St. Paul: Devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus?

We need mercy. And we can hardly approach this theme without evoking the famous devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But when did this devotion arise?

The Book of Psalms is a true compendium of our relationship with God. It would be difficult to find a feeling, an emotion, a trial or a supplication that is not expressed with poetry in its verses.

However, among these inspired texts, Psalm 129 particularly calls our attention for the almost “scientific” precision with which it describes, step by step, a trial that must be undergone by every soul that takes sanctification seriously.

At a certain point in life, man discovers the unfathomable distance that separates him from perfection – and therefore from God. He realizes that he lacks the strength to cover this distance, and senses that shipwreck is nigh. At that moment, there is only one hope, one lifeline to be found: prayer, an infallible weapon that human pride always insists on relegating to the last resort.

Then the piercing cry bursts forth from his soul: “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!” (Ps 130:1-2). There is no assumption that this request will be heard; there is simply a cry. But God is only awaiting this attitude of humility to make His presence felt.

When the soul perceives the divine audience, what words does it utter? Curiously, it does not ask to be shown a way out of its plight. It feels that, in order not to succumb, it has immediate need of something else: it needs clemency. “If Thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (Ps 130:3).

Once requested, clemency comes and – oh wonder! – it is indeed the solution: “But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (Ps 130:4).

A devotion for everyone

Why do we venture to describe this process? To demonstrate that, sooner or later, God makes us go through certain catastrophes in order to engrave a crucial truth in our souls: we need mercy. And we can hardly speak of mercy without evoking the famous devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This figure of utmost tenderness so supplies and satisfies our need for compassion that some have even postulated that it was “invented” specifically for this purpose.

Let us explain. It was only after the seventeenth century, with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, that this form of worship spread throughout the Catholic world, and with such force that some authors have gone so far as to affirm that it was an invention of modern Catholicism, which had abandoned the lofty medieval concept of love, materializing it in an adoration of the physical Heart of Jesus.1 According to others, St. Claude de la Colombière was inspired by a certain Puritan named Thomas Goodwin to idealize the devotion, and then he instigated St. Margaret Mary to propagate it.2

Fortunately, these postulates are false. Modern man’s affection deficit – or excess of sentimentality – cannot receive the credit for “creating” the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As early as the Middle Ages, in the silence of the cloisters, we already see St. Bernard mystically penetrating the side of Christ opened by the lance in order to find the pierced Heart inside and unveil the secrets of this great sacrament of goodness, the merciful bowels of our God.3 And not only he, but other great names of twelfth-century spirituality followed the same path.4

In fact, this devotion goes back to even much before the Middle Ages. Jesus himself pointed to His “meek and humble” Heart as an example (Mt 11:29), and it seems that the first venerators of this Heart were very close to the time when it physically pulsated among men. Speaking in more specific terms, in perusing the writings of the Apostle St. Paul we find in him a true champion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus5 and, in a certain sense, a precursor of the revelations of St. Margaret Mary.

What is the heart for St. Paul?

The Hebrews of old understood the human being in a very concrete way, and never dissociated body and soul. We often find in the Old Testament allusions to the symbolic dimension of the eyes, the ears, the heart, the tongue, the hands and even the feet to evoke the totality of human activity. The heart, evidently, has primacy.6

St. Paul was an heir to this conception. If we analyse his letters, in many passages we find allusions to the heart as: the receptacle of charity or the source from which it proceeds (cf. Rom 5:5; 1 Tm 1:5), the tabernacle of consolations (cf. Col 2:2), of peace of soul (cf. Col 3:15), of obedience to God’s Word (cf. Rom 6:17), of mercy (cf. Col 3:12), of generosity (cf. 2 Cor 9:7) and of firm resolutions (cf. 1 Thes 3:13).

In summary, the heart appears as the centre of the personality, the place in which the religious and moral life takes root and the orientation of existence is determined. To condense it all in a single word, as did Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira,7 the heart symbolizes the mentality of man.

From this perspective, devotion to the Heart of Jesus acquires an unfathomable depth. We will return to this subject further on.

