September 16, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
While studying law in Paris, Leo Dehon volunteered to be a catechist at the parish of St. Sulpice. “It was here,” he noted, “that I first spoke in public. I had more good will than talent.” Then, studying theology in Rome, Leo was elected president of a group of seminarians, who organized themselves to give catechetical instructions. “We had weekly meetings, and every day during recreation we taught catechism to poor children sent to us by the pastor of the church of St. Mary Minerva. We held periodic contests, organized feasts, and gave rewards to the children.”
As an associate pastor at the Basilica of St. Quentin, Fr. Leo Dehon shared with the other associate pastors the task of teaching catechism to the youth of the parish. As the newest associate, however, he had the additional task of teaching catechism in the secular schools. He notes in his memoirs, “There were two of them, which were run by kind people, more or less Catholic, Mr. Cuvillier and Mr. Dudot. I went to one school on Tuesday and to the other on Friday. At 11:00 o’clock, I was scheduled to give a half-hour class. I put all my zeal into it.”
Dehon used a popular textbook called, “The Catechism of Perseverance,” which was written specifically for youth who had made their First Communion. The intent was to encourage a life-long study and practice of their faith. Using examples and stories, Dehon notes, “They listened to me. I saw souls who were open to goodness. To remake a Christian city with these elements, one only lacks apostles. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few [Matthew 9:37].”
Although he did not elaborate in his notes, the needed apostles would provide these students, not only with more than a weekly half-hour of instruction, but also exposure to a Christian lifestyle. Looking back at that time, he muses, “It was necessary to attend to these children after school, to provide youth clubs and associations. I was going to find there my vocation as a founder of works and promoter of social action. Providence led me by the hand.”
Indeed, shortly after recognizing this need, he established St. Joseph Youth Center. Among the various opportunities at the Center, Dehon organized a Workers’ Union and a study club for young men planning to become future employers. Then, as secretary of the Diocesan Office for Social Welfare, he helped write the Christian Social Manual to encourage parishes to get involved in the pressing social issues of the day. Seven years later, he founded the religious Congregation of Oblates of the Heart of Jesus, and established St. John’s Institute, a boys’ Catholic Junior High School.
The work of catechetics, Fr. Dehon understood, lays the foundation for building the social reign of the Sacred Heart.
Notes on the History of My Life, Notebooks I, III, and IX
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
Fr. Leo Dehon is a great inspiration for living a life dedicated to the poor and downtrodden. He went out into the “real” world to meet the injustices of the poor head on. This spirit is alive within the Priests of the Sacred Heart and the communities in which they work.
I have had the pleasure and great opportunity to work as a Coordinator of Religious Education under several SCJ pastors. They have all put the education of our children as a top priority, but also instilled the importance of living our faith over simply receiving head knowledge. Many things can be taught to our children—we can test them out to see how well they know their faith—but through the influence of the SCJs, I have come to realize that it is just as important for us to teach our children to live their faith, which is to take care of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the lost.
In recent years, our church has gone from being one community served by a priest living in the rectory on site to a community made up of many different cultures being served by a team of three SCJ priests that live in community and also serve five other churches. This has given us a greater perspective and appreciation for working together as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We have several inter-parish groups: Adult Faith Formation Committee, DREs [Directors of Religious Education
and Young Adults.
As the coordinator of religious education at my church, I work closely with all of the above groups. These groups are made up of people from the six parishes and plan together for opportunities for our people to grow in their faith. It is wonderful to see that our churches are working together to help all of our faithful to realize that we all are more alike than we are different.
The many small study groups, the inter-parish worship ceremonies, and the inter-parish missions help to pull us all together to work toward the common good for all of our parishes in the hopes that it will cross into the bigger community of northern Mississippi and the world. As we begin to get to know our brothers and sisters in our neighboring communities, we begin to realize that we can do so much more together than as separate entities.
As a DRE I meet regularly with the other DREs from our parishes. We work together to plan the curriculum; we all use the same books, the same schedules, have group parent meetings and group youth confirmation retreats. We plan youth activities that are open to youth from all six parishes.
Over the years I have seen a great increase in the way our young people respond to each other and to the call to serve others. They have truly embraced the Dehonian spirit [even if they do not know it]. They are living their faith by going out into the world to help others. Their actions are speaking loudly to our parishes and our community. I’m often approached about doing mission work. We only need to look in our own backyard, in our own community to see that there is a need for our helping hands—a need that we are obligated to meet. Our youth are learning that mission work does not have to be in another city, state, or country. We can be missionaries without going out of our own area.
We are so fortunate to be able to collaborate with Sacred Heart Southern Missions [SHSM] on projects throughout the year. We work on many mission projects like the Thanksgiving Baskets and Angel Tree gifts. But every August I have students start the new year asking about our annual Labor of Love and Catholic Service Initiative [CSI]. These are our two major mission projects. Both projects are helping SHSM clients in need of major home repair.
The Labor of Love is a weekend during spring break. The CSI is a weeklong service project during the summer. We have a week for the young men and a separate week for the young ladies. These two weeks are spent on major home repair for SHSM clients. I have seen so much growth in our youth through both of these projects. The youth see firsthand the need. Through working on the projects, the youth get to know the clients that they are helping. Both the receiver and the giver of the service are changed.
The first summer retreat had only 5 youth from my own parish. Now we are getting 25 girls and boys from our six parishes. At the end of the week the students are always wanting to know how they can help more. This past summer a group of girls built a ramp for an elderly man in a wheel chair. They were impressed with the family and expressed a sense of pride for the project, love for the family, and a wish that they could do more to help out.
The youth from the past years are now young adults and are trying to create a new ministry for our cluster of churches. This, I have to believe, in part is due to their high school confirmation programs and the need to help others. I was completely amazed at the spirituality of each individual. At the first meeting, the discussion was “what do we want for this group?” Surprisingly, a social was not the top priority. They were more interested in ways to grow in their faith and secondly to see what they could do to help the needy in the community.
Their first activity was a silent retreat, which was a huge success. The young adults planned for everything: reconciliation, adoration, and time for spiritual creativity. They have also planned a late night Hang Out [fun night] and a service project through the SHSM. I am looking forward to watching this group grow and become leaders in our Church.
I am lucky to be surrounded by adults, youth, and children who are so filled with their faith. I have watched many of our children grow from the First Communion preparation classroom into faith filled caring teens preparing for Confirmation and on to enter into adulthood with so much to offer the world. The people who form the faith communities of our cluster of churches are truly inspirational in their openness to the diversity found of our churches. Through our many and varied programs we are moving forward with a growing sense that the world is larger than any one of us and that we are called by God to take care of our neighbors in need.
Christ the King Parish, Southaven, MS
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
Recall how you learned about your Christian faith and what encourages you to live it by helping others?
Although you might not have the gifts of a catechist, how can you witness the Gospel to today’s youth?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
Sunday, September 18, is Catechetical Sunday, which is, according to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “an opportunity to reflect on the role that each person plays, by virtue of Baptism, in handing on the faith and being a witness to the Gospel.” In your kindness throughout the coming week, please pray that catechists, families, and parish communities may rededicate themselves to this mission. You may find the following prayer helpful.
you walk into our lives
and help us understand God
by telling stories
that comfort and challenge our hearts,
and by embracing all
who recognize their hunger
to be one with the divine.
As we make your stories our own
and welcome your loving embrace,
stir within us a baptismal fervor
to pass on, especially among youth,
the faith you have nurtured in us.
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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