the heart of Christ, we go forth from the Eucharist to make the love of God
visible in our world, in our surroundings.
“Worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of
being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not
pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented
THE COMMUNITY TRANSFORMED BY LOVE. Every Christian,
every parish, every community must show forth this love, so manifest in the pierced
heart of Jesus. The Pope goes on to say that not only the hearts of the individuals,
but the heart of the Christian community is transformed. He turns therefore to the
work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love that transforms our hearts.
The Spirit is also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial
community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the
Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son. The entire
activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of
man… (No. 19).
The mission of the Church, and its works, especially the works of charity, become
animated and formed or reformed by the love of the heart of Christ. Indeed, all
members of the Church, and especially those devoted to the Heart of Christ, have
the mission to be men and women of great charity. They should
be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6). Consequently,
more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ's love, persons
whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a
love of neighbour. The criterion inspiring their activity should be Saint
Paul's statement in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “the love of Christ
urges us on” (5:14). The consciousness that, in Christ, God has given himself
for us, even unto death, must inspire us to live no longer for ourselves but for
him, and, with him, for others. Whoever loves Christ loves the Church, and
desires the Church to be increasingly the image and instrument of the love
which flows from Christ (No. 33).
GRATITUDE FOR THIS POWERFUL MESSAGE. In reading and
reflecting on this first encyclical of Pope Benedict, we surely have beautiful and
powerful message about love. What a tremendous gift and challenge the Pope has
put before us. He points to the source and most visible manifestation of this love,
namely the pierced heart of Christ. He points to how, as followers of Christ, we
must manifest this love in our own lives. He shows too that by uniting our lives
(our joys, sufferings, successes, struggles) to the life of Jesus, we can fulfil our
role as Apostles of Prayer, as active members of the Apostleship of Prayer. We
have every reason to believe that this Pope will continue to support and encourage
us in our efforts that devotion to the Heart of Christ grow more fervent in
Catholics throughout the world. We have good reason to believe that the work of
the Apostleship of Prayer will also flourish during this papacy.
Let us turn to one final selection from the Pope where again he puts love at
the center, the love revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus.
Faith, hope and charity go together. Hope is practised through the
virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of
apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which
accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness.
Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the
victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms
our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the
world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the
Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately
triumphs in glory. Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the
pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the
light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a
world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living
and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it
because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and
in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the
invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical (No. 39).
Inspired by this first encyclical of Pope Benedict, it is now in our hands to
continue and to expand the work of the Apostleship of Prayer and spread devotion
to the Sacred Heart. May our whole life – through the Daily Offering, become an
offering of love, may our whole life become an apostolic journey of love back to
the very Heart of God. May we be true missionaries, by our prayer and action
giving witness to the love of God, giving witness to God who is Love.