'We see who Jesus is if we see him at prayer'
"In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God's own heart is opened up;
here we see who God is and what he is like. Heaven is no longer locked
up. God has stepped out of his hiddenness. That is why St John sums up
both the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the new worship of God
in the mysterious promise made through the prophet Zechariah (cf.
12:10). 'They shall look on him whom they have pierced' (Jn 19.37)".1
Pope Benedict XVI: Theologian of the Heart of Christ
In July of 1985, 1 was standing in the bookstore of the Abbey of
of Solesmes in France when, by a wonderful providence of God, I met the
Benedictine scholar, Mother Elisabeth de Solms. The encounter remains
unforgettable. I had long studied and used her admirable translation of
the Life and Rule of Saint Benedict, as well as her Christian Bible,2
a series of volumes setting the commentaries of the Church Fathers line
by line alongside the Scriptures.
The simplicity of so great a woman was a marvel. She engaged me in
conversation, asking if I had read the works of Cardinal Ratzinger. I
admitted that I was familiar with certain writings of his, surely not
with everything published. "Read him", she said. "You will see. God will
make of him a great gift to his Church". That was 20 years ago.
I began reading Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I devoured, in particular,
his writings on the sacred liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican
Council. I discovered, among other things in the writings of Cardinal
Ratzinger, elements of a theology of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In Pope Benedict XVI God has given the Church a shepherd who has
contemplated the pierced Heart of the Crucified and already written of
it, notably in Behold The Pierced One3 and, more
recently, in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
Cardinal Ratzinger's writings on the Sacred Heart are warm and
luminous. Fire and light are characteristic of a theology forged in
Theologians who do not persevere in a humble prayer of amazement and
adoration fall inevitably into one of two syndromes. Either they
generate heat without shedding any light, or they shine a cold light,
one that fails to warm the heart. The true theologian at once warms the
heart and illumines the mind.
Recall the words of Jesus concerning John the Baptist: "He was a
burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in
his light" (Jn 5:35). In our new Holy Father, God has given the Church
"a burning and shining lamp" (Jn 5:35). Those already familiar with his
writings and liturgical preaching know what I mean.
Theology itself is a difficult word. Theology of the Sacred Heart
thrusts us into deep waters. The Song of Songs assures us that "many
waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it" (8:7).
Theology is more than a mere flood of words. All words oblige us, in
some way, to wrestle with meaning. Words are the vehicle of meaning.
Words wait to be unlocked. The words we use in talking about God, or in
talking to God, can be unlocked only in prayer.
Before we can reflect on a theology of the Sacred Heart, we have to
ask ourselves this question: "What do we mean by theology?".
The Greek etymology of the word discloses both God (theós)
and word (lógos).
in turn, has a huge richness: it can mean word, but it also signifies
meaning, message, poem and even hymn.
When we speak of theology we mean not one thing but at least three:
word from God; word to God; and word about God. All theology, and
therefore a theology of the Sacred Heart, is more adequately understood
in terms of: God's self-revealing word addressed to us; the doxological
word of Christ and of the Church addressed to God; and the healing word
of the Church addressed to the world.
Sacred Heart: God's Word addressed to us
Theology is, first of all, God's word addressed to us. Apply this
immediately to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pierced Heart of the
Crucified is God speaking a word to us, a word carved out in the flesh
of Jesus' side by the soldier's lance. It is the love of God laid bare
for all to see: "God stepping out of his hiddenness".4
When we speak of a theology of the Sacred Heart, we mean this first
of all: not our discourse about love, but the love of God revealed first
to us, the poem of love that issues forth from the Heart of God. This is
exactly what St John, whom the Eastern tradition calls, "The
Theologian", says in his First Letter: "In this is love, not that we
loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for
our sins" (I Jn 4:10).
