Based in the Dehonian charism...
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November 28, 2014
Fr. Leo Dehon...
Likely, Fr. Leo John Dehon never considered retirement for himself or for the members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. One hundred years ago, life expectancy was shorter and medicine was not as advanced. Still, Fr. Dehon remained active for 82 years while bearing the aging process in his own body and witnessing the frail health of some of the members of his community. In a 1902 diary entry, he records, “For the past two weeks I have had a sharp pain in my hand, which swells up and is very sensitive. I got this by trying to lift a piece of furniture.”
In 1905, he notes, “For the past year I’ve had a teary right eye caused by a narrowing of or an obstruction in the lacrimal canal. It was a nuisance; I always had to have a handkerchief in my hand, even during Mass. I tried eye lotions, to no avail. I went to the New Ophthalmic Institute in Namur. After lessening the sensitivity of my eye with cocaine, Dr. Bribosia made an initial probe, followed by injections on Tuesday morning; then he inserted a probe for two days. This was painful and quite uncomfortable.”
In the same year, the French government appropriated the property of the House of the Sacred Heart, but granted Fr. Dehon personal use of the gardener’s shed. “I was coughing up blood quite intensely,” he writes and then wonders, “Could this be a new attack of tuberculosis? Is it brought on by the dampness of my temporary shelter?”
In the midst of this government persecution, Fr. Dehon attended to the needs of Fr. Blancal, who at 79 years of age began failing. “He can hardly be moved, no longer saying holy Mass, received Extreme Unction again. On some days we expect him to die, and then he bounces back a little.” When living at the House of the Sacred Heart was no longer viable, Fr. Dehon writes, “I finally transported him to Fayet where he died quietly without suffering.” His concern for Fr. Blancal is notable since at the Fourth General Chapter this priest opposed Fr. Dehon’s leadership of the Congregation.
One of Fr. Dehon’s earliest and most cherished collaborators died at 62 years of age. “Our dear Fr. Rasset underwent the most frightful operation on his stomach. He wanted to risk the butchery of this operation in the hope of being able to work another ten years. The operation lasted two and a half hours. He required 300 stitches. After the operation he endured five days of terrible suffering, which he concealed. I spent the last day at his side. When the doctor reopened his stomach, he displayed a constant serenity and heroic strength.”
Today, Priests of the Sacred Heart plan for their retirement, which usually entails graciously stepping back from full-time ministry. Most often, however, it does not signal a complete break with a lifetime of serving people’s spiritual and material needs. Indeed, as life expectancy increases, retired Priests of the Sacred Heart can serve the graying population by modeling the art of embracing the aging process. Diminishment, and even infirmity, while often considered negatively, can be a powerful expression of oblation. By offering to God with love whatever the aging process brings, an individual releases the very human desire to control and relaxes into a new way of being with its particular set of graces and limitations.
At 72, when for health reasons he had to decline several invitations to preach retreats, Fr. Dehon wrote, “It hurts to be forced to refuse the exercise of the apostolate. I so much want to work for the reign of our Lord!” Like most dedicated ministers, he equated the apostolate with a flurry of activity. Perhaps the grace of our day is to discover that one of the exercises of the apostolate is a wholehearted welcome of the slow-paced, laughter-filled, and sober-eyed reality of aging.
Lived and Shared...
The Rule of Life, #68
, of the Priests of the Sacred Heart states, At the heart of the local, district, regional, and provincial community, we surround with special charity our sick and aged brothers. Particularly through them the Lord inspires us to authentic abandonment, and reminds us of the fragile nature of our condition. He wants to be acknowledged and served in them in a very special way
[Cf. Matthew 25:40
It has been my privilege to serve our senior brothers for three years at Villa Maria, in Franklin, Wisconsin, and going into my sixth year at Sacred Heart Residence, in Pinellas Park, Florida. These senior brothers were, when I was younger, very active and vital members of our Community, and now they are serving the Church and the Community in a different way than they did when they were younger and more active. This is a very privileged and humbling ministry for me.
Fr. Dehon grew closer to God by his fidelity and prayer life. When I think about these senior brothers, I see them doing what Fr. Dehon practiced. When they were younger they were often involved in an active ministry and spent time at prayer, both communal and private. Now, when they are no longer assigned a regular ministry, they continue to be faithful to community life and prayer. Time is spent, not only in communal prayer but also in daily private prayer.
Many of our senior members are active not only in prayer but also in some forms of ministry as their abilities allow them. Fr. Ray Vega goes each week to the Abortion Clinic to pray for those individuals who are having an abortion and the ones performing the abortion. Fr. Frank Burshnick dedicates time to both Community ministry as well as helping out in the parishes with Confession and celebrating the Eucharist.
Fr. Dehon taught us to be patient and “to let the Lord swing the whip.” This is not always easy to do, but I have seen it exemplified through members of my Community. Br. Frank Miller suffered from cancer, and Fr. Jim Alexander was for the most part blind because of macular degeneration. Fr. Frank Hudson was bed-confined in the nursing home for a good period of time up until his death. They accepted their physical condition and offered it to the Lord patiently.
As I begin to come closer to my own senior life, their example gives me the strength to continue to pray when maybe I am least feeling like I need to pray. Their lives also help me to be patient with my limitations and to accept my physical incapability. Their example encourages me to live my religious life in the spirit of Fr. Leo John Dehon, who lived his life in the tone of Ecce Venio
[“Behold, I come to do your will”], such as the Lord Jesus did. This example and ministry gives me the grace to live like Mary, the Mother of Jesus who said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word”.
Br. Ben Humpfer, SCJ
In your kindness throughout the week, please remember in your prayer all your infirm and aging relatives and friends, and the infirm and aging members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. You may find helpful the following prayer, inspired by the sentiments of #68 in the Rule of Life of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
united with your compassionate Heart,
we surround with special love
our sisters and brothers
who bear the cross of aging or infirmity.
As they do their best
to accept the fragile nature of our human condition,
they model for us the spirit of oblation.
We ask you to grant them the healing
of which they are most in need,
and we pledge to attend
to their immediate needs.