12 August 2022
12 Aug 2022

The personality of the “très bon père”

97 years ago Fr. Dehon died. We repost a lecture by Msgr. Philippe, Dehon's successor, presented in Louvain in 1938 and published in Dehoniana magazine in 2014.

by  Joseph Laurent Philippe, scj

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Lecture by Msgr. Joseph Laurent Phlippe


Treating the personality of our venerated Founder is to approach a very complex problem, first because of the vast understanding of his personality, and secondly because of the influence that he has exerted upon the work to which we have the honor of belonging.

A personality with limits

Today, when we speak of personality, or of a personality, we would like to see it completely. We would like, in our perception, to appreciate it in its totality as a ready-made personality, in absolute perfection, without defects, regardless of the human contingencies to which all human personality is necessarily subject. Now only Christ and the Virgin Mary were complete types of this kind.

If we consider the Très Bon Père, we must find deficiencies and limits, certainly not from the moral point of view, but limits of power of will. If it were not so, Father Dehon would no longer be a man, for all human nature necessarily contains imperfections.

Another point we must not lose sight of is that we must believe more and more in the slow, progressive, but certain guidance of divine Providence. This guidance is found in his whole personality.

Last year, Pope Pius XI said in essence that previously he did not know what physical suffering was; now that he has had the experience of suffering, he better grasps the state of souls who are suffering.

In the personality of Father Dehon, we will therefore stop to consider the direction of Providence and the correspondence of the Très Bon Père in this direction.

If we take the Très Bon Père in the context of a family that could be called well-to-do at the time when he lived (decline of the French Revolution, beginning of contemporary times), nothing apparently prepared him for the role that Providence reserved for him. He had a pious mother, it is true, but his father, without being an unbeliever or opponent of religion, was nevertheless indifferent. Law studies, intended to lead Father Dehon to the bar, seemed to move him away from this goal. He undertook great journeys. He arrived in Rome imbued with Gallican ideas and doctrines taught at the University of Paris. It was in Rome that he found the most refined “Romanity”. He took part, as a secretary chosen from among the students of the French Seminary, in the Vatican Council, in which pontifical infallibility was declared as a dogma of faith. It was there that Father Dehon was able to realize the high importance of the Sovereign Pontiff, who stands like a lighthouse shining on the troubled sea of the world in the throes of so many upheavals and revolutions. It was this esteem for the Pope that was the motive for his unfailing fidelity to the Pontiff, not only when he defined ex cathedra a dogma of faith or morals, but also when he spoke through the Roman congregations in consistories, through encyclicals or decrees. Father Dehon drank from this source.

Shaped in this way at the center of Catholicity, he came to Saint Quentin as the 7th vicar, in the midst of confreres still imbued with Gallican ideas on infallibility (too great an extension in the field of application of this infallibility, reservations to be made, opportunity, etc.). Father Dehon held fast to the doctrine he had learned in Rome, at the risk of distinguishing himself from them and incurring difficulties on their part.

In going through the different stages of Father Dehon’s formative life, from the family home to his apostolic activity in the diocese of Soissons, it is obvious that Providence had definite plans for him.

She continued to assist and direct him in an even more brilliant way in the foundation of the Congregation.

Happy Fault

Father Dehon also experienced the most crucifying ordeal. He was wrong and the consequence of his error was the banning of his beloved work to which he had dedicated his life. But felix culpa! Father Dehon, admirable in his submission, obedience and humility; a humility that knows how to receive a disavowal without the slightest hesitation, even if it concerns what he held most dear; a humility always ready to follow the will of God expressed by superiors.

If we take the work as it exists today, it no longer responds to Father Dehon’s initial plan.

Providence never manifested to any founder the work as it would be in the future. Nor did the Très Bon Père see with prophetic eyes all the phases and evolution through which the newly founded Congregation would have to pass before arriving at its definitive constitution. He happened to be mistaken. And it is through contradictions that the work has taken its own direction. As it progressed, Father Dehon saw its slow and continuous evolution and development towards this work willed by Providence. In the beginning, Father Dehon worked with his bishop in the diocese of Soissons. He founded Saint Jean College which Monsignor Thibaudier wanted to perpetuate. For this reason he advised him to found the Congregation under the guise of this house of formation. Father Dehon finds the model for his new institute in that of the “Servants of the Heart of Jesus”.

Missionary work

It lays the foundation for a diocesan and not a universal work.

When two eminent vocations presented themselves to be admitted to the Congregation with the aim of dedicating themselves to missionary work that was still non-existent, Father Dehon replied: “From the beginning I thought of the missions as one of the goals of the Congregation, but I did not know how to carry it out. He, the social man, the man of the workers, threw his sons into the field of missions because he saw it as the purpose of Providence. Today, the Congregation has almost abandoned the social question because the missions have prevailed. Bishop Philippe’s colleagues in Paris, many of whom became bishops, said that the Priests of the Sacred Heart were above all priests of the social question. It is Providence that willed it otherwise.

It was with a view to opening up a field of missions in the pagan world for his spiritual sons that Father Dehon undertook the great journeys to China, India and Brazil. In the trials that were to befall the nascent Congregation and that touched Father Dehon so closely, Providence visibly intervened to direct him more and more, through his trials, towards the goal it wanted to attain. Barely three years after its foundation (1877-1880), the Congregation was, by a decree of the Republic, thrown beyond the borders of France and settled on the banks of the Meuse in Holland. Another decree, issued in 1904, stipulated the closure of Soissons. The Congregation from this point of view moved to other shores and by doing so widened its scope, taking on a more marked character of universality, of internationalism; in a word, of catholicity. This was the origin of other difficulties that Father Dehon encountered on the part of some of his immediate collaborators who, because of their preconceived ideas, did not understand him. They wanted a diocesan work, a work of apostolate within France and were therefore opposed to the idea of missions in particular. A shadow of schism arose, a kind of cabal against Father Dehon, which resulted in numerous defections. It was a big mistake on their part, a mistake in which our Founder was never involved. It would have been the eclipse of the work that today shines throughout the world.

