November 25, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
On his seventieth birthday, Leo John Dehon wrote a spiritual testament to the members of his community. He recalled, “The loving providence of the Sacred Heart willed that we were to be helped spiritually by several communities animated by the same spirit of reparation. But two religious families in particular, have been like co-foundresses of our Society.” For this reason, the Priests of the Sacred Heart today claim them as part of the Dehonian Family.
These two religious communities of women are the contemplative Sister Victims of the Heart of Jesus and the apostolic Sister Servants of the Heart of Jesus of St. Quentin. The latter community “had in our regard a mission that could be called maternal. They are always united with us in prayer and sacrifice, and we ought to be the same in their regard; but what is more, for 20 years they have given us specific assistance in our houses, taking care of the students in our schools, occupying themselves with sacristy and laundry duties, and even helping us with their resources when they were able.”
This spiritual connection was so strong that each wanted their sacrifices to strengthen and benefit the other. Shortly after Leo John Dehon founded his community, the Sisters experienced a series of untimely deaths within their community. Dehon and the Sister Servants interpreted these deaths as self-offerings that would bring blessings upon the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This was not, however, the interpretation of an increasingly anti-clerical French society.
Dehon explains, “Over a few months we had lost four of our Sisters: Sr. Mary of Jesus on August 27, , Sr. Saint Francis Xavier on October 11, , Sr. Marie Gonzaga on March 15, , and Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds on April 12, . It was a great bereavement; but the public looked for explanations. Gossip was flying. There was talk of poisonings that covered up crimes, and then talk of exhuming the bodies. It was a Tolle [Away with him! (Cf. John 19:15)]. Reporters from the Masonic press in Paris had come to expose a great scandal. I spent several months with these anxieties.
“Our four dear Sisters had been pure victims of love for our Lord. Quite sincerely, they offered themselves as victims of reparation. It was their thought at every moment. They accepted their long-sufferings in this spirit. They died in this disposition and gave admirable examples of patience, sacrifice, and abandonment to the divine will.”
In 1882, “our Sisters again lost two pious nuns: Sr. Saint Raphael on June 14 and Sr. Augustine on July 14. They died as the others in the dispositions of holy and pure victims, but their deaths, so close together, again stirred up some gossip.”
Fr. Dehon affectionately referred to the superior and foundress of the Sister Servants of the Heart of Jesus as Chѐre Mѐre [Dear Mother]. She died on March 17, 1917. “A large funeral was held on the 20th,” he records in his diary. “The Dean summed up her life and added some edifying words. She is a saintly soul who will aid us in heaven. She always had an uncommon faith and a personality of rare energy. The Chѐre Mѐre died in exile, in keeping with her life as a victim. Her pastoral works and ours were destroyed and are in ruins at Fayet and at St. Quentin [from the destruction of World War I]. It is the vocation of Job. Fiat! [Let it be done according to your word.]”
In conclusion, Fr. Dehon writes, “You understand why we pray each day for our Sisters. We have commitments and duties towards communities that help us in various degrees.”
Souvenirs and Spiritual Testament, Circular Letter 39
Notes on the History of My Life, Notebook XIV
Daily Notes, March 1917, March 1918, and March 1925
Oblation: the daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
As a bishop, the SCJ missionary Camille Verfaillie, founded in 1936 the indigenous women’s community, Jamaa Takatifu [Congregation of the Holy Family] in the Congo. Bishop Joseph Wittebols, SCJ, passed on to them the Dehonian spirit through his books, “Total Gifts” and “Ecce Ancilla Domini,” that he wrote for their formation. Although these Sisters are an autonomous religious community, the Priests of the Sacred Heart welcome Jamaa Takatifu as members of the Dehonian Family.
Anuarite Nengapeta, a professed member of Jamaa Takatifu, sacrificed her life during Congo’s civil war and the Simba revolt in 1964. Only a few days before she was murdered, Bishop Wittebols and 27 other SCJs were attacked and killed because of their perceived collusion with colonial structures and with post-colonial manipulation by Western governments.
As a young girl, Anuarite wanted to be just like the religious Sisters in her village, particularly Sr. Ndakala Marie-Anne, her third year teacher. Despite her family’s initial hesitation, she joined Jamaa Takatifu in 1959 and took the religious name, Sr. Marie-Clementine. Five years later, civil war broke out. The Simba rebels suspected the indigenous religious of cooperating with the foreign oppressors.
Bullied by drunken and menacing soldiers, Sr. Marie-Clementine and her religious community were threatened with rape and ordered to dress “like proper African women.” A colonel wanted to take Anuarite as his wife, but even in the face of death threats, she steadfastly refused, saying, “I don’t want to commit this sin. If you want to, kill me. I forgive you because you don’t know what you are doing.” As this tense situation escalated, several soldiers beat her, repeatedly stabbed her, and finally shot her to death.
Sr. Marie-Clementine was only 23 years old when she willingly offered her life on December 1, 1964. During his visit to Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo], Pope John Paul II beatified Anuarite Nengapeta, saying, “It is the primary value of fidelity which led to her martyrdom. That is precisely what martyrdom means, ‘to be a witness’.”
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
The Church honors the memory Anuarite Nengapeta on December 1. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer the Dehonian Family, which includes the Priests of the Sacred Heart, religious communities of women, consecrated individuals, and laity, who share a common spirituality of love, and the desire to repair a broken world in order to restore all things in Christ. You may find helpful the following Pact of Love, which Fr. Dehon composed and renewed daily.
I give myself completely to our Lord
to serve him in all things
and to do his will in all things.
With the help of his grace
I am ready to do and to endure whatever he wills.
I have my Rule, my director,
and the providential events
which tell me what I ought to do.
I renounce my own will and my liberty.
I beg our Lord to accept this offering,
this gift that I make to him,
and never allow that I should take it back from him.
I call upon the most holy Virgin,
my guardian angel, and my patron saints
to help me fulfill this pact
all the days of my life.
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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