January 8, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
In 1897, between January 14 and April 28, Fr. Leo John Dehon gave seven lectures in Rome. Three years later he published them along with two additional addresses under the title, Christian Social Renewal. Given in response to Pope Leo XIII’s personal request to “preach my encyclicals,” Dehon admits that his lectures “caused quite a stir” among advocates and adversaries alike. Significantly, some of his fiercest opponents were among the clergy.
In the Preface to the printed edition, Dehon writes, “We describe the social renewal which is underway. We deal with the end of a heresy: paganism in social and economic life. The error which is at bay is foundering in the waters of socialism and anarchy on the one hand, and of blind conservatism on the other.
“Christ had been dismissed from political life and economic life. He wants to return with the benefits he can bring, with the reign of justice and charity. The Christian social idea is well on the road to victory. It re-awoke in the middle of this century. Leo XIII took the helm of the movement and was responsible for the triumph of the idea. Through these lectures, we wanted to make our own modest stroke of the oar. May they enlighten some minds and influence some wills!”
In these lectures, Dehon analyzed the social crisis, instigated by the French Revolution, and the economic crisis, brought about by the industrial revolution. He suggested causes and remedies, and promoted the social mission of the Church and the Christian Democratic Movement.
Concluding his second lecture, Dehon writes, “The democratic movement has been shaped by the natural ascendency of the lower classes who want to have their share of political and economic power, and by the frequent abuses by various exercisers of authority: monarchies, aristocracies, employers.
“The future of democracy is assured. Its reign will come with us or in opposition to us. Thus, if we want Christ to reign, no one must surpass us in our love for the people. We must act. The evil is immense and the remedy is in our hands. Let us study; let us disseminate the truth; let us organize ourselves. Today, social power is in the people’s hands. It is to them that we must reach out.”
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
It was at a young age of 12 that I became involved with the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. My uncle had been ordained a priest in 1946 and the following year he became a missionary in Argentina. He inspired me to join the SCJs as well, because I witnessed his enthusiasm and zeal to dedicate his life to the poor in a far missionary country.
Personally I began to learn about Fr. Dehon and his vision in the spring of 1950 when I arrived as a twelve-year-old seminarian in Bergen op Zoom in the southern Catholic part of the Netherlands. It was a traditional minor seminary where we were trained in the classic languages of Greek and Latin; the modern languages of French, English and German; national and international history; geography; and math, geometry, and physics.
There was a heavy emphasis on Sacred Heart devotion. SCJ missionaries on vacation in Holland would tell us fascinating stories about their lives and work in South America, Congo, Indonesia, and even Canada. In response to their appeals we had a mission club that collected stamps and other materials for the missions. Another club, the Dehon Club, studied the life of Fr. Dehon and the development of Sacred Heart devotion in different countries where the SCJ Congregation was established.
In the major seminary years we had the opportunity to be involved in social works sponsored by the Priests of the Sacred Heart. In the inner cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Schiedam, and Delft we had centers of pastoral and social outreach to the poor and social minorities. Our eyes were opened to the needs of real people. From 1959 till 1961 some of us scholastics spent two years as assistant group leaders in our boys’ home, owned and run by Dutch SCJs. It was an apostolate run mainly by SCJ Brothers. For me, these two years were an eye opener to be confronted with the needs of young people, who because of poor social situations needed to be educated in a reform school.
I came to the USA in 1969 to teach moral theology at the SCJ seminary in Hales Corners. A few weeks after my arrival in Hales Corners I found myself, together with a group of SCJs, marching in downtown Milwaukee in support of Fr. Groppi’s movement for integrated housing. Not that I at that time fully comprehended what the march was all about. But I was confronted with the sharp contrast between the races in this land of freedom and liberty.
I served on the first social justice committee for the US Province under the leadership of Fr. John Klingler. I recall our first meeting in the parish where Fr. John was pastor in the middle of an African-American neighborhood in St. Louis. I was very happy that the US Province committed itself to the cause of social justice. This characteristic continues to our present day.
For example, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, where I ministered for a number of years as a moral theologian and later as rector, has become a seminary that is nationally known to its sponsors for its emphasis on and commitment to the social message of the Gospel and the Church. The seminary's committee for social justice offers creative programs for staff and students: an annual social justice retreat in downtown Milwaukee, a monthly speakers' luncheon on social programs in the Milwaukee area, First Friday collections for a social project, and Dehon Lectures on a social question. I believe that this unique characteristic of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology fits well with the social charism of Fr. Dehon.
I firmly believe that we are true followers of the Founder who was passionate for social justice. Being a young priest and the seventh curate in San Quentin, in northern France, Fr. Dehon's heart was deeply touched by the plight of the laborers’ poor conditions, caused by the industrial revolution. He became the mouthpiece of the social teaching of Leo XIII. Dehon's nine impressive lectures on Christian Social Renewal demonstrate his competency in the social teaching of the Church at that time.
Today we have a Pope who has published the latest social encyclical on the topic of climate change and the environment, entitled Laudato Si, which sets the agenda for the social action of the Church for the twenty-first century. Throughout my 58 years as a member of the Congregation, both in Holland and in the United States, I have been challenged to see working for social justice as an intrinsic part of SCJ spirituality, inspired by the example of Fr. Dehon. I am grateful for this gift.
Jan de Jong, SCJ
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
Promoting the social mission of the Church as an antidote to society’s ills, Fr. Dehon believed that “the remedy is in our hands.” To what pressing, contemporary issue can you commit yourself?
What will keep you informed about this issue? How can you share with others what you learn about this issue? What organization can you join so that your voice has the greatest impact?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness, throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer those individuals and groups who work for social justice. You may find helpful the following Prayer of Reparation, adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
you spent your days on earth
proclaiming God’s reign
by showing compassion for the lowly,
curing those in need of healing,
and spreading a table of abundance in the wilderness.
In your great love,
you offered your life
that all of us might taste and see the goodness of God.
In response, Lord,
we want to follow you.
Teach us to serve the world, as you do,
with love and compassion.
May the joy and hope,
the grief and anguish of humanity today
become ours as well.
In this way,
may we willingly share with those in need
and press on together
toward the fulfillment of God’s reign on earth.
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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