The Congregation is built on a solid foundation

There are certainly still difficulties today. We still hear defeatist reflections, which sometimes create an atmosphere of pessimism.

That there are deficiencies is undeniable. We forget, or seem to forget, that Providence directs everything. We don’t like to see it, because we don’t like to let ourselves be directed by it. This mentality, this communist spirit, we carry within us, unconsciously no doubt, but effectively. The Congregation has suffered and still suffers from this spirit. Let us not forget that it rests on solid foundations, unshakeable, one might say, in its spirituality which is theologically and ascetically unassailable. This spirituality was wonderfully highlighted by His Holiness Pius XI in the Encyclical on Reparation “Miserentissimus Redemptor” (1928). We have our mission in the Church.

So far we have only spoken of the role of Providence in Father Dehon’s personality: how She directed him in his initial formation, his stay in Rome, in Saint-Quentin, the foundation of the Congregation, the development and the tribulations it went through. How did Father Dehon correspond to this direction?

This correspondence can be summarized in one word: external and internal submission, perfect and complete.

Bishop Philippe, while still a young scholastic, had Father Dehon as his spiritual director. One day, when the Bishop asked him what resolution he should take, Father Dehon spoke to him about equanimity: “Today, after forty years of experience, I see how much effort needs to be made, what heroism it takes to maintain an even temper.” For such was the goal of his efforts in the spiritual life: to remain always equal to oneself in spite of the disavowals, the failures, the annoyances: to put there sweetness, a note of confident optimism, to see things for their good in the light of Providence. This never deceives. Such must be the characteristic note of the Priest of the Sacred Heart. That’s for the interior side.

Establish the Reign of the Sacred Heart

Many imagine that perfection consists in visiting many houses and countries, in making great journeys as Father Dehon did. This is not necessarily true. Dehon traveled a lot: but everywhere and always he was guided by the only motive: to establish the Kingdom of the Sacred Heart in souls and in society. The breadth of vision that was so characteristic of him was certainly also due to his careful education, to the contact he had with distinguished people: but these are only the framework. Interiorly, he leads a life of continuous study. His intelligence is always on the alert. If it is not made to go in depth, it is nevertheless very vast, it grasps things well in all their extension, it knows how to synthesize. One should read the “Chronicles” in the magazine “Le Règne du Sacré-Coeur dans les âmes et dans les sociétés” to realize this. He immediately grasped the main ideas that he put down on paper, immediately discerned the dominant ideas that directed the movements and revolutions, and in a few words he gave an appreciation of them. One preoccupation haunts him unceasingly: the Reign of Christ. In a few strokes, Father Dehon masterfully paints the disgusting picture of Saint-Quentin, this working-class microcosm. There are eight priests there: the parish priest and seven vicars. Each curate has a certain number of faithful under his care, whose total number reaches about one thousand individuals,  whom they visit, and receive hospitality… Alongside them, twenty thousand workers are lost; they have no contact with Christ and no one cares about them. They must be won over. The first to take on this task is the young and last curate, Leon Dehon. It is a superhuman task, and yet he takes it on. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of reconquest, founded newspapers, conferences, etc. He mistrusts all those pious souls but did not reject them. It is to the workers, the favorite portion of the master, that all his care goes. This is Catholic Action.

The word “Catholic Action” is new, but the reality, the thing itself, is as old as the Gospel, where we already find Catholic Action in its full and complete sense.

A man with broad ideas

The Très Bon Père was a man of broad ideas because he carried within him the love of Christ; a love that progressively led him to devotion to the Sacred Heart, to whose service he would consecrate his life.

Many times he was reproached for having had too much confidence in men who were not worthy of it, for having been deceived. In fact he was deceived by some who abused his trust. He made a mistake in choosing them as collaborators. Should we blame him? No. Father Dehon, despite his eminent holiness, remained a man, and as such was subject to weaknesses and errors, the prerogative of men. Only pessimists and scabs make no mistakes, because they do not dare to undertake anything.

If Father Dehon made a mistake in choosing one or the other, how many others did he draw into the orbit of his personality? How many others did he make into elite subjects, leaders, lights, initiators, saints. The Très Bon Père kept his faith in man; his breadth of vision didn’t narrow due to some defections. God knows the cruel anguish he went through when he saw his work threatened by these betrayals. He too had moments of despondency: one could see him sometimes, after the greetings, with his dark forehead resting on his hand, recollecting himself: he suffered cruelly from these betrayals and human baseness. He suffered, but each time he got back on his feet in the face of the ordeal; for it was the hour of Providence which never abandons those who have placed their trust in it.

The ordeal has passed, and the work exists today, it has kept its vitality because its founder gave it the invigorating breath of his lofty personality; it has been purified more and more by the contact with the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist. This is the secret of its vitality which was communicated to it by Father Dehon.

He never forgot his adoration. We could see him more than once, at 11:30 at night, after a day full of worries and work of all kinds, going to the chapel to make his adoration.

This broadmindedness never gave way to the pettiness that too often embitters our days. He owed this broadmindedness not only to his external training, to his careful education, but also to the fact that he carried charity within him. He wanted above all to win souls to Christ, to reconcile the modern world and especially the working-class world with the Heart of Jesus, the burning furnace of charity, to throw the world into this furnace of love.

It is up to us to continue along this path, to lose nothing of the initial spirit in which the work was founded: even-temperedness. This will be the only way to make it advance in the path of progress traced by Providence.

Leuven January 18, 1938.


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