The Sacred Heart of Jesus is one Catholic devotion I find both strange and inspiring. That combination is to be expected, I suppose, for one who is just embarking on the Catholic journey after half a century in evangelical Protestantism. But of course, the Christian journey itself is a mixture of things both strange and stunning—from the virgin birth to the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and all the crazy miracles between and after. So it doesn’t surprise me that I often find in Catholicism that discordant mixture.

For me, the strange part of the Sacred Heart is the art associated with it. I know that I’m on dangerous ground here because it is precisely the art that resonates so deeply with so many Catholics. Thankfully, the Lord uses all manner of art to bless all manner of people. But if I’m honest, I have to admit this style, a combination of the literal and romantic—a pierced heart glowing from Jesus’ breast, accompanied by a crown of thorns and fire—doesn’t work for me. But I’ve learned long ago not to judge a tradition by its cover.

Knowing that the Sacred Heart is, in fact, an extraordinarily powerful devotion among Catholics, I wanted to understand the attraction. What I found was something that, as a former evangelical, looked mighty familiar.

Like all religious movements, evangelicals tend to stereotype other traditions they do not know. So Catholics are said to be legalists who obey a myriad of rules and are plagued with guilt if they fail to do so. Or they are formalists who mindlessly say the liturgy without heartfelt understanding. Or they live in dread of a God who will, at their death, count up their sins and assign them harsh penalties in purgatory. All in all, Catholics (according to many evangelicals) are more or less ignorant of the mercy of God, and they certainly don’t have an intimate relationship with Jesus.

It turns out, evangelicals are more or less confused about Catholicism. Here’s the thing about the Sacred Heart of Jesus: it’s all about divine intimacy and mercy—to the tenth degree.

Such devotion has a long history. There are allusions to it in the Bible. As one Lay Dominican put it,

St. John the Evangelist is the Apostle associated with the Sacred Heart devotion because, one, he was known as the disciple whom Jesus loved; two, he was called the “Apostle of Love” due to the theme of love repeated in his Gospel and epistles; and three, because he had the special privilege of reclining on the chest of Jesus at the Last Supper.

The revival of religious life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, along with the enthusiasm of the Crusaders newly back from the Holy Land, sparked devotion to the Passion of Christ and particularly to honoring the five sacred wounds. A passage from the Vitis Mystica, sometimes attributed to St. Bernard (but more likely from St. Bonaventure), makes the connection specific. Speaking of Christ as the vine and his death as destruction by gardeners, he says:

They dug therefore, and they dug through not only His hands, but also His feet, yea, and His side also; and the very recesses of His most sacred Heart, they pierced with the spear of rage, though it had already been wounded with the spear of love.”

Jesus’ heart gradually became the key symbol of his mercy, sacrificial love, and his desire for intimacy with us. We see increasing attention to Jesus’ heart and all it represents in St. Gertrude the Great, St. Francis de Sales, and the early Jesuits, among many others. The most significant inspiration for the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart is St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In 1674, Sr. Margaret Mary claimed that Jesus asked to be honored under the figure of his heart. She concluded, “Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love.” 

To inflame the hearts of the devoted, and as a mercy for those who have been indifferent or ungrateful for Jesus’ mercy, she said Jesus asked for, among other devotions, frequent reception of Communion and Adoration of the Eucharist.

Thus, as it is with many things Catholic, it all comes back to the Eucharist. A century ago, Pope Benedict XV, on the institution of the Feast of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, put it like this:

By this means, the Church wishes more and more to excite the faithful to approach this sacred mystery with confidence, and to inflame their hearts with that divine charity which consumed the Sacred Heart of Jesus when in His infinite love He instituted the Most Holy Eucharist, wherein the Divine Heart guards and loves them by living with them, as they live and abide in Him. For in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist He offers and gives Himself to us as victim, companion, nourishment, viaticum, and pledge of our future glory.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart, then, is about old-fashioned revival. Traditionally, evangelicals held annual revivals to stir up the faith of those whose had “backslidden” or whose spiritual hearts had grown cold. It was a ritual with its own liturgy of sorts, culminating in people going forward with outstretched arms to rededicate their lives to Christ and receive his mercy afresh into their hearts, personally, intimately.

For Catholics, every Mass can be a revival, and the annual honoring of the Sacred Heart of Jesus another Great Awakening when our hearts are filled again with the love of Jesus and tearful gratitude for his mercy.

In short, the generous mercy of God and the personal love of Jesus for each and every person is fundamental to the Catholic tradition. These themes are littered throughout the prayers of great saints of the church, one of my favorites being the Prayer for Divine Mercy from the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina. It begins, “O Greatly Merciful God, Infinite Goodness, today all mankind calls out from the abyss of its misery to your Mercy, to Your Compassion.”

And it finds its climax in a wonderful expression: “Let the omnipotence of your mercy shield us from the darts of our salvation’s enemies.” God’s omnipotence is not merely his ability to triumph over all demonic forces but especially his unstoppable love for each man, woman, and child he has created.

The prayer concludes with a petition perfect for Sacred Heart devotion: “For Jesus is our Hope. Through his merciful Heart as through an open gate we pass through to heaven”