In Mississippi, continuing the call of the founder
Staff from all of the ministries of Sacred Heart Southern Missions in Mississippi, including schools, social service centers, the development office and parishes, came together for an in-service day on February 15. The focus was “Mercy,” in commemoration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Fr. John van den Hengel, SCJ, former vicar general and now regional superior of Canada, led the group in a reflection on “Mercy and Fr. Dehon.”
Fr. John acknowledged the wide variety of faiths present in the conference room. Although the Catholic Church is focused in a special way on mercy during this jubilee year, mercy is something essential to all faiths.
“Compassion and mercy belong to the Kingdom of God,” he said. “You can’t speak of mercy and compassion without God… What ties us together is God’s mercy.”
Fr. John spoke of mercy as an inexhaustible gift; it leads to the healing of brokenness, including broken relationships. It is a true gift, one without obligation. The experience of receiving mercy can make one merciful to others.
In small groups participants talked about their own experiences of mercy, answering questions such as “One of the greatest experiences of the grandeur of God’s creation was when…” “My most memorable experience of forgiveness was when…” and “My greatest experience of what I can only call a miracle was when…”
Each table shared their discussions with the larger group. Stories were told of the joy of holding one’s child for the first time, of feeling God’s compassion in the midst of hardship and challenge, of the gift of a loving spouse, the call to be an instrument of God’s love along with the strength to follow-through, the gift of being listened to and heard.
One woman reflected on the devastating storms that ripped through Holly Springs just before Christmas. “A tornado was destroying my friend’s home, her daughter’s house as well, but there she was in my living room while it was happening. She was safe with me.” She said that it was a miracle. But it was also the spark for extraordinary acts of mercy and kindness that continue today as the people of Holly Springs rebuild their homes and their lives. People give mercy, people receive mercy, all based in the infinite compassion and love of God.
Fr. John noted that in times of challenge it is easy to get frustrated and even depressed. “But in the midst of that, to have an awareness of something stronger than us is a gift,” he said.
Mercy in the life of Fr. Dehon
From the experience of mercy in our own lives Fr. John spoke of the lived experience of mercy in the life of the founder, Fr. Leo John Dehon. He noted the founder’s first assignment as the seventh assistant priest in a large parish in industrial France. Seeing the challenges that people faced he was called by mercy to get out of the church sacristy and respond to their needs. Dangerous working conditions, child labor, poor compensation and work weeks that sometimes did not factor in even a single day of rest were typical of the time.
For Fr. Dehon, the answer to these concerns was found in the love of the Sacred Heart. The modern world needed an infusion of God’s love, God’s mercy. Bringing the reign of the Sacred Heart, Fr. Dehon realized, meant taking on the struggle of social justice.
The founder looked at the world through the eyes of the love of Christ. From that, he was compelled to seek social justice, to seek mercy. He was compelled to walk outside of the church and go to the people. He was compelled to introduce the force of God’s love into the economy.
At about the same time that Fr. Dehon was beginning to take action on this vision of God’s love in society –– working with business leaders to create better conditions for laborers, developing housing and education opportunities, and challenging political and social leaders –– Pope Leo XIII came out with his encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” It articulated much of what Fr. Dehon was struggling to infuse into Church and society. Pope Leo spoke of the mutual relationship of labor and capital, as well as the government and its citizens. The encyclical is considered the foundational text of Catholic social teaching.
Fr. John also cited Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” that called for charity in action, arguing that love and truth are essential elements to the response of the global economy.
Social justice is not just colored by what a person or organization does, but by the generosity in which it is done. “Our work must reflect the surplus of God’s love,” said Fr. John.
In closing, Fr. John challenged SHSM staff to reflect on how mercy can enter more abundantly into their work. “What would change? What would you change?”