The difficulty here is that, in order to receive this word inscribed
in the flesh of the Word (cf. Jn 1:14), we have first to stop in front
of it, to linger there and to look long at the wound made by love. "They
shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn 19:37). To contemplate is
to look, not with a passing glance, but with the gaze of one utterly
conquered by love. Jeremiah says, "You have seduced me, O Lord, and I
was seduced; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed" (20:7).
The call to be an adorer and an apostle of the Sacred Heart is
addressed to every Christian. The apostle is, in essence, the bearer of
a word, one sent forth and entrusted with a message. The message that
the apostle carries into the world is the one he has learned by looking
long with the eyes of adoration at the pierced Heart of the Crucified.
The word of Crucified Love is hard to pronounce
not with our lips but with our lives. Adoration is the school wherein
one learns how to say the Sacred Heart. It is in adoration that the
apostle receives the word of the pierced Heart that, in turn, becomes
his life's message.
Adoration and apostleship together model a spirituality accessible to
all Christians: the word received in adoration is communicated in the
dynamism of one sent forth with something to say.
Sacred Heart: Our word addressed to God
Theology is, in the second place, our word addressed to God. Applying
this also to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we see that all we could
possibly want to say to God has already been uttered and is being said
eternally through the "mouth" of Christ's glorious pierced Heart in
heaven. It is through the Sacred Heart that the Blood of Christ speaks
"more graciously than the blood of Abel" (Heb 12:24).
The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Christ is able for all
time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives for
ever to make intercession for them" (7:25). Christ exercises his
priesthood of intercession in "the inner sanctuary behind the veil" (Heb
6:19) by presenting to the Father the glorious wounds in his hands, his
feet and his side. The wound in the side of Christ, "great high priest
over the house of God" (Heb 10:21), speaks to the Father on our behalf.
It is our word addressed to God.
At the core of devotion to the Sacred Heart is a passing-over into
the prayer of Christ to the Father, a long apprenticeship to silence by
which we begin to let the Heart of Christ speak in us and for us to the
The mystics of the Sacred Heart, in particular St Gertrude and St
Mechthilde, speak of offering the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the Father.
This means allowing the Sacred Heart to speak for us, to pray in us, to
pray through us, taking comfort in what Scripture says, "that we have
not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but
one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin"
This suggests a simple way of praying, one accessible to all: "Lord
Jesus, I come to be silent in your presence, trusting that your Heart
will speak for me, knowing that all I could ever want to say, that all I
would ever need to say, is spoken eternally to the Father by your Sacred
In this way, everything that prayer can or should express
adoration, praise, thanksgiving, supplication and reparation
finds its most perfect expression.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart, thus understood, is a manifestation in
the Church of the Holy Spirit, "helping us in our weakness; for we do
not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26).5 The Sacred
Heart is, in the life of the Church, the organ by which "the Spirit
intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Rom 8:27).
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "We see who Jesus is if we see him at
prayer. The Christian confession of faith comes from participating in
the prayer of Jesus, from being drawn into his prayer and being
privileged to behold it; it interprets the experience of Jesus' prayer,
and its interpretation of Jesus is correct because it springs from a
sharing in what is most personal and intimate to him".6
This is the prayer of the Sacred Heart, the prayer that filled the
days and nights of Jesus' earthly life, the prayer that suffused his
sufferings and ascended from the Cross at the hour of his death, the
prayer that with him descended into the depths of the earth, the prayer
that continues uninterrupted in the glory of his risen and ascended
life, the prayer that is ceaseless in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that "by entering into Jesus' solitude", and
"only by participating in what is most personal to him, his
communication with the Father, can one see what this most personal
reality is; only thus can one penetrate to his identity".7
Heart represents and invites us into what is most personal to Jesus: his
communication with the Father.
