May 29, 2015
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
For every religious Institute, a General Chapter is an official gathering of representatives from the community and a graced time of reflection and renewal. The First General Chapter of the Priests of the Sacred Heart was held in 1886. Reporting to the entire membership, Fr. Dehon wrote, “Since you have willed that, despite my unworthiness and insufficiency, I should retain the burden of leadership, it is in this circumstance my duty to be the spokesman for the Chapter. As I carry out this decision, allow me, my very dear sons, first of all to join you in thanking divine Providence for the priceless graces he has just accorded us.
“I might also call your attention to the recent growth of the various houses of the Society. Let us affirm once and for all, my very dear sons, our confidence in the Work of the Heart of Jesus. It is now more than nine years since our first foundations were laid, and in spite of our weaknesses and imperfections, the Providence of the Heart of Jesus has always sustained us, has saved us from dangers in which we could have met destruction, has supported us during our discouragements and negligences, and has always revived and preserved us; let us from now on place an unshakable trust in that Providence. To work then! Let all of us go about our work of giving the Heart of Jesus what he expects from us.”
In his address to the members of the Fifth General Chapter of 1899, Fr. Dehon noted the Institute’s weaknesses and strengths. “I am afraid that Jesus has not been satisfied with us since the last General Chapter. We are not what our vocation demands that we should be. Let us confess it in all humility. Let us in this General Chapter make firm resolutions and select efficacious means to correspond with the Master’s wishes.
“Some improvement, however, is seen from the fact that we now have daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Novitiate. Another kind of progress can be observed: the Congregation is beginning to have a more cosmopolitan, a more catholic character. We can notice this here and now when we see representatives from Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg taking part in this Fifth General Chapter. Perhaps we will see that the time has come to give one of them a seat on the Council.”
This expansion of the Institute was a cause for celebration and caution. In a letter to the entire membership, Fr. Dehon reported, “The Chapter rejoiced to see the growth of the Congregation. Such development does not take place without great expenditures. The education of students in minor seminaries and of scholastics involves heavy burdens. We need divine blessings, as we shall obtain them only if we are faithful to our holy vocation and if we are exact in the observance of religious poverty. Let each one detach himself as he should, from all spirit of ownership, and let no one make useless expenditures.”
Explaining the decisions of the Seventh General Chapter of 1908, Fr. Dehon wrote, “We shall preserve unforgettable impressions of this meeting. The Chapter was unanimous in expressing the desire for a deep-seated spiritual renewal. We have adopted a plan from which we expect great results. This decision will be, I believe, my dear sons, the great blessing of this Chapter.
“It is good to increase our numbers and to develop our undertakings; but of what use will all that be if we are not fervent and have not the spirit of our vocation? Our Lord has no use for lukewarm religious. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain [Psalm 127:1]. We studied the question of Provinces. The majority thought that the time has come to ask the Holy See for the division of the Congregation into two Provinces. We will do it.”
As he often did, Fr. Dehon signed these communications to the members of the Institute with his religious name, “John of the Heart of Jesus.”
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
The theme of the 23rd General Chapter of the Priests of the Sacred Heart is, “Merciful, in community, with the poor.”
During the meeting of the major superiors, who received the task to help determine with the General Administration the theme of the Chapter, what emerged very quickly was the focus on community. Since the Second Vatican Council, all the documents on religious life have presented community as the central trait of religious life.
So the first challenge is not just to have all our members gathered in communities—which is already a challenge—but to insist on a certain quality of community that would identify us as Dehonians. As such, the community is seen as the space of the Dehonian charism, where the charism is learned, lived, celebrated, made active. That is why the title does not say “in a community” but “in community.” The other two terms, “merciful” and “poor,” form the twofold forces which typify the Dehonian community: the living space of the Dehonian charism.
On the one hand, the community is the place where the love of God, manifested in the pierced side of Christ, has its outlet in a style of life that the slogan typifies first of all as “merciful” or “compassionate.” “Merciful” is not first of all a reference to God, but, as in the beatitudes, a quality or attitude of life. It flows from the proclamation of Jesus about what he called, “the kingdom of God,” God’s love manifested in Jesus Christ, in his life for and with others, in his death, typified for us in the pierced side of Christ.
Our faith in the love of God is expressed in a lifestyle that is merciful towards ourselves, personally, but also to the community. “Merciful” represents therefore an attitude that is similar to Christ, who became humbler yet [see Philippians 2:5-8].
The term, “poor,” is the social part of the Dehonian charism. It represents what Dehon urged of his followers to go “out of the sacristies.” It has also been a saying of Pope Francis. For Pope Francis it means to go to the fringes, the outer edges, the peripheries. Fr. Dehon, as we know, sought to bring the reign of the Sacred Heart to “societies,” not only “in souls.”
The Congregation is asked in the next Chapter how we can translate this part of the charism, not just in and by our apostolates, how we might go beyond the sacristy into society, but also how to live this social charism as a trait of our community living. It is to try to translate in our community style an aspect of our search for the kingdom of God, or the social reign of the Sacred Heart. In other words, how do we live this second trait of our Dehonian charism in our community living? This is the real challenge which the Chapter will seek to answer. The theme does not say, “for the poor” but “with the poor.”
Hence, the Chapter is really about the dual aspect of our charism, the living of our faith in the love of God and the outward thrust of our charism, in the context of community. It is a real challenge. I think that much of this seems also to be the thrust of the present Pope. Perhaps, he is giving us an example of how to live this charism by his own witness.
John van den Hengel, SCJ
Vicar General of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Reflection questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
Reflecting on this verse from Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord build the house, those who build it labor in vain,” how do I evaluate my dreams and accomplishments?
As a member of the Church, how can I take up the challenge of Pope Francis to meet people who are on the fringes, the outer edges, the peripheries?
Where do I need to be merciful to myself? Where do I need to be merciful to others?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
The Priests of the Sacred Heart will conclude their 23rd General Chapter in Rome on June 6, 2015. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer the Chapter delegates and their work of charting a vision for the future of the Congregation. The following Prayer Before a Chapter is from the United States Province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
you call us to respond with our lives
to the love, mercy, and compassion
we have known through the Heart of Christ.
Send your Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds.
Grant us the courage of Leo Dehon:
to dream dreams,
to press forward with trust,
to live passionately,
and to draw strength from you.
Give us hearts receptive
to the healing, reconciling love of Christ.
Scatter clouds of discouragement.
Revive those who are weary, lost, or cynical.
Grant us what we need as a community
in this moment of history:
a renewed vision of life and ministry together.
Restore our hope as we follow you on the way
as Priests of the Heart of Jesus.
Each week reflections and prayers based in the Dehonian charism are published on the Dehonian Spirituality page of the U.S. Province website of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This is an email version of that update.
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