September 22, 2017
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
For some time, the social consciousness of the pontificate of Leo XIII focused on the Third Order of St. Francis as leaven in an unjust world. In 1882, he wrote the encyclical, On the Social Spirit of the Third Order of St. Francis. Leo XIII believed that, “The Franciscan Third Order can surely render outstanding service to society.”
Hoping to spread this papal message, those who advocated a new social direction for the Third Order organized an International Congress in Rome, from September 23-27, 1900. There were 15,000 participants.
In a major address given at the Congress, Fr. Dehon began by asking, “Are we not being rash in speaking of a present mission of the Third Order? Ought the great seraphic work change its secular character? Would it no longer be a simple society for prayer, penitence, and personal sanctification? Those objections were raised one day when we were speaking about the new mission of the Third Order. Perhaps they are still on the minds of certain people. We want to respond to them.
“Undoubtedly, our beloved brotherhoods are always societies of prayer, penitence, and sanctification. But they were not limited to that in the beginning, and they must not limit themselves to that today. St. Francis did not merely want to embellish souls with private virtues in order to offer them up to Jesus Christ; he also wanted to work for the social reign of the Redeemer.
“Our beloved pontiff, Leo XIII, has reminded us of that every time he has spoken to us about the Third Order. St. Francis had the good of society in mind as well as the sanctification of souls. To imagine that St. Francis wanted to make his tertiaries cenobites is to falsify history and to diminish the great saint. It is to attribute to him our own shortsightedness. St. Francis wanted his tertiaries to be Christian citizens, capable of bringing about the reign of Christ in the commune and in the State.”
In his Diary, Dehon notes the reaction to his speech. “The Capuchins in particular are refractory. Some thought I was a revolutionary because my talk had a democratic twist.” Disappointing the socially minded, the Congress explicitly resolved that the Third Order is “neither a school of sociology nor an organization to promote political economics.”
Although Leo XIII’s dream of Catholic laity’s organized involvement in the promotion of social justice would not yet see fulfillment, Fr. Leo John Dehon continued to work toward that goal.
Excerpts from the speech, The Present Mission of the Third Order, given at the International Congress of the Third Order; background information from Leo Dehon and His Message, Guiseppe Manzoni, SCJ, pp 390-391.
Oblation: The daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
This outdoor sculpture of Fr. Dehon providing a worker with a loaf of bread is somewhat deceiving if taken literally. As a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Hazebrouck and Paris, the young Leo Dehon did indeed provide direct service to people in need. Yet, as a priest and religious, he spent a significant amount of his ministry addressing systemic change.
Much like Pope Leo XIII’s dream that the members of the Third Order of St. Francis would render outstanding service to society, Fr. Leo John Dehon envisioned devotees of the Heart of Jesus as builders of the social reign of Christ. As Dehon believed that St. Francis had the good of society in mind as well as the sanctification of souls, so he wrote, “It is necessary that the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, begun in the mystical life of souls, descends and penetrates into the social life of peoples.”
Of utmost importance for Dehon, beyond direct service and working for systemic change, is the interior disposition of being united with the Heart of Jesus, who continually gives himself to humanity out of pure love. Without this interior disposition, the gains toward justice are incomplete. The social reign of the Heart of Jesus shapes a society convinced that love surpasses even justice.
This is the significance of Dehon’s gesture in the outdoor sculpture. With his hand over his heart, Fr. Dehon indicates his concern for the worker’s needs—bread surely—but also his human dignity, his right to work and a living wage, his access to health care, his freedom to worship, and his participation in a social system that operates as a buoy rather than a millstone.
For Dehon, this can only happen when people become conscious of the Heart of Jesus, whom he describes as “the center where everything meets, where all converges: the material creation, the intelligence, the human life, and the divine life. This Heart is of flesh, but it lives. Human love makes it beat; divine love fills it. It is in this Heart that mercy and truth have met, that justice and peace have embraced: it is the place of the eternal kiss between God and humanity.”
Facilitating this eternal kiss was the goal of Leo John Dehon’s daily act of oblation.
Image: Outdoor sculpture, Piccola Opera del S. Cuore, Vitochiano, Italy
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
Whether a member of the Third Order of St. Francis or a devotee of the Heart of Jesus, what does it mean to be a “Christian citizen?”
For you, what are the practical consequences of nurturing the internal disposition of being united with the Heart of Jesus?
How can you facilitate “the eternal kiss between God and humanity?”
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer those who aim to integrate their faith with their daily life. You may find helpful the following prayer.
Heart of Jesus,
center where all life converges,
haven where mercy and truth meet,
and home where justice and peace embrace,
draw me into your eternal kiss.
Train my eyes to see as you see
and fix my heart to love as you love.
Expand my embrace to include
those whom I fear,
those who wrong me,
those who challenge me,
and surely my evolving self.
I wish to live in you
as you wish to live in me.
Daily, may I discover the courage
to love all of your creation.
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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