Inspired by the social mission of the Church

In the January 8 edition of Dehonian Spirituality, Fr. Jan de Jong writes about how he was inspired by Fr. Dehon’s call to social justice, rooted in the love of the Sacred Heart. Dehonian Spirituality is a weekly e-publication produced by the Dehonian Associates Office of the US Province.

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Fr. Jan writes…

Fr. Jan de Jong
Fr. Jan de Jong

It was at a young age of 12 that I became involved with the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. My uncle had been ordained a priest in 1946 and the following year he became a missionary in Argentina. He inspired me to join the SCJs as well, because I witnessed his enthusiasm and zeal to dedicate his life to the poor in a far missionary country.

Personally I began to learn about Fr. Dehon and his vision in the spring of 1950 when I arrived as a twelve-year-old seminarian in Bergen op Zoom in the southern Catholic part of the Netherlands. It was a traditional minor seminary where we were trained in the classic languages of Greek and Latin; the modern languages of French, English and German; national and international history; geography; and math, geometry, and physics.

There was a heavy emphasis on Sacred Heart devotion. SCJ missionaries on vacation in Holland would tell us fascinating stories about their lives and work in South America, Congo, Indonesia, and even Canada. In response to their appeals we had a mission club that collected stamps and other materials for the missions. Another club, the Dehon Club, studied the life of Fr. Dehon and the development of Sacred Heart devotion in different countries where the SCJ Congregation was established.

In the major seminary years we had the opportunity to be involved in social works sponsored by the Priests of the Sacred Heart. In the inner cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Schiedam, and Delft we had centers of pastoral and social outreach to the poor and social minorities. Our eyes were opened to the needs of real people. From 1959 till 1961 some of us scholastics spent two years as assistant group leaders in our boys’ home, owned and run by Dutch SCJs. It was an apostolate run mainly by SCJ Brothers. For me, these two years were an eye opener to be confronted with the needs of young people, who because of poor social situations needed to be educated in a reform school.

Fr. Jan (right) with Fr. Francois in Congo
Fr. Jan (right) with Fr. Francois in Congo

I came to the USA in 1969 to teach moral theology at the SCJ seminary in Hales Corners. A few weeks after my arrival in Hales Corners I found myself, together with a group of SCJs, marching in downtown Milwaukee in support of Fr. Groppi’s movement for integrated housing. Not that I at that time fully comprehended what the march was all about. But I was confronted with the sharp contrast between the races in this land of freedom and liberty.

I served on the first social justice committee for the US Province under the leadership of Fr. John Klingler. I recall our first meeting in the parish where Fr. John was pastor in the middle of an African-American neighborhood in St. Louis. I was very happy that the US Province committed itself to the cause of social justice. This characteristic continues to our present day.

For example, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, where I ministered for a number of years as a moral theologian and later as rector, has become a seminary that is nationally known to its sponsors for its emphasis on and commitment to the social message of the Gospel and the Church. The seminary’s committee for social justice offers creative programs for staff and students: an annual social justice retreat in downtown Milwaukee, a monthly speakers’ luncheon on social programs in the Milwaukee area, First Friday collections for a social project, and Dehon Lectures on a social question. I believe that this unique characteristic of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology fits well with the social charism of Fr. Dehon.

I firmly believe that we are true followers of the Founder who was passionate for social justice. Being a young priest and the seventh curate in San Quentin, in northern France, Fr. Dehon’s heart was deeply touched by the plight of the laborers’ poor conditions, caused by the industrial revolution. He became the mouthpiece of the social teaching of Leo XIII. Dehon’s nine impressive lectures on Christian Social Renewal demonstrate his competency in the social teaching of the Church at that time.

Today we have a Pope who has published the latest social encyclical on the topic of climate change and the environment, entitled Laudato Si, which sets the agenda for the social action of the Church for the twenty-first century. Throughout my 58 years as a member of the Congregation, both in Holland and in the United States, I have been challenged to see working for social justice as an intrinsic part of SCJ spirituality, inspired by the example of Fr. Dehon. I am grateful for this gift.

Questions for reflection

Promoting the social mission of the Church as an antidote to society’s ills, Fr. Dehon believed that “the remedy is in our hands.” To what pressing, contemporary issue can you commit yourself?

What will keep you informed about this issue? How can you share with others what you learn about this issue? What organization can you join so that your voice has the greatest impact?

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