|EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the only issue of Dehonian Spirituality for July. After a three-week summer break the publication will return on Friday, August 4. Click here to view previous issues.
July 7, 2017
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Social Catholicism [in the 19th century] was born from the synthesis of the twin awareness that the new system of industrial capitalism was forcing masses of working people to live in a permanent state of servitude and deprivation, and that this new situation called for new collective organizational responses to ensure that the betterment of society could keep pace with improvements in the means of production.
The capitalist system was primarily concerned with the production of goods and wealth; Social Catholicism insisted on the equal importance of their just distribution. The key insight of Social Catholicism was to see the connection between social progress and the improvement of the workers’ condition, and to believe that the coming of an era of good fortune for the working classes was the true goal of human evolution.
Many French Catholics in the 19th century were convinced that their faith could make a positive contribution to the ways in which society was organized and operated. Although they differed greatly among themselves when it came to identifying the root causes of the problems and in the proposals they put forth to remedy these evils, nevertheless they were uniformly convinced that the existing social structures were seriously flawed and needed to be corrected in order to be brought more in line with the teachings of Christ.
By birth and by training, Leo Dehon was an aristocrat and monarchist who had been raised to accept the hierarchical ordering of society as a natural condition in which some were endowed with more than others, but all were positioned at the level which was appropriate to their abilities and needs. When he first became interested in social issues, like many others of his time and class, he felt moved to do something for the underprivileged.
With time he gradually became convinced of the principles of democracy which he saw at work in Léon Harmel’s factory where cooperation and harmony flourished because workers were allowed to participate in the decision-making on matters that directly affected them.
At this stage in his development, Leo Dehon was convinced that benefits resulted when ownership made a concession of power and responsibility to the workers; a few years later he acknowledged that even greater benefits followed when the workers’ right to participate in the governance of their own affairs was recognized. He adopted Harmel’s principle: “The good of the worker, by the worker, and with the worker. Never without him, and especially, never against him.”
By the mid-1890s, Leo Dehon was a leader of the Christian Democratic Movement and served on its executive board. He wrote favorably about the all-workers conferences that were held in Reims and considered these meetings an indispensable means for learning about the problems they faced as well as being an effective tool for shaping the future leadership of the democratic movement. He described the goal of this movement as the “gradual, peaceful, and triumphant rise” of the working class, who through education and greater political participation, would play their legitimate role in the social and economic life of the country.
Excerpts from “Social Catholicism Then and Now,” Paul J. McGuire, SCJ
Oblation: The daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
Not everyone easily understands or fulfills Jesus’ inextricable command to love both God and neighbor. This is true in spite of Jesus’ no-nonsense parable in which one’s final judgement is based on the norm, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:40]. Thus, the social apostolate of Fr. Dehon was not always appreciated. Some French bishops of his day, and some members of the Congregation which he founded, even opposed it.
Personality and life experiences incline individuals to favor either loving God or loving neighbor, with convincing reasons for either choice. However, Fr. Dehon, described as having a Breviary in one hand and a newspaper in the other, made no such false choice.
With an intense awareness of God’s love for him, Dehon naturally wanted to make a comparable return of love. In Jesus’ incarnation, passion, and abiding presence in the Eucharist, Dehon understood self-giving love, epitomized in the moment when Jesus’ side was pierced on the cross. This was his model—he would express his love for God by taking on the heart and mind of Christ in service to God’s people.
In 1878, the year that the Congregation was founded, Fr. Dehon made the commitment to devote himself to the Heart of Jesus, and to consecrate his life and and all his strength to the apostolic work of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. While this apostolic work would vary according to need, God had providentially placed Dehon in a huge factory town for his first assignment as a parish priest. Responding to the needs of workers from the commitment of pure love, Dehon’s social ministry developed and matured in the face of opposition, which was based upon ignorance, indifference, or fear.
Following the charism of Leo John Dehon, the Priests of the Sacred Heart state in their Rule of Life, “The life of oblation stirred up in our hearts by the freely-given love of the Lord conforms us to the oblation of Him, who, through love, is totally given to the Father and totally given to people” [#35]. Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound.
Image: Photo of Leo John Dehon, SCJ, at his desk with newspaper in hand.
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
How would you evaluate the capitalist system of today?
In contemporary society, who is prohibited from playing a legitimate role in the social and economic life of the country?
How do you consciously practice Jesus’ command to love both God and neighbor?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayers those individuals who find it difficult to make the connection between loving God and loving neighbor. You may find helpful the “Pact of Love,” a prayer which Leo John Dehon, SCJ, composed in 1878 and renewed daily.
before you and your heavenly Father,
in the presence of Mary Immaculate, my mother,
and of St. Joseph, my protector,
I vow out of pure love,
to devote myself to your Sacred Heart,
and to consecrate my life and and all my strength
to the apostolic work of the Priests of your Heart.
I accept in advance all the trials and sacrifices
that it pleases you to ask of me.
I vow to make pure love for Jesus and his Sacred Heart
the intention of my every act.
I ask you to touch my heart and fire it with your love,
so that I may have
not only the intention and desire of loving you,
but also, through the work of your grace,
the happiness of having all the affections of my heart
centered on you alone.
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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