MEXICO CITY — Father Andres Esteban Lopez recently brought hundreds of “detentes” — small emblems of the Sacred Heart of Jesus — to a Mexico City hospital, where he enters the intensive care units to pray the rosary and visit patients with COVID-19.

He planned to distribute the images of the Sacred Heart to the medical staff and said: “They went like hotcakes. Everyone wanted a ‘detente'” — roughly “stopper” in Spanish and the word for such images — “and we quickly ran out.”

Lopez, a priest with the Cruzados de Cristo Rey, a Mexican congregation, told those receiving the images, “It’s not an amulet so that you don’t get sick — as if this is going to prevent contagion — it’s a sign that we have the love of Christ by our side.”

The response to  Lopez’s distribution of “detentes” among Mexico’s front-line health workers, some of whom have publicly protested poor work conditions and a lack of personal protective equipment, shows the deep devotion in the country to the Sacred Heart, along with its prominent place in the country’s popular piety as a form of protection.

With the COVID-19 pandemic afflicting the country — Mexico recorded 1,044 deaths June 21, most of any nation that day — priests report Mexicans are returning to the devotion of the Sacred Heart. Even the president made references to it.

On the June 19 feast of the Sacred Heart, the Archdiocese of Mexico issued a prayer, which it posted on its social media sites with the words, “Through this prayer, we ask the Sacred Heart of Jesus to protect our beloved Mexico and our families in these moments of enormous difficulty (and) we appeal to his enormous mercy.”

Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City tweeted that day, “From childhood, I’ve had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

“This is a very deeply rooted devotion in Mexico,” said Ilan Semo, historian at the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. He added the Sacred Heart was perhaps the most popular devotion in Mexico and is often associated with the social and charitable side of the church, after the devotion to Mexico’s patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“You don’t see it in the churches, it’s part of the popular piety: You see the heart, you don’t necessarily see Jesus,” said Father Robert Coogan, an American priest in the northern city of Saltillo.

“The church asks that a true devotion to the Sacred Heart be an image of Jesus resurrected and glorified, showing the burning love of his heart and that it not be the heart as a talisman, which is quite popular in Mexico.”

Somewhat controversially, the devotion to the Sacred Heart was pulled into politics as the pandemic arrived in Mexico. At his March 18 news conference, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pulled out a pair of “detentes.” He said the images of the Sacred Heart, which he called, “My bodyguards,” were given to him by well-wishers.

“Stop, enemy, the Heart of Jesus is with me,” he said, reading the short prayer on the image.

The president’s response drew derision from the chattering classes, who observed the president had just returned from holding political rallies in which he was shaking hands and kissing babies. He was also slow to announce pandemic precautions — slower than many churches and schools — and people said the church seemed to be urging a more science-based approach to the health crisis.

Some observers also saw the president — who speaks often of faith and calls his political party MORENA, a name for Our Lady of Guadalupe — once again leveraging people’s religious sensibilities.

Bernardo Barranco, an author and church observer, described the president’s reference as “part of his magic thinking,” but also a way of “identifying” with the population through popular piety.

He also saw it as a trend in Latin America, where religious leaders are referencing religion during the pandemic because “they know the state cannot provide” for people’s health and social needs.

Lopez Obrador, who identifies as Christian, “committed a grave error,” Father Andres Larios, a priest in Michoacan state, said of the references to popular piety. “He’s playing with many people’s devotion, he’s mocking it. I see it more as a mockery by Lopez Obrador rather than a sign that he’s saying it with faith.”