In words that today sound almost prophetic, Cardinal Ratzinger
concluded that "the person who has beheld Jesus' intimacy with his
Father and has come to understand him from within is called to be a
'rock' of the Church. The Church arises out of participation in the
of Jesus (cf. Lk 9:18-20; Mt 16:13-20)".8
Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the New Testament
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us exactly what was the prayer of the
Heart of Christ at the moment he took flesh in the Virgin's womb: "When
Christ came into the world, he said, 'Sacrifices and offerings you have
not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and
sin offerings you have taken no pleasure'. Then I said, 'Behold, I have
come to do your will, O God', as it is written of me in the scroll of
the book'" (Heb 10:5-7). This is the first prayer of the Heart of Jesus,
"substantially united to the Word of God".9
The prayer of the Heart of Christ revealed in the Letter to the
Hebrews resonates throughout the Fourth Gospel. Cardinal Ratzinger
wrote: "We could say that the Fourth Gospel draws us into that intimacy
which Jesus reserved for those who were his friends" (ibid., 22).
The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple belongs, in a special sense, to the
friends of the Heart of Jesus.
The liturgy gives us the Gospel of St John on every Sunday and
weekday during Paschaltide. Holy Thursday's Gospel of Jesus washing his
disciples' feet at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 13:1-5) becomes Good Friday's
Gospel of the Heart from which flowed blood and water: "They shall look
on him whom they have pierced" (cf. Jn 19:34-37).
By continuing to read the Fourth Gospel on Easter Sunday (Jn 20:1-9)
and for the 50 days following, the liturgy guides us into the prayer of
the Heart of Christ.
The Second Sunday of Easter, that of Divine Mercy, invites us in a
particular way to the contemplation of the Sacred Heart. In the Gospel (Jn
20:19-31), the Risen Christ stands before Thomas, inviting him to touch
his wounded side. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "All of us are Thomas,
unbelieving; but like him, all of us can touch the exposed Heart of
Jesus and... behold the Logos himself. So, with our hands and eyes fixed
upon this Heart, we can attain to the confession of faith: 'My Lord and
The liturgical lectionary's repartition of the Fourth Gospel is
integral to the mystical pedagogy of the Church. When the liturgical
Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus arrives on the Friday following
the Second Sunday after Pentecost, it finds us already prepared, ready
and full of desire to pass fully into the prayer of the Sacred Heart.
For Cardinal Ratzinger, "the entire Gospel testimony is unanimous
that Jesus' words and deeds flowed from his most intimate communion with
the Father; that he continually went 'into the hills' to pray in
solitude after the burden of the day (cf., Mk 1:35;
6:46; 14:35, 39)".11 He notes that "Luke, of all the
Evangelists, lays stress on this feature. He shows that the essential
events of Jesus' activity proceeded from the core of his personality and
that this core was his dialogue with the Father".12
Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the Psalms
The psalms also express and communicate the prayer of the Heart of
Christ. The Psalter is for the Church a "sacrament" of the prayer of the
Heart of Christ to the Father, revealing that prayer and making it
present in her.
Jesus intoned two psalms from the Cross, leaving it to his Church to
continue them: Psalm 21 in Matthew 21:46, and Psalm 30 in Luke 23:46.
"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli,
lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"'
(Mt 27:46). The Church, imaged in the Mother of Jesus, the beloved
disciple and the other holy women at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn
19:25), prays the psalm through to the end to discover in its triumphant
final verses (cf. Ps 21:22-31) the promise of a banquet for the
afflicted and the hope of the resurrection: "The afflicted shall eat and
be satisfied; and those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your
hearts live for ever" (Ps 21:26).
Psalm 30 gives the verse, "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (Ps
30:5). Praying it from the Cross at the hour of his death, Jesus adds a
single word, a word that rises out of the depths of his Heart and
utterly transforms the psalmist's prayer into one by which the Son
entrusts everything to the Father. "Then Jesus, crying with a loud
voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!'. And having
said this he breathed his last" (Lk 23:46).
