January 13, 2017
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
The story of migrants and refugees is never far removed from the experience of peoples and nations. From biblical times to the present, famine, oppression, and war have forced people to abandon their homes and move into an uncertain future. Fr. Leo John Dehon experienced exile at the hands of an anti-Catholic French government and evacuation on the orders of the German occupying force during World War I.
In 1901, France passed a “law on associations.” Originally intended to create a strong national state capable of defending itself against foreign influences, the law quickly morphed into an anti-Catholic policy to destroy religious congregations. By refusing to authorize them, the parliament dissolved fifty-four religious congregations and forced 20,000 religious to leave France.
Writing in his diary in the fall of 1902, Dehon notes, “I have to prepare for my departure to Brussels. My colleagues will try to remain as diocesan priests, but I have been too involved as a religious. I boxed up my papers and some books. I will have parts of my work in Rome, in St. Quentin, and in Brussels; nothing complete, nothing organized.”
One month later, he writes from Brussels. “I was settling in my place of exile. The draft of the law which banishes us from France was taken up in the Chamber. I accept my situation, but it is not without anxiety. It seems to me that I am without a country and without a home. I no longer have anything at hand. Our activities in France held a prominent place in our original plans; it’s going to be reduced to practically nothing.”
After a long legal battle with the government, which confiscated the property of religious congregations, Fr. Dehon was able to buy back the House of the Sacred Heart in St. Quentin. As personal owner of the house, Fr. Dehon was allowed to live there, but the Congregation was forbidden in France.
When World War I began in August 1914, German troops were occupying St. Quentin within the month. “We heard the canon fire all day long,” Dehon notes in his diary. “The city is thrown into confusion: no more trains, no mail service. The people are fleeing in panic. The canons which are rumbling like a frightful storm fill us with terror. So many lives are being mowed down during these days. There are terrifying hours when the heavy gunfire is so violent that the nervous system is completely shaken by it. The wounded and the dead picked up from the battlefield continue to pour in.”
His diary entries catalogue the multiplication of tragedy and suffering. “Added to the war and hunger, there is a new scourge from which the people are suffering: typhus is beginning to overrun our field hospitals.” “Provisions are becoming scarce and very expensive.” “For the past three weeks we’ve had the temperatures of Siberia: 15 degrees below zero.”
On March 2, 1917, the German army posted an evacuation notice. “The entire city was going to leave in two weeks. Everyone dejectedly began to pack his suitcases. Everything had to be left behind: precious objects and family heirlooms! After several days of painful preparations, the exile began on March 12. I had to abandon our house and sacrifice a considerable amount of furniture. There were about 25,000 francs worth of books.
“Two trains per day were going to Belgium without knowing where; long delays at the station. On March 13, they put us in a freight car. We sat on the baggage. The journey was painful with long stops. In the evening we arrived in Enghien. I was worn out and racked with pain. As I left the station, I fell down from exhaustion. I thought I was going to die; my heart was beating wildly. We could only leave the station one at a time. The city of Enghien wanted to count us: the absurdities of government bureaucracy. I will never completely recover from the impact of all of this.
Diary, 1901-1905, 1914-1917; The House of the Sacred Heart During the War
Oblation: The daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
“Migration today is not a phenomenon limited to some areas of the planet,” writes Pope Francis in his 2017 statement for World Day of Migrants and Refugees. “It affects all continents and is growing into a tragic situation of global proportions.
“Among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group, because as they face the life ahead of them, they are invisible and voiceless: their precarious situation deprives them of documentation, hiding them from the world’s eyes; the absence of adults to accompany them prevents their voices from being raised and heard.
“In this way, migrant children easily end up at the lowest levels of human degradation, where illegality and violence destroy the future of too many innocents, while the network of child abuse is difficult to break up. If more rigorous and effective action is not taken against those who profit from such abuse, we will not be able to stop the multiple forms of slavery where children are the victims.
“For this reason, on the occasion of the annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees, I feel compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone. In doing so I ask everyone to take care of the young, who in a threefold way are defenseless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves.”
While not focusing specifically on child migrants, North American SCJs have heard Pope Francis’ call. In choosing to respond over the past few years to the global issues of migration, the “Congregation of Oblates, Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus unite in an explicit way their religious and apostolic life with the reparatory oblation of Christ to the Father for people” [SCJ Rule of Life #6].
In the Canadian Region, the SCJ Ottawa community is sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, not only financially, but also more importantly by personally accompanying them as they navigate all manner of resettlement issues. Peter McKenna SCJ, works with Becoming Neighbors, an immigrant and refugee support organization based in Toronto.
Sponsored Partners, who receive grants from the SCJ United States Province, include Casa Juan Diego, Houston, which serves immigrants, refugees, and the poor; Cabrini Center for Immigration Legal Assistance, Houston; and Voces de la Frontera, an advocacy group in Wisconsin serving undocumented immigrants from Latin America.
An SCJ North American Committee on Immigration is inviting each local SCJ community to reflect upon a collection of personal stories of immigration, and to commit to some action that would benefit the needs of today’s migrants and refugees. Last March, the committee sponsored an educational forum on immigration issues. Mark Peters, the Director of the Province’s Justice, Peace, and Reconciliation Commission, serves on the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Justice for Immigration Committee, which works to enlist parish support for migrants and immigration reform.
These are acts of oblation, by which the Priests of the Sacred Heart can involve themselves “without reserve, for the coming of a new humanity in Jesus Christ” [SCJ Rule of Life #39].
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
How have you allowed the global issues of migration to affect you? Given your own circumstances, how can you respond?
In 2015, the SCJ North American Committee on Immigration published, “North American Dehonian Story of Immigration.” This 136-page book is a collection of immigration stories from SCJs, and the women and men with whom and to whom they minister. Although initially intended for SCJs as the first step in a “see, judge, act” process, this book is now available to a wider audience. If you would like a free copy of the book, click here to send an email with your USPS (snail mail) address.
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
Sunday, January 15, is World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember those who are forced to flee from their homes and seek a better life in a foreign land. You may find helpful the following Prayer of Reparation, adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
God ever merciful,
you have come among us in Jesus, your beloved Son.
At his baptism, you opened the heavens
and anointed him with your Holy Spirit.
Reflecting your mercy,
Jesus loved us and gave himself as a ransom for us.
God ever gracious,
send upon us your Holy Spirit,
who will lead us from the waters of baptism
into the struggle against evil.
Gradually form in us
Jesus’ compassion for sinners,
his love for those who have no shepherd,
and his fidelity to your will until death.
God ever faithful,
help us to live in the world as Jesus did.
Enable us to welcome all, whom you freely embrace,
by sharing what we have.
In this way,
may we be united with Jesus’ love for you,
and cooperate in his ministry
until at last, your new day dawns.
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.