Feast of the Sacred Heart is next Friday, June 7. As is tradition, the superior general and his council wrote a letter to commemorate the congregation’s feast day:
Servants of Reconciliation
Our Constitutions at n. 7 qualify our vocation and mission as a prophecy of love and a service of reconciliation. “Father Dehon expected his religious to be prophets of love and servants of reconciliation of people and the world in Christ”.
This statement is inspired by one St. Paul made about his apostolic mission: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beg you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5: 18-20).
This theme is the one we have selected for this year’s letter on the occasion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and it continues our reflections on the basic elements of our spirituality. It also fits in with this year dedicated by the church to Faith. Prophets of love and servants of reconciliation is not merely an intriguing catchphrase. It leads us to the very core of God’s plan, to the life of the Church, to the proclamation of the Gospel, and to what the human race is waiting for.
Reconciliation alludes to a world of forgiveness, welcome, and concord even as it is located in a real world of estrangement, disunion, injustice, and conflict found at all levels. We cannot disregard the growing consensus about the dignity of the human person and his basic rights anymore than the growing respect for the fragile ecological balance on which all life is based. At the same time, the serious injustices and exploitations that hurtle so many millions of innocent persons toward misery and wars and conflicts that threaten the very existence of the human race escape no one.
In the citation from St. Paul, the trespasses are not limited to relations among persons or between the human race and nature. These, in reality, are evidence of our estrangement from God and his plan. As a result, the fundamental aspect of reconciliation is to bring the person back to God for transformation, thus permitting a renewal of all other relationships. In actual fact, Paul begins this segment of his letter by saying: “The love of Christ urges us on!” (2 Cor. 5:14). It is in light of the love of God revealed in Christ and his plan for salvation that one is able to comprehend the true dimension and nature of sin as well as the way to reconciliation.
Such a state of affairs is very much in evidence in the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus which Fr. Dehon left us as our charismatic heritage. He asks us to contemplate God’s plan of love which allows us to become aware of wickedness and sin as well as the possibilities for reparation and reconciliation. It was precisely this that Fr. Dehon proposed for us with his desire to establish the Reign of the Heart of Jesus in souls and in societies.
1 God Loves the World Wounded by Sin and Death
Speaking of reconciliation as Paul and our Constitutions do implies keeping in mind that good and evil are present in the human condition. One needs to look at ideas, processes, systems, and attitudes that make a contribution to the life and happiness of people and societies; however, we should not forget those factors that cause harm and destroy the harmony, understanding, and life of individuals and societies. In contrast to other assessments of the world, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not look upon these two aspects as a cosmic war between two protagonists, as though there were two forces confronting each other in the universe and in history. God is the only Lord of the universe and of all that comes from his hand and his providence. God’s scrutiny of the world declares it “good”. There is no existing creature or world that is the object of God’s disfavor or beyond his power, even when someone should consider or declare himself His enemy. The biblical understanding of the world is basically positive. God loves and cares for his creatures, particularly human ones.
Despite this favorable view, the Judeo-Christian tradition never sees our cosmic reality as an absolute and perfect good alongside God. A consciousness of the incomplete, of the mortal, of the corrupt, and the deviant is ever present in the way it sees the world. Our experience of imperfection and evil find its most dramatic expression in the wisdom reflection of our creation texts that speak of sin always present in humanity. As the Psalmist reminds us, every human being is born into this wounded condition: in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51: 7).
Our estrangement from God and his plan for us has disastrous consequences for man and for the world he inhabits. By turning his back on God, man makes himself the center of the universe, without any reference to a superior being that might restrain him from his own limitations and fragility. His plans and achievements are necessarily limited by his diminished existential perceptions in judgment and action despite his given splendor, ability, and genius. The very ideal of brotherhood has become an orphan because it is no longer seen as connected with the figure of father/mother which gives coherence to a human family. The limitations found in his plans are dramatically present in his abuse of nature, in the untrammeled appropriation of wealth, in the injustice and oppression that threaten the survival of the human race and the very environment of the planet which he inhabits.
