Fr. Albertus Joni, a member of the Indonesian Province doing graduate studies at Marquette University in Milwaukee, was the main celebrant and homilist at today’s Founder’s Day Mass at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. Joining the seminary and monastery communities at the Mass was Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg. At the end of the Mass, SCJs renewed their commitment as Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians); they are pictured at the top of the page.
Fr. Joni’s homily follows:
We, Dehonians, value the month of March as it is the month when our Founder, Venerable Leo John Dehon, was born. We celebrate his birthday as the Dehonian Vocation Day on the international level. In many Provinces – like my Indonesian Province – we gather young people around our community for sports, music festivals and outdoor Masses. Here, in the US Province, we celebrate this special day with a nice Mass, good meals and unlimited bottles of wine. Yes, indeed, we will see a lot of joyful faces and smiles today.
Yet for Fr. Dehon himself, the month of March is “the month of trials and the month of passion…” It is the month where he experienced “the loss of an important source of income, deaths, terrible forecasts for the trial, etc.” Dehon’s mother passed away in March. The victory of the republicans in the French Senate also happened in March. This political victory made it possible for two important bills to pass that would suppress religious houses and Catholic schools. The attack on the Catholic Church made “18,000 religious from educational institutes and 10,000 from preaching institutes go away; this was shortly followed by the exile of 100,000 nuns and the ruin of the secular clergy.” Believe it or not, the bill was also passed in the month of March. From 1903-1905, the French Government was trying to take our Congregation’s assets, and Fr. Dehon was brought into court like a criminal for one reason: being a founder of a religious community. Although the trial began in May, the process itself had started in March.
I was wondering why we celebrate our Founder’s Day in March. It is indeed a dark month for our Founder! I think the answer can be found in how Fr. Dehon responded to all the struggles, sadness and pain he was facing. He persisted in building his interior life through reflections and prayers. This is one charism that we celebrate today: his persistence in offering everything to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He summarized his efforts in one Latin sentence that had been his motto since his early religious life: “Domine, quid me vis facere?” – “O God, what do you want me to do?” Fr. Dehon experienced all his trials and suffering in persistent prayers; a real commitment that we can read from his personal diary.
This persistence in interior life is also a key to understanding today’s Gospel: Luke 7:7-12. There are two kinds of imperatives in Greek grammar. If we use the aorist tense, then verse 7 would read as “Ask, and it will be given to you! Seek, and you will find! Knock, and the door will be opened.” But if we use the imperative present-tense to read this verse –as William Barclay, a Scottish theologian, suggests – verse 7 will read differently: “Keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking!” There is a sense of persistent action in prayer.
In the same Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, we find a strikingly similar parable of persistence. It is the story about a poor persistent widow who seeks justice from the judge. Initially rejecting her demands, the judge eventually grants her request so he will not be worn out by her persistence. What amazes us is that the very first line of this parable reads as follows: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” Once again, the Gospel shows that Jesus really emphasizes the persistence in prayers: “Keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking!” The point is that we are to continue to pray and not give up.
There have been many times in our Church’s history when we found ourselves under attack; where people felt discouraged and were about to quit believing in God. In the East, we found the physical atrocities against the Church. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined, according to David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, two of the world’s leading religious demographers. The blood-shed from our martyrs in the Middle East and Africa is still happening. In my previous Indonesian mission-parish, I needed to disguise myself with a military jacket and dark-tint helmet in order to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in villages with numbers of Islamic fundamentalists. One of our Dehonian missionaries in Mindanao – the Philippines, Fr. Beppe, was kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist group there. Fr. Lukas, who is now replacing him in Mindanao, is wiser; he brings the Mass Kit in his right hand and an AK-47 in his left hand.
In the West, we find that our Church is even attacked more brutally. The secular media targeted our Mother Church’s credibility and honor by bombarding the public with the sins and the abuse-scandals of her sons: bishops, priests and deacons. I remember one occasion after the Pennsylvania’s Grand Jury Report when I needed to go to Atlanta. In my room, while dressing, I asked our Lord: “God, should I wear my roman collar today? I am afraid of the public judgement and disgust…” I felt burdened when I used my collar, but I kept praying, and I told God: “I will offer You my cross today! Help me to be faithful!” And when I was at the airport that day, one stranger paid for my coffee and said: “God bless you, Father!” Another stranger looked at my collar and introduced himself. He told me the story of his conversion and how God helped him to be a better man for his family. He cried out of gratitude as he asked for my blessing in that airport. I almost cried with him when I realized that these are the ways God wants me to continue to pray and not give up!
Sometimes in facing these challenges of our modern world, we become afraid of anything –we are even afraid to pray! We are afraid to “keep asking” because we think that God won’t hear us sinners. So, we don’t pray. We are afraid to “keep seeking” because we’ve heard that prayer creates only illusions and social-activism is more concrete and more important than sitting alone with the Word of God. Sometimes we’re afraid to “keep knocking” because we really don’t know how to knock; we don’t know how to pray. I invite you, my brothers and my sisters, to keep praying and keep trusting in the Heart of Jesus –as Leo John Dehon did! Be not afraid of our struggles and suffering …
176 years after his birthdate and 141 years after his Congregation was established with all difficulties and exertions, Dehon’s persistence in “asking, seeking and knocking” has inspired tens of thousands of followers who have offered themselves as Oblates to the Heart of Jesus! Be not afraid! Happy Founder’s Day!