May 26, 2017
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
[Fr. Dehon began his ministry as the seventh assistant at the basilica of St. Quentin, in a brutal industrial city by the same name. Although he had dreamt of “a life of study, recollection, and prayer,” he quickly adapted his focus to the pressing needs of factory workers. In just over six years, he learned their issues and participated in creating solutions through annual Workers Congresses. After founding the Priests of the Sacred Heart, his involvement in social issues would continue for the next 30 years of his life.]
The great Catholic Circle Movement in France began in 1871 with Albert de Mun and R. La Tour du Pin. Two years later, Fr. Leo Dehon started a local Workers Circle at St. Joseph’s Youth Center in St. Quentin. The purpose of these circles was to create associations of workers under the direction of the best Catholic members of the middle class.
These circles did not spread and take root, however, because the workers were not the ones with the power and responsibility. Still, they prepared Catholics for the eventual establishment of labor unions. Dehon took part in the general assembly of Workers Circles held annually in Paris, and when he could not attend, he faithfully sent in his report.
From August 25-29, 1873, he attended a congress in Nantes for directors of Workers Associations. It was at this congress that Fr. Dehon met Mr. Leo Harmel for the first time and began a collaboration that lasted many years. Leo Harmel gave the main report about his rural factory in Val-des-Bois. Christian associations had completely transformed his workplace from indifference to intensely religious.
According to Dehon, the Nantes congress was better than a retreat. The reports, discussions, and practical examples stimulated the participants and laid the groundwork for the establishment of numerous associations. “I got a good supply of instructions and documents for my groups at St. Quentin,” Dehon wrote. The enthusiasm was renewed the following year when the congress met in Lyons.
With the permission of his bishop, Fr. Dehon spent six months preparing for the Soissons diocesan congress for Catholic Associations held on March 10-11, 1875. “What wonderful days!” Dehon remembered. “It was the greatest moment in my diocesan ministry.”
Fr. Dehon presented the results of a survey that was sent to all the pastors of the diocese, of which only one third responded. “Practically nothing existed in the line of associations,” Dehon noted. “Everywhere the men were either indifferent or irreligious. These are the bitter fruits of the Revolution, Gallicanism, and Jansenism. By excluding religion from political and social life we have alienated, first of all, the men, and then almost the entire populace.”
In the same year, Dehon took part in the congress in Reims for united associations. Of this congress, he wrote, “There were latent injustices in society of which we were well aware. We had to re-create an entire social awareness. This required time and suffering. All those works of assistance were fragile and insufficient because they did not attack the roots of the problem. The overall organization of the economy was a violation of the natural law. A program of social reform was just beginning to take shape.”
In 1876, Fr. Dehon attended the Bordeaux congress of Catholic Associations for Workers, and then organized a St. Quentin congress. The successful congress left all the participants convinced of the need for action and the establishment of Catholic Associations.
Even as he was establishing his religious Congregation and St. John’s High School in 1878, he organized a congress in Soissons for apostolic works. Several dioceses participated and it seemed as if Catholic social action was on the rise. “Many of the reports were minor masterpieces. These days of the congress reawakened zeal among the priests more effectively than a course of spiritual exercises.”
Adapted excerpts from Leo Dehon and His Message, Giuseppe Manzoni, SCJ, Chapters 9 and 10
Oblation: The daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
There was nothing compartmentalized in the oblation that John of the Heart of Jesus professed and lived. His prayer, his work, and his relationships revolved around the Heart of Jesus, whom he loved and to whom he wished to be united. Naturally, he wanted to help others experience God’s love so that they also would love and be united to God.
In Dehon’s experience, Sunday Masses, weddings, funerals, and catechism classes could only begin to awaken a consciousness of God’s love among a population that was simply trying to survive. Giving lectures, writing magazine articles, establishing associations for the workers, and fighting for humane treatment on the factory floor was a practical way for him to not only love the Heart of Jesus but also make God’s love real in the circumstances of everyday life.
This mural captures the synthesis of loving union and loving service in the life of Fr. Dehon. Dressed in liturgical garb, he holds a book with the dual title of “Social Action and Life of Love” suggesting the focus of his writings and his ministry. In the background is a crowded factory town, where the buildings for work and living seem depressingly similar. Since most workers were not coming to Church, Fr. Dehon resolved to bring the Church to them.
Inspired by the Heart of Christ, symbolized by a pierced Heart within the cross, Dehon‘s daily act of oblation is summarized in the words, “For him I live, for him I die.” This led him to “Go to the people,” particularly those who were crushed by the Industrial Revolution. In a world that was discovering new ways to put profit over people, his pursuit of truth enabled Fr. Dehon to love and serve simultaneously God and God’s people.
Image: Mural in front of the library and community center at San Isidro Parish in Limpio, Paraguay, by artist-pastor, Juan Quinto Regazzoni, SCJ.
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
When Fr. Dehon describes congresses focused on Workers Associations as “better than a retreat” and as reawakening “zeal among the priests more effectively than a course of spiritual exercises,” what do you learn about his spirituality?
In speaking of “latent injustices in society,” Fr. Dehon explained, “All those works of assistance were fragile and insufficient because they did not attack the roots of the problem.” In what ways does this remain a relevant critique today?
Fr. Dehon’s daily act of oblation can be summarized by the words, “For him I live, for him I die.” How might you summarize your spirit of oblation?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayers workers who are paid less than a living wage. You may find helpful the following Act of Oblation, taken from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
our Lord and our God,
out of love for your Father and for humanity
you have called us to a life of service.
You have chosen us
and united us to yourself
like branches on a vine
so that our works might bear fruit,
abundant fruit that lasts forever.
In the spirit of Leo John Dehon,
we offer ourselves
to repair a broken world
and restore all things in you.
Make us living witnesses
to your love in the Church,
which was born from your pierced side
as you hung upon the cross,
opening the way to truth and life for 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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