July 17, 2015
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
In the Roman Catholic tradition, a newly ordained priest has the opportunity to celebrate several “First” Masses, including one in his hometown parish church. Looking back on the time following his ordination in Rome on December 19, 1868, Fr. Dehon writes, “On December 20, I said my First Mass at the seminary [of Santa Chiara]. My best friends were deacon, sub-deacon, and acolytes. Fr. Freyd [Dehon’s spiritual director] assisted me; he was always so fatherly.
“My parents were present, as also several members and guests of the seminary, and several theologians of the Council [Vatican I]. When my father and mother approached to receive Holy Communion, everyone was in tears. As for me, I was filled with love for our Lord and thought nothing of myself. It was the best day of my life.
“The following day I said Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. My following Masses were said at the Mamertine Prison, St. John Lateran, and the altar of St. Louis Gonzaga. My three Masses at Christmas were said at the seminary on the altar of the Blessed Virgin. During the entire year that followed, I do not recall a single day when I did not shed tears at Mass.”
At the end of his fourth year of theological studies, Fr. Dehon returned home for the summer months. “My good parents were making preparations for July 19, 1869, which was to be the day of my First Mass at home.” In his diary he writes on this day, “Solemn Mass with my family in La Capelle. What memories! What emotions! In this sanctuary of my Baptism, of my First Communion, and of the prayers of my childhood. My preaching was a bit awkward, but my family found it moving.”
Later, he recalled, “The feast was very beautiful and touching. There was a family reunion and many gifts were offered me, mostly literary works. I sang the Mass and Vespers and preached twice, in the morning on the Holy Sacrifice and in the evening on the Blessed Virgin. The emotions of such a day cannot be described. My family and parishioners were moved as much as I was. Everyone shed tears. I believe there was an increase of faith in souls that day, and that this increase of faith was to contribute to the salvation of several members of the parish.
In concluding his homily during his First Mass in his hometown, he prayed, “Speak, Lord, speak to our hearts, and speak to your Father. Speak, Lord, and may every one of us go forth from this solemn gathering a better person. Speak to your Father and ask Him to bless his unworthy minister, to bless his family, his venerable teachers and pastors, his fellow citizens, and his friends. Ask Him to bless this pious congregation and to reunite us all with you in the bliss of the elect!”
Fr. Leo John Dehon, SCJ, Notes on the History of My Life, Fifth Period: Rome 1868-1871, and Daily Notes, July 19, 1869
Heart of Jesus: Fr. Dehon's favored image of God's loving concern for all creation
Who would not love in return the One who loves him? Who, being redeemed, would not love [his Redeemer], and choose in that Heart an eternal dwelling place?” These sentiments translate the banner’s Latin text, which comes from a verse of the hymn in the Roman Breviary for Morning Prayer on the Solemnity of the Heart of Jesus. Along with this text, the banner’s imagery sums up the goal of Fr. Dehon’s priesthood and religious life.
Dehon often quoted the words of St. Paul to explain his faith experience: “And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Galatians 2:20]. Consequently, as The Rule of Life of the Priests of the Sacred Heart notes, Fr. Dehon “saw the refusal of the love of Christ as the deepest cause of human misery. Caught up in this often-unrecognized love, he wanted to respond to it by being intimately united to the Heart of Christ and by restoring his Reign in individuals and in society [#4].
In a variation of the halo, a mandorla [Italian for “almond”] not only encompasses the entire crucifix, but also frames Jesus’ pierced Heart. Early in Christian iconography, this shape indicated Christ in glory. The stole, which Christ wears, acknowledges him as a priest offering a sacrifice to restore the broken relationship between humanity and God. In this case, Jesus not only makes the offering, he is himself the offering. Because he has done so with unconditional love for humanity, Christians acknowledge Jesus as Christ, the King of the Universe.
At the top of the crucifix, the crown, and at its sides, the alpha and omega [the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet], signify his reign over individuals and society. In preparing the Paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, the minister proclaims, “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen.”
The world has usually mocked such an exalted belief, which for Fr. Leo John Dehon was his principal motivation. Yet, failure to acknowledge Christ’s reign of love results in an abuse of power and unnecessary misery. Dehon firmly believed that Christ’s reign over industrialists and factory workers would benefit both, that Christ’s reign over the stock market would end disastrous speculation, and that Christ’s reign over lukewarm priests would result in a resurgence of spirituality in action.
Experiencing the power of God’s transforming love, Fr. Dehon took up a daunting task and expects the members of his spiritual family to continue modeling what the reign of God looks like: a heart that is willing to be broken open, a self-offering that nurtures life from its wounds, and an authority that is expressed by service. For the Priests of the Sacred Heart it cannot be otherwise. “Who would not love in return the One who loves him?” And who would not choose, for themselves and all the needy world, an eternal dwelling place in the Heart of Christ?
Cloth Banner, paint on fabric, hanging in the chapel of the Generalate of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, Rome
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer everyone who collaborates with Christ in bringing about his reign among individuals, in homes, in schools, in communities, in politics, in the marketplace, and in the care for Earth. You may find helpful the following prayer, written by Fr. Leo Dehon in his Diary approximately one-year after his ordination to priesthood.
O my Savior,
I want all my happiness
to consist in seeing that you are loved
and in making you loved.
I would wish that all life on earth
and all its powers, peoples, rulers, knowledge, and arts
may be consecrated to you
and glorify your name.
Impress these sentiments in my heart
and make me forget myself
in order to be concerned only with your glory.
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.
Anyone is welcome to receive the Dehonian Spirituality email. Click here to add a subscriber.
The Dehonian Spirituality updates are edited by David Schimmel, U.S. Province director of Dehonian Associates. Questions or comments for David? Click here.
Click here to learn more about the Priests of the Sacred Heart on the US Province website. Click here to visit us on Facebook.