A Dated View of Mission? Jules Chevalier (1824-1907)

by Dennis J. Murphy MSC. Compass Theological Review, SPRING 2007, Vol 41 No 3

JULES CHEVALIER, the founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, identified his idea of mission with the spread of devotion to the Sacred Heart. Nothing could date him more. Nothing, it would seem, could make him more irrelevant and out of touch with the many positive developments in mission since Vatican Council II.

A return to the past certainly highlights differences; it pinpoints defects; but it can also highlight things we may tend to overlook. A return to the past does not necessarily give us new solutions; but it may widen our horizons and increase our wisdom in searching for them.

I limit myself mainly to one aspect: mission is not merely a matter of spreading information; nor merely a matter of something we do for others; it is something we are. In other words, mission consists in fully living our faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ as individuals and communities—as Church. And furthermore, our living of this faith has and should have an effect on how we live in society and hence be an influence on society itself at every level.

A Basic View

We cannot really accept Jesus without accepting also the purpose of his existence; the two are identical. For him, the purpose of his existence was identical with the purpose that God, his Father, had in creating the world and making a series of covenants with it. The mission of Jesus—and our mission—is simply living in accord with that purpose and encouraging others to do the same. In its broadest terms, we refer to it as the Kingdom of God, which is not primarily something we do, but a gift of God to us, and our co-operation with that gift through the power of the Spirit.

Jesus experienced his mission above all in terms of unity: union with God his Father and consequent unity among people—imperfect, sinful people. Thus, forgiveness was basic in it, for forgiveness requires a readiness, on God’s part and ours, to start again and again and to continue the struggle against contrary forces. This was not merely a matter of abstract ideas and ideals about unity; it involved an expression of it in history. Thus, Jesus formed a community around himself as a central core together with the Twelve—a sign of a renewed Israel but also of its universal mission.

We find this integrated understanding of the incarnation, the Church and its mission in Scripture, in Vatican Council II, and in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, which has been continued in a variety of ways by Benedict XVI. Brief references may suffice for our purposes.


It is not for these alone that I pray, but for those also who through their words put their faith in me. May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be one in us that the world may believe that you sent me…Righteous Father, although the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love you had for me may be in them, and I in them (John 17:20-22; 25-26).

Second Vatican Council:

The Church in Christ is in the nature of a sacrament—that is, a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of all men (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium n.1).

John Paul II:

In his Encyclical, Redemptoris missio, the Pope outlined four complementary aspects of mission found in the Gospels, concentrating in a special way on St John: The ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion that exists between the Father and the Son. The disciples are to live in unity with one another, remaining in the Father and the Son, so that the world may know and believe (cf. Jn 17:21-23). This is a very important missionary text. It makes us understand that we are missionaries above all because of what we are as a Church whose innermost life is unity in love, even before we become missionaries in word or deed’ (n. 23c). A consequence is that a failure to live according to the Gospel is not only a failure in morality, be it individual or social; it is a setback also to Christ’s mission to the world.

An experience of God

Mission is not ours, it is God’s—the One God who is Father, incarnate Son and Spirit. The source of Jules Chevalier’s call to mission was an experience of God he had as a seminarian. He was familiar with devotion to the Sacred Heart from childhood, but it was when studying Christology at the Seminary in Bourges, France, that its scope, importance and relevance struck him. ‘This doctrine went straight to my heart. The further I went into it, the more new attractions I experienced there’ (Chevalier 1989: 13).

His Sulpician professor, M. Pelissier, followed the theological tradition of Cardinal de Bérulle. It was a theology of remarkable depth and breadth, centered on the incarnate Word, the logos, in whom we could find the meaning of God and of his creation. At the end of the course, the professor gave detailed notes on devotion to the Sacred Heart presenting it not merely as a set of pious practices, but as a summary of the Christology he had presented, based on the centre of Christian faith, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:16)—incarnate love. Bérulle was known as ‘the apostle of the Word incarnate’.

Within this tradition, devotion to the Sacred Heart came to be understood not only in the context of love,
but also as a revelation of the creative wisdom of God. As Chevalier wrote, Who is the Word? Where does he come from? What is his essence? His nature? The reply to these questions will remove a number of veils, clarify more than one mystery, and throw a strong light on devotion to the Sacred Heart (Chevalier 1900: 139). Thus, for Chevalier, the Heart of Jesus was the Heart of the Word incarnate. We know where the Word comes from; he comes from the depths of the divine essence, from the Heart of God. If he is the splendour of the glory of his Father, he must also be the substantial expression of the Heart of God from which he is brought forth. He must be love eternal. And this infinite love, which constitutes the very depths of God, is contained in a human heart born from the blood of a Virgin. Christ is the whole of God, his living sacrament, his complete gift, he is his Heart with which to love us. (Chevalier 1900: 146. Italics original).

