On June 5th, the Holy Father Pope Francis posted a message on Twitter saying, “The Heart of Christ is so great it wants to welcome us all into the revolution of tenderness.”
Revolution—a word that hits rather close to home these days. This seems to be an era of human history in which facades of a successful society are being torn down. False security in our health and our economy has been exposed while ugly and unjust systems of our society are being unmasked. The news feels more like a dystopian nightmare than it ever has. In light of this, we might wonder, what kind of revolution is God calling us to? What is his revolution of tenderness?
The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is so ubiquitous that it was familiar to me long before I became Catholic. But when I saw the image on grocery store candles or in art on restaurant walls, I perceived it as kitschy or sentimental. Something more austere like Christ Pantocrator presenting the terrible gaze of his majesty was a closer fit to Jesus as I imagined him to be: the holy and powerful judge of the souls of men.
As God has opened my heart to admire and be transformed by the Catholic devotions I once perceived as sappy, I understand better why we need the awe-inspiring Christ Pantocrator and the merciful Sacred Heart of Jesus. Such titles help us to know him and his attributes but cannot contain him. Even the saints are honored with titles that highlight their complexity. St. Joseph is called Mirror of Patience, but also honored as Terror of Demons. Each shows us a different facet of the faithful, gentle, strong, protective, decisive, holy foster father of Jesus. How much more important is it to acknowledge the greatness of God through the titles and devotions that help us to know him more deeply?
And yet even in one image of our Lord, there are complexities. The Sacred Heart is an image of fiery love, of unquenchable mercy. The heart is the center, the essence of a person. To wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve is to be open with the world. But the Sacred Heart of Jesus highlights a much deeper vulnerability—he holds out his heart knowing that it will be trampled by those it burns with love for, first in the Passion and then when we as sinners wound the heart of God through our sins. And this ultimate vulnerability is remarkable because of the power and strength of God. He does not have to love us in this radical way, but he chooses to. And this mystery is displayed in the Incarnation when God the Most High is born as a helpless child and again and again in the Eucharist. God is a God of powerful and vulnerable love. Jesus knows exactly what we will do to his Sacred Heart, and instead of wrapping it in protection, he holds it out, burning with love.
When Pope Francis speaks of the “revolution of tenderness” that the Heart of Christ calls us to, I don’t think he’s speaking of the mushy feelings or sentimentality that I once mistakenly viewed in images of the Sacred Heart. I think he is speaking of the vulnerable love that is the most powerful thing in the universe: the love that lays down its life for others. This revolution of tenderness is what motivated saints like St. Maximilian Kolbe to sacrifice his life for another man while imprisoned at Auschwitz—a fate he suffered because of his courageous stand against the evils of Nazism. His heavenly life began after making his earthly life a reflection of the Sacred Heart of Jesus: holding out all that he was and offering it for the sake of his fellow man because of his burning love for God.
One of my college roommates kept an icon of Our Lady of Tender Mercy by her bed. Ever since she introduced me to this image, I have been struck by how it displays Mary’s love for the Christ child in the way our Lady cradles him in her arms and rests her cheek so gently against his. But it is also an image of great strength. As I have learned since my oldest child was born over a decade ago, a mother’s love is very fierce. How many times have I held my babies lovingly to my heart, breathing in their blessed scent, my nose tickled by their baby curls, and been struck by the reality that I would die for them in an instant? I know I would place myself between any danger and my child. I would fight a bear, tackle an assailant, take a bullet for my babies—and I see that same kind of love for Jesus in the eyes of Mary. Her tenderness grows out of the all-consuming love she has for her son. It is not a weakness; it is her strength.
The revolution of tenderness that we see in the eyes of our Lady and St. Maximilian Kolbe and in the Sacred Heart of Jesus is calling us out of our calloused and self-centered lives into a more radical love. Whenever we sacrifice our safety, our comfort, our security, our energy, or our wealth for the sake of the unfathomable mercy and love of God, we join this revolution of tenderness.
Convert, activist, and Servant of God Dorothy Day claimed, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” Can we trade our hearts of stone for Jesus’ Sacred Heart? And can that conversion of heart motivate us to transform our world with sacrifice as Dorothy Day did? As we look around the suffering in our world today due to evils like abortion, racism, injustice, and greed, we may become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the magnitude of what we face and the sin that lurks in our own hearts. But we have only to look into the eyes of our Lady, the lives of the saints, and the vulnerable power of the Sacred Heart to see that we are not alone, and that the heart of Christ is great enough for all of it. We are invited to play our small part in a revolution of tenderness that begins in our lives and ripples out to bring grace and mercy to a suffering world.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us and on the whole world.