A synonym for the heart

Despite such a wide range of meanings, it is undeniable that the heart has a very special relationship with love.

In this sense, the Apostle uses another term as an equivalent, rendered in Latin as viscera – bowels, according to some English translations. The parity between the two is universally recognized, but the latter denotes an especially profound sentiment, as Fr. Bover comments: the word “bowels expresses greater tenderness, delicacy or depth of feeling than heart, as well as a certain movement or inclination towards the person loved. […] The bowels symbolize love itself, in what it has of most intimate and intense, and the synthesis of the whole person, particularly in its appeal and communicativeness.”8

In fact, it must be said, St. Paul does not use the expression “heart of Jesus,” but rather the “bowels of Jesus Christ”. However, this in no way alters the profound theological similarity between his writings and St. Margaret’s revelations.

Jesus was betrayed by His love

We find three particularly illuminating passages on St. Paul’s understanding of the love of Jesus: “I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20); “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2), “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).

In these pericopes, the Apostle expresses the three dimensions of Our Lord’s love: “Christ loved me,” “Christ loved us” and “Christ loved the Church.” We see here a predilection for every man, for humanity and, in a special way, for His Mystical Body.

St. Paul also makes it clear that Jesus’ love led Him to give himself up. The Redeemer himself expressed this in the words at the institution of the Eucharist, as the First Letter to the Corinthians recalls: “This is my body which is for you” (11:24).

One would say that Christ’s affection for us was such that it “forced Him” to consummate the Passion and, not content with this, to become our food. The Saviour did not suffer on the Cross because Judas betrayed Him; the loathsome son of perdition arrived too late: Jesus had already been “betrayed” by His own love.

Apparition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque – St. Patrick’s Church, New Orleans (LA)

Yes, betrayed, because He willingly suffered, even though He knew that we would be unfaithful to His sacrifice. At least such was his complaint to St. Margaret Mary:

Behold the heart which has so loved men that it has held back nothing, even exhausting and consuming itself in testimony of its love, and in return I receive only ingratitude from most of them, on account of their irreverence and sacrileges, and by the coldness and contempt with which they treat Me in this Sacrament of love. But what pains Me the most is that they are hearts consecrated to Me who treat Me thus.”9

The Son teaches us sonship

Although the Blood of Our Lord has been cast to the ground so frequently, it has not ceased to be fruitful. In another apparition to the seer, He revealed His loving Heart, saying: “This is the Teacher I give you, who will teach you everything you must do for love of Me. For this reason you shall be its beloved disciple.”10 The torrent of charity which flows from the depths of the Saviour is poured out upon those who are disposed to drink of it, and introduces them into a true school. What do we learn there?

Two interconnected Pauline verses shed light on this reflection: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6); “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15), the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Son, is infused into our hearts to give us adoptive sonship.

In other words, Our Lord, object of the Father’s predilections, allows us to enjoy the same love that He receives. And not only that: as true Man, who loves the Father with the most perfect human feelings and affections, He urges us to share in His ascending love.

Finally, when the Spirit of the Son is poured into our hearts, it makes them like His: the Son teaches us to be children of God.

Heart of Paul, Heart of Christ

The culmination of this school is the exchange of hearts. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque describes that Our Lord once asked her for her heart and placed it in His own adorable Heart, in which He showed it to her as a small atom, consumed in that fiery furnace. Then He retrieved it from there, now with the appearance of a burning flame, and inserted it again into the place from which He had mystically taken it, saying to her: “Behold, my beloved, a precious pledge of my love, having placed in your breast a little spark of its living flame, that it may serve you as your heart.”11

What does this vision mean? Let us remember that this organ symbolizes the mentality. From the moment that the most august supernatural phenomenon of exchange of hearts takes place, the soul begins to judge, feel, act and react in the likeness of the God-Man himself; it is a new life that begins to flourish.