Interestingly, we can see in the writings of Chevalier and the theologians he quotes how Teilhard de Chardin could claim the Sacred Heart as one of the influences on his vision of God and the universe. In the universe, a human being is the eye of all that does not see, the heart of all that does not feel, the tongue of all that remains mute. A human being is not only a mineral that blossoms, a shrub that feels, but an animal who prays, adores and gives thanks. In us, matter becomes religious (Chevalier 1900: 63f. Italics original).

Thus, the dignity and misery of human beings was redeemed, enhanced, and even divinized by the incarnation. The Heart of God descends in haste to his creation with the weight of an infinite love, and the heart of creation rises towards God, drawn by an attraction that dominates all others in it. It is in Jesus that these two hearts meet, and they unite so profoundly that the two hearts become one (Chevalier1900: 76).

Following a long tradition, Chevalier drew together the creative, incarnate Word (John 1:1-3, 14) and the piercing of Jesus on the Cross (John 19:34, 37). The Word, coming from the Heart of his Father, made the world emerge from nothing; and from the Heart of the incarnate Word, pierced on Calvary, I see a new world emerging…(Chevalier 1900: 145f).

Chevalier’s position in this is along the same lines Pope Benedict XVI takes in Deus caritas est: It is there [i.e. Jn 19:34, 37] that this truth is 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 (n.12). Chevalier’s vision can be reduced to quite simple terms. His director advised him to read Bishop Languet’s biography of Margaret Mary. The Bishop highlighted four points: Jesus’ love for his Father; his love for us; our response to that love; and the language of the heart as the most suitable way of speaking about it—a language found in Scripture and in a long tradition of spirituality in the Church. The young seminarian was convinced he had entered the very centre of Christian faith and felt called to found a missionary congregation that would share this same experience with others. He gave his missionaries the motto, May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be everywhere loved.

In all this, Chevalier used ‘heart’ in its biblical sense: a word bringing the multiplicity of a human being to a unifying centre. For God, the heart is the real person (1 Sam 16:7); thus, ‘Our heart is ourself’ (Chevalier 1900: 105). In this terminology, the Heart of Jesus is what makes Jesus to be Jesus. When God looks at Christ, he sees the entire world; when we look at Christ, we see him whole and entire in his Sacred Heart (Chevalier 1900:132).

Social Implications

The young seminarian’s experience of God, which he saw summed up in devotion to the Sacred Heart, was not individualistic piety. In an extant manuscript (1856) describing his seminary experience he said it came to him ‘while reflecting on the sickness consuming society’ (Chevalier 1989:106). Put simply, if social life was basically a matter of knowing how to live together constructively, God’s incarnate Word had much to contribute. And since it was God’s Word, it could not be ignored with impunity.

Towards the end of his long book on the Sacred Heart Chevalier wrote: Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a whole world of theology… It embraces everything: dogma and moral, the past, the present and the future. When one practices it, its influence penetrates irresistibly. That is why this devotion is essentially social, setting things right (Chevalier 1900:280. Italics original).

At that time, some used this sort of language in favour of a restoration of the monarchy. Certainly, Chevalier did not see much liberty, equality, or fraternity in the ruling bourgeois republican government; but neither did he canonize the monarchy. He felt a missioner ‘should avoid all discussion and talk about politics’ (1857 Rules). Rather, he highlighted indifference and egoism as the corrosive forces in society; they were challenges to each and every particular system.


For Chevalier, ‘indifference’ was one of the basic ills of society. A growing number in Catholic France and elsewhere were seeing Christianity as a side issue, or a nonissue, or even as socially obnoxious. Yet Chevalier would claim that society of his time was dying precisely because of its lack of a theology; a lack not only of the meaning of God, but of the meaning of the world in which we live.

Today people do not want theology anymore. They believe they can bypass it. That is why society is dying. Yes, it is dying for lack of theology. That is a fact (Chevalier 1900: 280). And he was convinced that devotion to the Sacred Heart, as he had come to see it, was the answer to this lack, for ‘it contains the quintessence of all that can readily lead people into social life’ (ibid. Italics original).

