August 5, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Seven months after his ordination to priesthood, Fr. Leo Dehon confided in a letter to his friend, Leo Palustre, “Preaching will play a big role in my apostolate, but I do not have the talent or the lungs required for it.” Indeed, preaching figured prominently in his ministry for almost 50 years, during which time his honed his skills and compensated for his less than robust health.
Not blind to the deplorable working and living conditions in the factory town of his first assignment as a priest, Fr. Dehon used his sermon on Christmas Day to speak about “the mysteries of the manger.” It was not, however, a comforting sermon and he received a reprimand from the pastor.
Describing the darkness that the birth of Christ opposes, Dehon focused on “the greedy and impassioned attachment to the goods of this world.” In addition to the fluctuating Stock Market and scandal-mongering press, “It holds sway in industry where irreligious capitalists exploit the worker and destroy his body, his soul, and his eternity by imposing work on Sunday. It prevails among the workers who, unable to achieve the possession of capital by means of careful savings and a well-disciplined life, make feverish attempts to get it through social revolution and by expropriation.”
Years later, he considered his tone to have been imprudent, but he never shied away from the topic. In 1874 he gave a sermon “On the Duties of the Managerial Classes” who are the instrument of Providence for the underprivileged. “If God elevates some,” Dehon reasoned, “it is in order to be the support and resource for others.”
He did not always have time to write out his sermons, but sometimes he was able to look back at more than notes and outlines. “For the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, I wrote a complete and polished sermon on the Last Judgment. I thought it would always be useful for me to have in my notes a discourse on this very important subject.”
He found the usual approach to Lenten missions to be “very old fashioned. These will not remake society. Missions must set in motion social works to win the men.” When he was invited to give a conference at the French Seminary in Rome, he spoke on the necessity of directing pastoral ministry particularly toward the men.
Among the audiences for his preached retreats were the students of the major seminary in his home diocese, seminarians at the Canadian College in Rome, and the members of his own community. In reflecting on these experiences, he would often note, “This retreat has done much good for me.”
As powerful as words can be, Dehon understood that example was more effective. “An author advises us,” he records, “that there is less need for preaching than for speaking in the flesh, speaking practically, speaking as someone who loves our Lord and his audience, and who wants to reconcile them and unite them.”
Finally, his lungs did give out. At age 72, he confided to his dairy, “Two religious communities—Holy Cross and The Little Sisters—have asked me to preach their retreat. I am no longer able. Chronic bronchitis causes me to cough frequently and to spit up blood. I am no longer able to give retreats where I must preach four times daily for a period of eight days. It pains me to have to refuse to carry out this exercise of the apostolate. I so greatly desire to work for the kingdom of our Lord!”
Sermon for Christmas Day 1871, Notes on the History of My Life, and Daily Notes
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian Spirituality
Fr. Dehon says, “Preaching will play a big role in my apostolate.” I wonder how many SCJs see preaching as a major part of our apostolate, our ministry."
Like it or not, if you are a baptized Christian, you are a preacher! Many Christians, perhaps Catholics in particular, have not been formed to think of themselves as preachers, nor have they been formed to think of preaching as crucial to the Church’s identity.
In our common language, the word, “preach,” tends to be defined by its adjectival form: “preachy,” instead of its proper meaning, which is “to proclaim.” The essential mission of the Church, stated repeatedly at Vatican II and proclaimed again by Pope Paul VI in 1976, is the task of evangelizing all peoples, that is to say, the preaching of the Gospel. The first reason that the Church exists—the primary occupation of the Church—is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To bring about the reign of the Heart of Christ in souls and society has been, from the beginning of our Congregation, one of our primary aims. Fr. Dehon was keenly aware of this gift which he had and which the Church and the world needed.
The Church and the world still need this gift. How appropriate it is for us SCJs to announce this in our day. How important it is for us to realize that we preach not only by what we say, but also by how we live. I am reminded of the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary, use words.”
Our lives of compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, love, peace—these also proclaim the Good News. The way that we live community life, the way that we share from our abundance with the poor, and the more that we work for a just society—these are ways in which we also proclaim the Good News. People need to see in our lives the living, loving Christ.
Charles Bisgrove, SCJ, wrote this reflection in December 2003. He died on March 10, 2011.
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
How do you respond to the statement, “If you are a baptized Christian, you are a preacher?”
How do you preach by your daily living? Do not overlook your acts of forgiveness, compassion, and love.
In what one, specific way can you work for a just society and thereby allow people to see in your life the living, loving Christ?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer everyone who proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in both word and action. You may find helpful the following Act of Reparation, based on the SCJ Rule of Life, #12, 38, and 39.
Source of our being and our happiness,
you have given us Jesus, the Living One.
In him, the New Human Being has been created in your image,
in justice and holiness of truth.
Jesus enables us to believe
that despite sin, failures, and injustice,
redemption is possible,
has been offered, and is already present.
His way is our way.
In our manner of being and acting,
by participating in constructing the earthly city
and building up the Body of Christ,
we want to be an effective sign
that it is your Reign and your justice
which should be sought above all and in all.
With your grace,
may we bear prophetic witness
as we involve ourselves without reserve
for the coming of the new humanity in Jesus Christ.
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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