January 23, 2015
Fr. Leo John Dehon, founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
While traveling through Canada and the United States on his trip around the world, Fr. Leo John Dehon often commented about things done “in the American style,” by which he usually meant “quickly and efficiently.” Yet, one particular aspect of life in America completely unsettled him. Believing Roman Catholicism was the only authentic expression of Christianity and coming from France, which at the time promulgated anti-Catholic laws, Dehon was surprised and occasionally shocked at the casual mingling of Catholics and Protestants.
At times, he tried to soothe his discomfort by hoping for the best. “The [Protestant] Bible Society has already distributed more than 70 million bibles,” he notes. “Let us hope that the Supreme Judge will credit them for such zeal.” Traveling by train from Portland to San Francisco, he met two priests dressed in cassocks. “They made a good appearance, and they sat down to talk with us. They told us that they were Anglican religious of the Order of St. John. They say Mass and they take vows. These good men will come back to the Church one day.”
Noting that in the northeast region of the United States, “relations with the Protestants are marked by courtesy,” he credits Cardinal Gibbons, who “has contributed a great deal to bring about these cordial relations which seem to facilitate conversions. He always refers to Protestants as “our separated brethren” and to the Anglicans as “our friends the Episcopalians.”
Visiting his recently established missionaries in Wainwright, Alberta, he writes, “The day after my arrival we had a pleasant surprise. A Protestant neighbor, realizing that our Fathers had visitors, sent over a chicken and a cake. It’s good luck to help the missionaries. I have since learned that this good woman and her children have become Catholics.”
At other times, however, Dehon is simply perplexed. “I spent the evening with the Fathers of the Church of Lourdes [in Brooklyn]. A festival was going on with dancing and a charity bazaar. A strange occurrence: they invited a speaker to give some prestige to the festival. He was a local official, the son of a Protestant minister, who spoke about morality in good philosophical terms.”
On the frontier, in Wainwright, Alberta, he observed, “Everything is done over here through special collections. The Catholics appoint a committee of building advisors. They are responsible for the whole project. They solicit funds among the Catholics and the Protestants as well. The people contribute willingly; they say it will help the country expand. On the other hand, the Protestants come to the Catholics for help, which I find disturbing. I asked a Catholic how his conscience let him do that, and he said, “They had to rebuild a Protestant church, so I contributed to the destruction of the old one, not to build the new one.” A witty reply, but…”
In Atlanta, he celebrated Mass “at the Marist Fathers, who have a fine college here. They have a non-exclusionary policy, admitting Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.” At this point in his travels, it’s hard to say if this was a comment of disapproval or praise. But by the time he arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, it seems that Dehon had acclimated himself somewhat to the ecumenical spirit. “That evening there was a reception at the governor’s place. The Cardinal Delegate mingled with Protestants and Free Masons, but it didn’t matter; we’re in America.”
Happily, the Priests of the Sacred Heart hold a broader view these days. In their Rule of Life, #84, they profess, “Eucharistic worship makes us attentive to the love and faithfulness of the Lord in his presence to our world. Sharing in his thanksgiving and intercession, we are called to serve the Covenant of God with his people by our whole life, and to work for unity among Christians and among all peoples.”
Heart of Jesus, Fr. Dehon's favored image of God's loving concern for all creation
The theme for this year’s International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, echoes Jesus’ first words to the Samaritan woman at the well. As the committee preparing materials for this observance explains, “Give me a drink” [John 4:7] and the gospel story that unfolds from this request [John 4:1-42], “presupposes that both Jesus and the Samaritan ask for what they need from each other. Give me a drink compels us to recognize that persons, communities, cultures, religions, and ethnicities need each other.”
Fr. Leo John Dehon contemplates this scripture passage in his book, The Retreat with the Sacred Heart, in the meditation, “Conversion of the Samaritan Woman By the Ingenuity of the Merciful Heart of Jesus.” In it, he imagines the scene from the perspective and in the words of Jesus:
“It is true, on this day I wanted to show the full tenderness of my Heart for poor sinners in order to encourage them. See how I set out early in the morning. I made a long journey on foot in the burning sun. I spoke less than usual to my disciples because my Heart was preoccupied. It was almost noon when we arrived at Jacob’s well. I let them take care of the arrangements for lunch; I was not thinking about this.
"I was tired and I sat down on the edge of the well, but not so much to relax, but to be in a better positon to win over this soul. My interest in her salvation was my primary concern. I made sure that I would be there before noon because I knew that was the hour when I would find her. I let all my disciples go to the town in order to be alone with this soul so that I could speak freely and discretely with her. If others were present I would not be able to reveal to her the disorderliness of her life and to lead her to repentance.
"I was thirsty because I had made a long walk in great haste in order to arrive on time; but I had an even more burning thirst because of my zeal for the salvation of this soul. If I asked for something to drink, it was not to quench my natural thirst to which I didn’t give a second thought. It was to initiate a conversation with this soul which would lead to her conversion.
"I wanted this account to be reported in the Gospel so that everyone would know how I act towards sinners by arranging opportunities for them to be converted. In Isaiah the Holy Spirit had described my eagerness to draw near to souls. I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am.’ [Isaiah 65:1]
"Recall all the situations when I called you, the thousand initiatives my Heart took to go looking for you and win you over. I came in the form of a reading, a sermon, a providential turn of events, an adviser, a teacher, an interior inspiration. It was always me: I am here, I am here. Every day I am coming to you and I am calling you."
Leo John Dehon, SCJ, The Retreat with the Sacred Heart, 22nd Meditation
Reflection Questions, seeds for personal understanding and growth
Of the persons, communities, cultures, religions, and ethnicities with which you are familiar, who needs “a drink” from you?
Recall those moments when you were most aware of Jesus inviting you to take the next step in your process of personal transformation. How will you respond to his invitation today?
In the daily tasks that fill up your day, how can you make visible the presence of Christ in the life of the world?
Prayer, hands lifted in prayer, hands prepared to serve
This year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer those who express their faith in ways different from your own and whose experiences are not yours. You may find the following prayer useful. It is based upon the Rule of Life [#18, 22, 43, 63, and 84] of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
God, our Father,
on the night before your Son gave his life
as the completion of his total offering of self
to you and to your people,
he interceded for those who believe in him, saying,
“May they be one as we are one.”
In a world seeking unity that is difficult to achieve,
we let ourselves be permeated by the love of Christ
and pledge to live our union with him
by our availability and love for all.
We want to work for unity among Christians
and among all people,
particularly for the lowly and those who suffer.
In this love of Christ we find
assurance that human community can succeed
and strength to work on its behalf.
This day, through the service of our various tasks,
we want to be present, with Christ,
in the life of the world.
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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