The Apostle of the Gentiles undoubtedly also received this grace, as he shows clearly in one of his most emblematic phrases: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). St. John Chrysostom rightly concluded, commenting on this declaration: “Paul’s heart, therefore, was the Heart of Christ.”12

Sacred Heart of Jesus – Private collection

Make our hearts like unto Thine

And should we adopt such a lofty goal for ourselves? Can we aspire to it without running the risk of falling into presumption? For an adequate solution to these questions, we once again yield the floor to St. Paul himself.

The Apostle exhorts us to be “imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), making progress in charity, even to the point of shedding blood if necessary, after the example of Our Lord. We must, he says elsewhere, be a “letter from Christ” (2 Cor 3:3), written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on the tablets of flesh of our hearts. In short, the answer is an emphatic yes!

In one of her missives, St. Margaret Mary also urges a certain nun to make the donation of her entire being, so that Our Lord, having purified it of all that displeases Him, might do with it whatever He wills. Ordinarily, the Saint continues, this is what He asks of His dearest friends: unity of will, so that one wants nothing but what He wants; unity of love; unity of heart, of spirit and of operation, to unite us to what He does within us.13

So sublime an aim might have seemed somewhat ethereal if both of these advocates of the Sacred Heart had not explained its significance to us with such clarity.

St. Paul exhorts us: “now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

Therefore, he continues, we must clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:8-10, 12).

Yes, Our Lord wants everything from those He loves: perfect conformity of life to His holy maxims, which translates into complete abnegation and forgetfulness of self, as St. Margaret Mary says in another of her letters.14

In short, to mould our mentality to the Sacred Heart of Jesus means to know Him, adore Him and imitate Him in His integrity, especially where it shines most brightly, that is, in the scandal of the Cross.

St. Paul knew nothing but “Jesus Christ crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), and he was mystically nailed with Our Lord to the wood (cf. Gal 2:19). We are asked to have the same attitude, for “the Cross is the throne of the true lovers of Jesus Christ.”15 



1 This is what the famous convert Joris-Karl Huysmans maintains (cf. En route. Paris: Tresse & Stock, 1895, p.341-342.

2 Cf. BAINVEL, J. Cœur Sacré de Jèsus (dévotion au). In: VACANT, Alfred; MANGENOT, Eugène (Dir.). Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1908, v.III, c.303.

3 Cf. ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Sermones in Cantica. Sermo 61, n.4: PL 183, 1072.

4 Cf. VANDENBROUCKE, François. Storia della Spiritualitá. Il Medioevo: XII-XVI secolo. 3.ed. Bologna: EDB, 2013, v.V, p.66.

5 The work of Fr. José María Bover, SJ, will be of great use for this reflection. We recommend it to the reader interested in delving deeper into this matter: San Pablo, maestro de la vida espiritual. 3.ed. Barcelona: Casals, 1955, p.283-317.

6 Cf. CÔTÉ, Julienne. Cent mots-clés de la théologie de Paul. Ottawa: Novalis, 2000, p.84.

7 Cf. CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Devoção ao Sagrado Coração de Jesus [Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus]. In: Dr. Plinio. São Paulo. Year XIV. N.155 (Feb., 2011); p.10.

8 BOVER, op. cit., p.288.

9 ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Autobiografía. In: SÁENZ DE TEJADA, José María (Org.). Vida y obras completas de Santa Margarida Maria Alacoque. Quito: Jesús de la Misericordia, 2011, p.142.

10 ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Memoria escrita por orden de la M. Saumaise. In: SÁENZ DE TEJADA, op. cit., p.172.

11 ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE, Autobiografía, op. cit., p.115.

12 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Homilias sobre a Carta aos Romanos. Homilia 32, n.24. In: Comentário às cartas de São Paulo. São Paulo: Paulus, 2010, p.530.

13 Cf. ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Carta 94. A la H. de la Barge, Moulins (octubre de 1688). In: SÁENZ DE TEJADA, op. cit., p.366.

14 Cf. ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Carta 109. A la M. M. F. Dubuysson, Moulins (22 de octubre de 1689). In: SÁENZ DE TEJADA, op. cit., p.398.

15 ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Carta 16. A la M. de Saumaise, Dijon (25 de agosto de 1682). In: SÁENZ DE TEJADA, op. cit., p.246.



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