January 20, 2017
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Like many Christians in the 19th century, Dehon was keenly aware of the urgent priority that must be given to God’s Kingdom. But the means to bring it about were no longer clear. Christendom in the past had successfully fashioned a social entity. But tragically this was now being destroyed by the development of ideas and social movements. These were tearing apart the spiritual and social unity which successfully molded Christendom in earlier times.
Human society was not only shaking off the Church’s control but was wanting to set standards that did not respect religion or owe it any obedience. The Church was powerless in watching this disintegration, which was called secularism, and which wanted to make the gospel message a private matter, denying there was any social concern involved in it.
Dehon’s first big initiative in this regard was the launching of a magazine in January 1889 called, The Reign of the Heart of Jesus in Individuals and in Societies. On the first pages of the first issue, entitled, “Our Program,” he confidently announced that there was a deep-seated need for Christ’s reign, beginning with the words borrowed from Margaret Mary. “I shall reign in spite of all oppositions.” His firm determination to re-establish Christ’s influence both in individual lives and in the social setting, was the reason for this monthly offensive against secularism.
Dehon wanted to map out a future course for French society which was losing its Christian bearings. He was trying to find a way of bringing the gospel to this society as it was developing. When in 1903, Dehon had to stop his publication, he wrote, “It was the testing ground for my social studies, before I published them in books.” And he added that he lost a number of his original subscribers because of his approach, which suggested a new way for the Church to be part of a society that was becoming increasingly secularized.
Dehon’s originality lay precisely in the way he linked together areas which up until then had no connection with each other. He held onto his devotion to the Heart of Christ, but it no longer represented the ideal of the close connection between society and Christianity as had been the case since Margaret Mary. He did not want this devotion to be a reactionary force nor an ineffective withdrawal by the individual into the inner life. He gave it a new direction in the social sphere. For Dehon, the interior life and social action came together in this spirituality.
Although at that time Sacred Heart spirituality was too commonly seen and practiced as a simple devotion, Dehon made it a means of renewing Christianity itself as well as society. He struggled to draw the Sacred Heart devotion out of its exclusive practices of piety into which it had developed.
This perspective and this preoccupation was the underlying aim of the magazine. Dehon described it clearly in an introduction. “For us, the cult of the Heart of Jesus is not a simple devotion, but a true renewal of all Christian life and the most important revelation since the redemption. This idea dominates all the efforts of our apostolate and is moreover the reason for this magazine’s existence.”
Renewal is seen as a leaven which must transform the whole of society. In other words, the spirituality of the Heart of Christ could not be reduced to a spiritual fervor; it was to be the means of social renewal and social justice.
Excerpt from, A Short Life of Leo Dehon, Founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of St. Quentin, Yves Ledure, SCJ
Heart: Fr. Dehon's favored image of God's loving concern for all creation
In the world of symbol, divinities and kings are often depicted holding a globe to suggest absolute authority or world domination. Accompanying symbols may include a crown, scepter, and throne. An additional focus on the ruler’s feet emphasizes subjugation.
The psalmist marvels at the gift God has given human beings. “You have given them dominion over the work of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” [Psalm 8:6]. Giving thanks to God for giving him strength over his enemies, the victorious king reports, “I struck them down so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet” [Psalm 18:38].
So, it would seem problematic to depict the feet of the Heart of Jesus firmly planted on the earth. Yet, Jesus’ gesture of open arms, his exposed Heart, and the lack of crown, scepter, and throne recast this intimidating symbolism to suggest an exercise of authority based in love and mercy. To his ambitious disciples, Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But I am among you as one who serves” [Luke 22:25, 27]. Jesus is also the one who calls them friends [John 15:15], washes their feet [John 13:1-16], and lays down his life for them [John 15:13]. As Jesus explains to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” [John 18:36].
Those who wish to join this kingdom must obey a new commandment. “Love one another, just as I have loved you” [John 13:34]. And they must express their love in humble service. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” [John 13:14]. Such is the invitation and challenge of this image. The Heart of Jesus wants us to participate fully in his reign—a true renewal of Christian life—in individuals and in society.
Image: Sacred Heart Shrine, Franklin, WI
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
How would you describe devotion to the Heart of Jesus?
What affirmation and what challenge flow from your devotion to the Heart of Jesus?
How might devotion to the Heart of Jesus transform today’s society?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
On January 25, 1889, Fr. Leo John Dehon began publishing the periodical, The Reign of the Heart of Jesus in Individuals and in Societies. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer the ministry of Catholic publishing through printed and electronic media. You may find helpful the following Oblation Prayer, adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
you opened your Heart to Leo John Dehon,
and he responded in love.
He offered his life to you:
working to restore a broken world,
proclaiming your abundant love,
and founding a congregation
to live a life of love and reparation in the world.
inspired by his example,
we offer you our ministries and ourselves.
May we be faithful in our vocation
to work for the building of your reign
in human hearts and in society.
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.
Anyone is welcome to receive the Dehonian Spirituality email. Click here to add a subscriber.
The Dehonian Spirituality updates are edited by David Schimmel, U.S. Province director of Dehonian Associates. Questions or comments for David? Click here.
Click here to learn more about the Priests of the Sacred Heart on the US Province website. Click here to visit us on Facebook.