This was not a matter of seeking readymade economic and political systems in religion itself; but of affirming facts and principles that could and should provide a foundation for each and every system if it was to remain in accord with God’s own plan for the world, and at the same time remain truly human. Without wanting to put into Chevalier’s mind all the developments and refinements of the Church’s social teaching during the one hundred and fifty years since his seminary experience, basically his insight seems to me to be along the lines that Pope Benedict XVI has outlined in Deus caritas est.

If reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests. Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly (ibid. 28a).

Thus, Chevalier felt an urgent need to present to the world the beauty and relevance of Christian faith which he had discovered in devotion to the Sacred Heart. And this was not only for the good of religion but for the good of society itself. In this, he did not have an illusionary dream of some Christian social utopia. He realized that the battle with contrary influences would be a continual reality, but Christian influences should do their part to counteract them on every level of society. To carry out this mission, priests and religious were not enough; it was imperative that laity also be involved; since the influence of the Heart of the Word incarnate had to enter every level of society. This is clear in his 1869 description of his congregation when he was seeking approval in Rome. It is also in earlier documents.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was also essentially opposed to ‘Jansenistic’ moralizing which he felt had given a false image of Christianity to the world. He would not accept either a narrow view about salvation in general and of non-Christians in particular. ‘God did not die on the cross to reap a lean harvest’ (Chevalier 1900:300). He quotes Pius IX’s positive statement about the salvation of unbelievers and finds support in contemporary theologians (ibid. 299-301).


‘Egoism’ was not limited to moral peccadilloes or small scale interpersonal relationships. In fact, egoism (self-first) was one of the roots of indifference. His descriptions clearly identified it with excessive ‘subjectivism’ and ‘self-interest’ in response to others and to God. He saw this as a pervasive negative force in philosophy, theology, morality, politics and even in some forms of religion itself. He also detected in the growing liberalism of his time the subjectivism and relativism that was undermining not only western Christian culture but faith itself. We should not see this as the fears of a narrow minded country parish priest; the great minded Newman was voicing the same fears.


Jules Chevalier’s Christology was influenced by the Letter to the Hebrews: redemption consisted not merely in the forgiveness of sins, but above all it enabled humanity to offer perfect thanksgiving, praise and adoration to God. For Chevalier, the material universe was not merely a platform or stage on which human beings could live; Let us not forget, this is God’s aim, to associate the Religion of man and external matter, so that He can be glorified, known and loved (Chevalier 1900: 65). And in Jesus, the material universe becomes united with God in a perfect way: Jesus is the supreme and infinite glory of God, the revelation par excellence of his infinite goodness, the universal Eucharist and the permanent ecstasy of creation in God. If you want to sum up in a word what is itself a summary, we would say that Jesus is Religion, Religion par excellence, living and infinite (Chevalier 1900: 76). And all this is made present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which Chevalier accepts unhesitatingly as the act of worship in devotion to the Sacred Heart (ibid.214)—a worship which also has social consequences (ibid. 241).

The linking of ‘mission’ and ‘devotion’ today would probably seem outlandish to many with a risk of tying it to some time-bound piety. Chevalier sensed part of this difficulty when he refrained from speaking of devotion to the Sacred Heart as ‘a devotion’, preferring to see it as a summary of Christianity itself. The papal encyclicals written on the devotion make the same point. However, Chevalier retained the word ‘devotion’ in the accepted meaning used by Francis de Sales and others for whom it referred to religion permeating every aspect of life and expressing itself in worship.

Terminology can legitimately change and often must necessarily change. However, if mission ever ceased to be, among other things, essentially a call to worship—to a ‘devout’ life—on the part of missionaries and those to whom they are sent, serious questions could be asked of it.

Dennis Murphy was the founding editor of Compass. He has taught Scripture for many years and after periods in MSC leadership in Australia and Rome, then worked in India. He died June 6, 2014, Bangalore, India

Chevalier, Jules, Le Sacré Coeur de Jésus, Paris: Librairie de Vic et Amat, 1900, Quatrième Ëdition. The texts quoted here are already in the 1883 first edition. Translations are my own.
Chevalier, Jules, Personal Notes, Rome: MSC General House, 1989.
Murphy, Dennis, The Heart of the Word Incarnate, Bangalore: Asian Trading, 2003.