January 18, 2019
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
It all began with catechism class. Fr. Leo Dehon had an assignment to teach religion to the public grade school students in a French city filled with factories. After doing this for a year, Fr. Dehon had prepared about 100 boys for their First Communion. He soon realized, however, that his instruction was not helping very much to equip these boys for their future.
He wanted to create a place where young boys and teenagers could gather outside of school or the factory for fun and learning practical skills. Eventually, Fr. Dehon built a youth center that had recreation rooms, classrooms, a gym, a library, a bank in which to deposit savings, a chapel, and even a band and a choir. As St. Joseph’s Youth Center grew, it added an employment agency as well as lodging for young workers. Soon, over 500 young men were involved at the center.
At this time in France, many teenagers were already working in factories but receiving a fluctuating daily wage with no benefits. To address this problem, Fr. Dehon organized a Workers’ Union at the Youth Center to help the young men understand their rights and duties as laborers. He wanted to help them fight for a living wage and healthy working conditions. He also set up a study club for young men who were planning to become employers in the future.
As successful as St. Joseph’s Youth Center was, Fr. Dehon wanted to do more for youth. In his day, an anti-Catholic French government favored public schools over private schools, but he wanted to offer more than the public schools were providing. Fr. Dehon intended not only to teach the regular subjects, but also to form Christians as “persons of heart, of sacrifice, and of commitment.” Whatever the students would eventually do in life, Fr. Dehon believed they must always be “the living image of Jesus Christ. Such is the purpose of Christian education,” he concluded, “such is our purpose.”
So, in 1877, he opened St. John Institute. He chose this name because John was the well-beloved disciple who was close to Jesus’ Heart. Before the school year began, Fr. Dehon gave a talk on Christian education. He spoke about his responsibility to parents and society in training their children “whom God loves so much and wishes to see treated with utmost respect.”
This type of education was important for Fr. Dehon because he believed it could help address and solve the social problems of the day. Dehon wanted to train future leaders and factory owners, who would put into practice the Christian principles of justice and charity.
At the center of St. John Institute was Fr. Dehon himself. One of his former students wrote, “What we loved was to see him mixing among us and finding out about our lives in a familiar way. We loved to talk with him. He put himself on our level and was interested in all of us.” Another man recalled, “He was a good Father for the students and was much loved by them, in spite of his strictness. He was spontaneous, lively, teasing, affectionate, above all with young people.”
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
Accompanying young people is a ministry of the heart. The mentor must walk his own personal path to be able to walk with others. Fr. Dehon inspires his religious to contemplate the open side of Jesus. As Dehonians, we are religious on the move, that is, we are not waiting for the person to come to us. We are religious who go out to look for and to meet with those who need to know and discover the love of God for humanity. This redemptive movement is an action of leaving what is familiar, of mission, of going to meet those who are at the peripheries of society.
This movement for Dehonians has three aspects. First, it is a genuine meeting, that is, two people who interact, who share their questions, their feelings, and how God is stirring in each one’s life. Second, it is a sacred listening. I am available to listen and receive what the young person wants to share about his life, his reality, and what he lives every day. It is not a time to teach or to guide, just to listen and help discover the brushstrokes of God in the hearts of young people. Third, it is the reparatory action of the Holy Spirit who invites us to generate a change, to do what is necessary to transform the personal and communal history of the young person.
As Dehonians, we have three fundamental pillars that help us to deepen our preparation for this service. The first is the Eucharist — celebrated and adored. The second is the life of union with Jesus that allows us to discover in the life of young people the action of God and the passage of grace through their heart. The third is faithfulness to the TODAY of God that daily calls usto discern new pastoral structures for an effective response to young people.
I am guided by the reflection of our previous Superior General, Fr. Wilmer, who invited us to be completely open to the wounded heart. In this case, I think of the wounded heart of young people, migrants, the persecuted, those discriminated against, trafficked, abused, and exploited.
“To fully assume the human, we need to drink from the ‘wounded Heart’ of Christ to unite us with a wounded heart and contribute to make His yoke light; in other words, to give it rest. As we can point out in our Constitutions, our spirituality has two concepts that lead us to follow Christ to alleviate the suffering of the afflicted: love and reparation: Father Dehon expected his religious to be prophets of love and servants of reconciliation of people and the world in Christ [II Corinthians 5:18]. Thus, involved with Him to remedy sin and the lack of love in the Church and in the world, they shall render the worship of love and reparation that is Heart desires through their whole life, their prayers, works, sufferings, and joys [cf. Notes Quotidiennes XXV:5].”
Br. Diego M. Diaz, SCJ
Reflection questions: seeds for understanding and growth
Whom do you identify as “persons of heart, of sacrifice, and of commitment?
Whom do you identify as persons with wounded hearts?
How can you be faithful to the TODAY of God, that daily calls you to discern new ways to be of service?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
This year, World Youth Day will be celebrated in Panamá from January 22-27. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayers all the young people who will gather—and those unable to gather—to celebrate their faith. May their youthful energy be contagious as they breathe new life into the practice of our Catholic faith. You may find helpful this official “Pilgrim Prayer,”for World Youth Day in Panamá 2019.
you call us to live our lives as a way of salvation.
Help us to recall the past with gratitude,
to embrace the present with courage,
and to build the future with hope.
Lord Jesus, our friend and brother,
thank you for looking upon us with love.
Let us listen to your voice
as it resonates in the hearts of each one
with the strength and light of the Holy Spirit.
Grant us the grace of being a Church
that goes forth with vibrant faith and a youthful face
to communicate the joy of the Gospel.
May we help to build up the kind of society we long for,
one where there is fairness and fellowship.
We pray for the Pope and the bishops;
for young people; for all those
who will take part in World Youth Day in Panama
and for those who are preparing to welcome them.
Our Lady of Antigua, Patroness of Panama,
help us to pray and live with generosity like yours:
“I am the servant of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
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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