More dangerous than estrangement from God is the manipulative abuse of His name, making it serve the limited and megalomaniac schemes of man. Precisely here does the relationship of God with his creature get stood on its head; this situation generates fear, authoritarianism, injustice, enmities, and wars. This situation is far more difficult to identify and eradicate because all is presented in the name of God and by his authority by those having some responsibility in a religious sphere. The process of man’s decline begins with the absence and disfigurement of the face of God.
Both positive and negative views of humanity are completed with an understanding of our cosmic reality which is incomplete and imperfect, set in a plan that requires movement toward fulfillment. Our earthly paradise does not lie behind us, in a lost past, but before us, as a vision and creative utopia that serves to give direction to man’s journey. As a matter of fact, this outlook is found in the last pages in the Book of the Apocalypse, in the New Jerusalem and new creation. Then, all evil and corruption will be overcome along with suffering, violence, and death; history will reach its fulfillment and the human race will reach its full being.
Ranging between these two realities – Creation and the New Jerusalem – one finds human history as salvation history. God does not turn his back in disappointment on the imperfections of his creatures. In his mercy and providence, he accompanies them so that they can reach the goal of happiness that he conceived and willed for them.
And it is in this history, often complex and dramatic, that the way of reconciliation is found. And this does not at all mean recovery of a lost innocence from the past, nor merely seeking to “repair’ and make up for injuries done to God, to other persons, to humanity, but, in relationships and attitudes, to create the dynamics that will permit the triumph over evil and division and lead to becoming new persons. Reconciliation goes beyond simple reparation made for lost integrity or harm done; it leads to the creation of a new and reconciled reality.
2. Christ Reconciles us through the Gift of the Spirit
This process of reconciliation and fulfillment cannot be the result of human effort alone but must be grounded in initiative from God. The desire for peace and the forces of reconciliation and collaboration found among peoples are signs of the presence of God’s spirit which acts in the heart of every person and in humanity as a whole. But it is in Christ that we find the revelation of the reconciling love of God, the offer of communion with his life and the possibility of the formation of a new humanity.
With Christ’s coming into the world two fundamental factors allow us to see the radical commitment God makes to achieve the reconciliation of man: a) the embodiment of the human condition with all its joys, limits, and sorrows; b) the gift of the Spirit which transforms the human condition and makes it possible to have communion with God and to participate in a renewed humanity.
a) The first factor is indicated by the coming of God into the world as Emmanuel, God with us, Christ. He makes himself present in the very embodiment of sinful man, sharing in his helpless condition, excepting for sin, even to the most shameful death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). This “disproportionate solidarity” reveals God’s unsurpassable love for us. There is no other motive possible for such a posture: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. . . Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:8, 11)
In Jesus’ attitude toward the helpless and sinful, we see that God does not stand off at a distance but takes upon himself the sorrows and sins of humanity opening up a way of hope and of life. In Jesus, God is not found in a temple awaiting the arrival of those who have been purified; instead we see him in the homes and on the streets of the people. He has no fear of touching lepers, of sitting at table with sinners, of sharing the lot of the marginalized, the reviled, the suffering. This is the initiative that comes from the gift of reconciliation: nearness, solidarity, and sharing with persons, especially with suffering persons. This is the gift of reconciliation that we have liberally received and the model for the service which has been committed to us.
b) The second factor is the gift of the Holy Spirit. All Christ’s solidarity, all his miracles and teachings, and even his death on the cross would not be sufficient to heal/reconcile humanity. The only way to come close to God, source of life, is if God himself offers both the way and the power. This is the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Spirit (Luke. 1:14) and was presented by John Baptist as the one upon whom would descend the Spirit of Son and who would baptize in the Spirit (Luke. 3:16). All Jesus’ activity is seen as the work of the Spirit who reposes upon him and, having returned to the Father, will send this same Spirit upon his followers to transform them and make them continue his mission (Acts 1:8). The symbol of the pierced side unites these two factors which we have been considering: the revelation of the totality of the love of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit who creates a new humanity (John 19:31-38). This is the beginning of true reconciliation between the creature, man, and his Creator, of the son who was lost with the Father come to seek him out, of the brother with the entire family of those reborn in the same Spirit.