"Jesus died praying.... Although the Evangelists' accounts of the
last words of Jesus differ in details, they agree on the fundamental
fact that Jesus died praying. He fashioned his death into an act of
prayer, an act of worship.... The last words of Jesus were an expression
of his devotion to the Father.... His cry was not uttered to anyone,
anywhere, but to Him, since it was of his innermost essence to be in a
dialogue relationship with the Father".13
Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the Liturgy
The prayer of the Heart of Christ at the hour of his sacrifice passes
entirely into the heart of the Church, where it is prolonged and
actualized "from the rising of the sun to its setting" (Mal 1:11) in the
Liturgy of the Hours and in the mystery of the Eucharist.
Cardinal Ratzinger asks if, after the once-for-all Pasch of Jesus,
anything more is needed. "After the tearing of the Temple curtain and
the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the
Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating
symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the 'image',
through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them
to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart
of the Crucified".14
It is through the liturgy, first and above all, that we pass over
into the prayer of the Sacred Heart, the word to the Father forever
inscribed in his pierced side.
Sacred Heart: the Church's Word to the World
Theology is, finally, a word about God addressed to the world, a word
about God addressed to anyone who will listen. The Sacred Heart, pierced
in death, becomes a word of life for the world.
"Death, which by its very nature is the end, the destruction of every
communication, is changed by Jesus into an act of self-communication;
and this is man's redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over
death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end
to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes the place where
meaning communicates itself".15
This means that after the mouth of Jesus fell silent in death, there
remained the open side and the pierced Heart that speaks of nothing but
love, the ultimate and everlasting word about God.
In the final analysis, one "impelled by the charity of Christ" (cf.
II Cor 5:14) will have but one message, that of the pierced Heart
revealing the love of the Father and "drawing all to himself" (cf. Jn
One who has contemplated the message carved in the flesh of Jesus'
side by the soldier's lance and learned to read it in adoration has but
one language in which to speak to the world: the language of the heart.
It is learned not in conferences or classrooms or books, but in
silence and in the contemplation of the Pierced One. It is learned
especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
The language of the heart encompasses a thousand local dialects, a
million accents. Devotion to the Sacred Heart impels the Christian to an
inventive charity, a charity ready to explore every dark and treacherous
place in search of the lost sheep.
"Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in
the poor and maimed and blind and lame" (Lk 14:21). "The great gesture
of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal; it
has only just begun."16
Word from God, Word to God, Word for the World
Word of God addressed to us, word addressed to God, word of the
Church addressed to the world: herein lies one approach to a theology of
the Sacred Heart. The liturgy remains its primary articulation. Together
with the Liturgy of the Hours for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, the
12 biblical texts provided for the Mass
First Reading; Psalm, Second Reading and Gospel for each of the three
years A, B and C
become a fundamental resource, an inexhaustible treasure waiting to be
mined for every one called to hear, to pray and to offer the healing
word that is the pierced Heart.
The Sacred Heart is the Heart of God laid bare for man: word from
God. It is a human Heart lifted high on the Cross: word to God. It is
the Heart of the Church open to all who seek, to all who thirst, to
every lost sheep waiting to be found and carried home: word for the
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the full and irrevocable message of the
Father to us. It is everything we ever could or should need to say to
the Father. It is all we have to say to one another and to the world.
Pope Benedict XVI, writing in 1981 as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,
challenges us to nothing less: "In the Heart of Jesus, the center of
Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is
genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to
our heart. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of
self-preservation 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".17
1 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy,
trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 48.
Elisabeth de Solms, La vie et la règle
de saint Benoît
1984); Bible Chrétienne
Editions Anne Sigier et Desclée,
3 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold The Pierced One,
trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
4 Card. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.
5 Cf. Litany of the Sacred Heart.
6 Card. Ratzinger, Behold The Pierced One, p. 19.
7 Ibid., p. 19.
9 Cf. Litany of the Sacred Heart.
10 Card. Ratzinger, Behold The Pierced One, p. 54.
11 Ibid., p. 17.
13 Ibid., pp. 22-24.
14 Card. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.
15 Card. Ratzinger, Behold The Pierced One, p. 25.
16 Card. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.
17 Card. Ratzinger, Behold The Pierced One, p. 69.