October 14, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Since the earliest days of the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus, Fr. Dehon saw the missions as a huge area in which to express the charism of his Institute. He wanted to send his religious “to distant lands,” as long as they were able to live in community and not be “isolated.” In a letter to students, he speaks of the goals of the Congregation. To respond to the love of Christ it is necessary, among others things, to choose those “forms of the apostolate that require greater sacrifice, such as aid to the workers, care for the poor, and the foreign missions.”
On March 25, 1897, Dehon received a proposal for a mission in the region of Stanley Falls in the upper Congo, and he displayed the boldness of a saint. All his counselors were opposed. “We have neither men nor means,” they told him. But he was certain that the Congo mission was God’s work. “God gives to founders graces he does not give to their counselors.”
On July 6, Fr. Grison and Fr. Lux set sail. After three exhausting months at sea and a journey on foot through virgin forest, the two priests reached Stanleyville on September 21. Fr. Lux came down with tropical fever and had to return to Europe a month later. For seven months, Fr. Grison was alone. He pitched his tents along the banks of the Congo River and there began the mission of St. Gabriel.
The first catechumens were orphans whose parents had been abducted or murdered by the slave traders. One day, Fr. Gabriel met a boy in the forest who showed him the right path to take. The next day the lad, whose name was Ngeleza, arrived at the mission and asked to stay there. He was a slave. The boy’s master was furious and demanded restitution. Fr. Gabriel appeased him with a gift. Ngeleza learned Christian doctrine, served Mass, and became one of the best catechists in the mission. Fr. Gabriel put up a house for orphaned slave children. Soon they numbered 400.
In 1901, Fr. Grison wrote, “The climate is deadly. In two and a half years, of the eleven missionaries who came here, we lost seven through death or return to Europe. We always have some who are sick and hanging between life and death. The work becomes exhausting.” Dehon continued to send priest and brother missionaries from Europe. Between 1897 and 1903 there were nine expeditions with a total of twenty-five missionaries. In 1901 the first sisters arrived, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. They taught the girls and cared for the sick.
By 1904 there were between 25 and 30 main mission stations, 2,500 Christians, over 3,500 catechumens and 20 missionaries [14 priests, 1 brother, and 5 sisters]. Six had died and six had returned to Europe. In 1908 Fr. Grison was ordained a bishop in Rome, and continued his missionary work in the Congo for an additional 34 years.
The great and difficult mission of the upper Congo proved to be a source of blessings for the Institute. The mission helped to internationalize the Institute, and caused vocations to pour in, especially from Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. The authorities in Rome became more favorable toward the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
Evil tongues accused the members of a lack of sufficient canonical preparation, thus questioning the validity of their vows. Asked for their opinion, the Office of the Propagation of the Faith replied, “We do not know whether the Priests of the Sacred Heart are good or bad religious, but we know that they are excellent missionaries.” Humbly, Fr. Dehon declared, “They see in us weakness and mediocrity. But then I think of our missionaries in the Congo and I am at peace.”
Excerpted from Leo Dehon and His Message, Giuseppe Manzoni, SCJ
Oblation: the daily practice of offering oneself to God's will
Gabriel Grison, SCJ, offered his life to benefit the people of the Congo. “We can certainly be proud of the great success in our Congo mission,” he wrote in a letter. “Indeed, we have not worked in vain. The Sacred Heart was with us and especially with me. I founded this mission thirty-four years ago and am still in the harness, still in my beloved mission, and here I hope to die some day in the midst of my dear native Christians.”
For 30 years, Grison was a member of a Commission entrusted with the protection of the indigenous population. In that capacity, he drafted reports to the Governor that detailed the great abuses which victimized the indigenous populations, including extortion on the part of State agents and violence of all kinds—especially against women and children.
Regarding the illegal and forced recruitment of the Mobango tribes on the part of the oil companies, he wrote, “I protest with all my strength, Mr. Governor, against these abuses which are instituting the reestablishment of slavery.” Reporting on the displacement of native villages to where food sources were insufficient, he testified, “I saw in the territory of Beni, the settlement of a village whose people had been led there with ropes around their necks. These people however were doing well where they were.”
Objecting to the intensive labor forced upon the Bandanka tribe, he explained, “This involves 26 days of portage without cease on a badly kept route where food is somewhat rare. I witnessed this myself and I met some of these unfortunate porters returning who were emaciated, exhausted, and unable to take any more.”
In their Rule, the Priests of the Sacred Heart state, “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. In our manner of being and acting, by participating in constructing the earthly city and building up the Body of Christ, we should be an effective sign that it is the Kingdom of God and His justice which should be sought above all and in all [#35 and 38]. As a missionary, Gabriel Grison’s life and work exemplified this characteristic spirituality of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Primary source: “Msgr. Gabriel Grison, SCJ,” André Perroux, SCJ, in Dehoniana 2004/1
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
Many individuals offer their lives to benefit others, including parents, those in the helping professions, and volunteers. To whose benefit are you willing to offer your life?
When you witness or become aware of injustice, how do you protest and make your voice heard?
In your manner of being and acting, how can you collaborate in constructing the earthly city and building up the Body of Christ?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
On October 17, 1897, an SCJ mission was established in the Congo, near Stanley Falls [present day Kisangani]. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayers SCJ missionaries around the world and the people whom they serve. You may find helpful the following Act of Reparation for the Solemnity of Pentecost, adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
Spirit of God,
human hearts grew cold and indifferent
and sin entered the world.
Subsequently, through violence and injustice,
humanity made a covenant with death.
Yet, as Jesus promised,
you have entered our lives
and poured God’s love into our hearts,
enabling us to dream of peace,
speak words of love, and do justice.
Spirit of abundant life,
enter our hearts each day to quicken them.
Make us eager to return the love
God has given us in Christ
and send us into the world
to announce the good news of hope.
May our lives unfold the covenant of peace
that God has made with the human race.
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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