Thus, the reconciliation brought about by Christ begins with receiving the gift of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who transforms every being, beginning with his heart, and makes him personally capable of following the plan begun by Jesus in dialog with the Father and Creator: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you have received the spirit of sonship in union with which we cry: Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). For this reason, this is not a matter of recovering a lost innocence but this is a new gift brought by Christ. The Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit is a new dynamic for forming a new humanity. Jesus’ agenda, presented in the synagogue at Capernaum alludes to the new way for those born of the same Spirit: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable Year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18ff).
3. Allowing Oneself to be Reconciled
With these reflections in mind, we can understand the urgency of St. Paul’s appeal in our leading text: “be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:20). The passive voice (be reconciled) emphasizes the initiative of God but also conjures a note of exhortation and asks for our compliance. At the same time, this is a gift and an invitation to a fundamental experience of faith: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength!” (Deut. 4:6). This fundamental experience of the believer calls us to conversion and to reconciliation.
Feeling ourselves loved by God revolutionizes the way we see ourselves, others, and our world. It changes the way we see our own limitations and weaknesses, the way we ascertain our personal dignity and worth, the way we accept being little and feeble, all within the hands of a Father who is powerful, good, and merciful. Feeling ourselves loved by God is the source of a new energy and hope that does not lead to the isolation of the individual person within his/her own ego but places him/her within an all-embracing family for the purpose of building a new world. In this sense, the acknowledgement of our limitations and of evil can be turned into an experience of mercy and a way to hope.
God makes this new life possible but does not wish to live in our stead (God can’t). This is the way of the Heart that characterizes the contemplative and active features of the charism bequeathed to us. To open, heal, purify, instruct, and model our own hearts according to the Heart of Jesus is possible through the activity of his Spirit in us. It begins through an opening up to God that leads to reconciliation with oneself and one’s past. And it also opens up to cordial relations with others and to participation in building up a reconciled human race. Such a path is based on three pillars: a heart that listens, open to God and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, a fraternal heart, one that works at building communion and collaboration with others; and a heart in solidarity, one that is bighearted in responding to the cries of the defenseless and to the need for reconciliation in the world.
In the ever-developing healing of the heart, there is a large role for the sacrament of reconciliation. These encounters are not just simple rites to be regularly fulfilled for the sake of wiping out our past faults or paying one’s debts to God. The effective sacramental encounter with God’s mercy has an aspect that deals with one’s past sins and mistakes, yet it cannot redo the past and, oftentimes, is not able even to remedy the negative consequences of such errors. But the encounter can free us from the evil itself that led to the fall, enabling us to see things with a new vision, lead us to seek to repair, as far as possible, the evil done and to build a new future. The encounter makes us aware that the sacrament of reconciliation is not a lone, simply personal, act but an important element on the path of reconciliation affecting the entire community by repairing the evil and restoring sinners to its embrace and a renewal of life.
4. The Spirit Generates Reconciling and Reconciled Communities
Reconciliation always take a relational pathway, to God, to other persons, to the world. One image of this kind of harmony is the human family. In the family we see that the love of the father and of the mother creates a setting of understanding and communion in which each one’s shortcomings, flaws, and limitations that show up are overcome by the affection of the other. It is not by accident that Jesus uses the “family” image to speak of the relation he has in mind with those who attend him and hear his word: “This is my mother and my brothers” (Mark 3:34).
The Christian community and our religious communities are not set up on the basis of blood relationship, educational or cultural identity, but on the observance of Jesus’ words. It is He who wishes that they be inspired by the gift of the human family and allow themselves to be renewed by the gift of his reconciling Spirit. This is the experience of Pentecost from which the earliest Christian communities took their origin and which continues to engender life in the church. Jesus presents reconciliation among community members as the distinctive sign which confirms belonging to the group of his followers: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. In the Gospel, there is no room for a reconciliation with God that does not include reconciliation within the community. God did not send his Son into the world just to get us into heaven. While this is absolutely true, but, in light of our final destination, he wants to transform human existence on this earth. In fact, such a transformation is part of the signs of the Kingdom of God that began in our history.
Even with their imperfections, our communities are prophetic signs of the new humanity on pilgrimage toward reconciliation and completeness. The obligation of community building is, therefore, a fundamental duty for those who have been reconciled in Christ. Hence, we see the scandal arising from rancor and hatred among those who, having themselves been freely reconciled to God in Christ, are unwilling to pardon others or to work and live as brothers. On the other hand, acceptance and integration of our differences, the triumph over our weaknesses and frictions and our intercultural and international make-up are concrete expressions of the conciliatory activity of the Spirit, with Pentecost as model.
At the same time, we need not confuse reconciliation with consensus and unanimity of opinion. Frequently these latter conceal processes of accommodation, of immobility, of lack of truth, or of domination by persons or groups. The history of the early Christian communities reminds us that the voice of the Holy Spirit is frequently inconvenient yet creative. Differences should not frighten us so long as there is respect and love for truth as we listen to the Spirit.
In a never perfect community, yet one that ever accepts the fact that it needs continual renewal by the Spirit, forgiveness and reconciliation between people should be a constant. The experience of one’s own lapses and of God’s mercy on us with our failures should ready our hearts to forgive others. The prophetic witness that our communities give does not consist in the perfection of its love – which will always be seen as insufficient – but in its constant readiness to mutual forgiveness seen in the friendliness shown in our relationships.
Readiness for communion, respect and openness to disparity should, therefore, be the basic elements of our formation. At the same time, ability to live in community, to overcome conflict and rancor for the sake of working with others should be considered among the most important criteria in vocational and formational discernment as well as in one’s personal life. It is this fashion that we prepare ourselves to live in the world as servants of reconciliation.
5 Reconciled People in service to Reconciliation
What reasons can a person have to become dedicated to the work of reconciliation, even to the point of giving his life to it? Paul responds this way: “the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14). Awareness of the love of Christ, who loved him and reconciled him to himself, when he was still a persecutor and enemy, changed Paul’s life radically and led him in a new direction. From that point on, his life was united to Christ’s life: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Actually, no other reason would be adequate to make a person put himself at the service of reconciliation in this way.
Yet we find a number of equivocal situations in the church and in our communities. If a person walks down this road of reconciliation motivated by personal interests, power seeking, wealth, reputation, etc., he or she can wreak havoc on him/herself and on the community served. Thus we often find people who claim to be consecrated to God and yet live in disenchantment and bitterness of spirit, in prickly relationships with others whenever others do not submit to their caprices. Hence, for anyone who wishes to be engaged in the service of reconciliation, the same question made by the Risen Lord prior to committing responsibility for the brothers to Peter should be addressed to him: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jo. 21: 16). Without this encounter with the love of Christ who reconciles, there can be no true service of reconciliation.
In their encounters with the love of Christ, Peter and Paul were reconciled for the purpose of reconciling. They too had to purify their intentions through contact with the Master and particularly with the mystery of his death and resurrection. The experience of their personal weakness and his love healed them, gave them a model of action, and perfected them for becoming credible ambassadors of the reconciliation of God.
It is only through love as a basic motive that one can take on the principal disposition of reconciler: sensitivity and attention in addressing suffering, injustice, and evil. Devotion to reconciliation begins with feeling the sufferings and difficulties of others as though they were ones own, independently of the person with the needs. The image of a reconciler is the Good Samaritan, who does not shift his glance from, does not hurry his steps away from the person he finds stretched out on the road; he is one who is able to change his agenda and go to assist.
A merciful outward glance does not justify walling ourselves into a false Eden of justice and security. After Christ’s own example, we are called to go out into the world which needs solidarity and compassion, as Pope Francis reminds us, if we are to renew the church. Sharing situations of pain, injustice, and misery is the very face of a merciful heart as we walk down the path of reconciliation. Closeness to the neediest and to the most helpless forms part of the most visible sign of the Gospel. Hence, each one of us and each one of our communities need to ask what part the poor, suffering, and abandoned – good and evil – have in our priorities and concerns. According to the attention we give, we can judge the state of our commitment to the reconciliation of the human race.
Fr. Dehon taught us that to be close to the suffering and the despoiled cannot be reduced to giving them direct charitable assistance. We need to go the roots of evil and injustice that produce the misery and loss of human dignity and the dignity of a society that destroys the planet. Not only is a merciful glance required but a competent one as well for the sake of pinpointing the elements that contribute to the misery and exploitation as well as the ways that can lead to remedying the evils that corrupt society.
As people imbued with the Gospel, reconciliation in the sphere of religion should be extremely important to us. A consistent affirmation of our own faith and the duty to proclaim it along with dialog and collaboration for the transformation of the world are not incompatible in this respect. At the same time telling someone how to believe and using violence in the name of God are contradictions. Any God that needs to be defended or imposed through violence is not really God but a human invention.
Oftentimes the defense of justice and the way to reconciliation is interpreted as a denunciation of injustice, oppression, and corruption. Reconciliation without justice and truth is impossible to achieve, and the voice of the Spirit often appears as problematic and subversive before corrupt and totalitarian systems. Frequently the people who are part of such systems are manipulated by them and collaborate with them, and are opposed to the processes of liberation and transformation. In such situations, the service of reconciliation requires special discernment and responsibility that can lead the offering of ones life. The history of the church and of the world is colored with the blood of persons of all nations and faiths that gave such witness and made their contribution to the construction of a world that would be more just.
Such witness has left us with a recollection that violence and wars were rejected as methods for overcoming differences, disagreements, and conflicts. Reconciliation also aims at revolution and it is no accident that it can lead to bloodshed. However, the bloodshed that results is not that of enemies but of the very servants of reconciliation. The gift of one’s own life is the highest and most radical witness tendered to the love of God who reconciles a humanity wounded by sin and violence to himself.
The image of the New Jerusalem considered at the outset of this reflection gives us an occasion for setting the witness of giving one’s very life in the context of constructing a reconciled world. The process of reconciliation takes place within human history but its final fulfillment cannot be achieved so long as man remains a prisoner of his limitations and death itself. Drying the last tear and the final victory over injustice, corruption, and death are not part of human history but only possible in the perfect city which is God’s gift. All efforts to build a reconciled human city are directed toward it and inspired by it. From this point on all are its citizens who, like their Lord, are “meek and humble of heart” and “peace-makers” (Cf. Matt. 5:9; 11:29). These “shall possess the new earth as their heritage” and “will be called sons of God” forever (Cf. Matt. 5:5, 9).
On the Solemnity of the Feast of the Sacred Heart we are asked to contemplate Christ, a man with a new heart, perfectly and fully man, filled with the Spirit of God. This fullness is expressed in his meekness and humility of heart, which make him open to the Father’s love and affable and amiable in his relations with others, even to the point of giving up his life for them. We receive the gift of the Spirit from his heart opened on the cross who reconciles us to the Father and to each other.
We have not lost sight of our limitations and are aware of the scenes of misery, injustice, and attacks on the dignity of human beings and the integrity of creation. But the Spirit leads us by our hearts, learning from Jesus, to place ourselves at the service of reconciliation and collaboration in building a new universe where justice and peace will reign as God planned it.
We send our best wishes for the celebration of the Feast of the Heart of Jesus to all our members and to all the members of the Dehonian family. May this feast secure our reconciliation and unity, renew the joy of our service, and feed our hope in the work that the Spirit is accomplishing among us.
Fr. José Ornelas Carvalho, superior general, and his council