Pope Francis speaks during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 3 CNS photo/Alessandro Di Meo, EPA

Pope urges balanced look at Dehonian founder, accused of anti-Semitism

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • June 6, 2015

VATICAN CITY - Fr. Leon Dehon, founder of the Sacred Heart of Jesus religious order, had prayed to God for humility, Pope Francis said; God granted his prayer posthumously by allowing his beatification to be blocked amid claims of anti-Semitism.

Members of the religious order, commonly known as the Dehonians, met Pope Francis at the Vatican June 5, the day before formally closing their general chapter meeting, which began May 18.

Pope Francis prepared what he described as "a beautiful speech" for the priests — a speech that did not mention problems with Fr. Dehon's beatification — but "speeches are boring," he said, so he spoke off the cuff.

Fr. Dehon, a Frenchman who lived 1843-1925, had been scheduled to be beatified April 24, 2005, but the ceremony was postponed because St. John Paul II had died just three weeks earlier. When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, he halted the beatification and set up a commission to conduct further studies into Fr. Dehon's writings because of concern, including on the part of French bishops, about the priest's anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Soon after, the order's respected Italian magazine, Il Regno, published an editorial calling for deeper study and "a full understanding" of Fr. Dehon. The magazine acknowledged that Fr. Dehon's writings at times reflected the "widespread prejudices of the Catholic Church of the 19th century" regarding Jews. But it said those positions "find no echo" in the bulk of his writings, his actions or in the founding documents of the Sacred Heart congregation.

Pope Francis spoke about the Dehonians' call to humility, mercy and outreach.

"Reach out just like — if I can say this — the almost-Blessed Dehon," Pope Francis told the priests, who laughed.

The founder's cause, the Pope said, "is a problem of hermeneutics. One must study a historical situation with the hermeneutics of that time, not with today's," interpreting writings from the past according to what is known and considered acceptable today.

"He had asked for the grace of humiliation and God gave it to him after his death," the Pope said.

"I hope this beatification process ends well," he told the priests.

Pope Francis said that one thing that always struck him about Fr. Dehon was how he urged his priests to pray before the Blessed Sacrament every day and to ask God for the unity of the Church.

"Someone might say, 'but Father, there's so much work to do, it would be a waste of time' ” to devote oneself to eucharistic adoration, the Pope said, but "it is a good waste of time."

The Pope also told stories about his Dehonian friend, Bishop Virginio Bressanelli of Neuquen, Argentina. When the future bishop was novice master and the future Pope was the Jesuit rector of the San Miguel philosophy and theology faculty, he said, his friend said he would rather hide than be a delegate to the Dehonian general chapter. In 1991, he was elected superior general of the order and served for 12 years.

"Poor Virginio, he didn't want it," the Pope said.

"Then he came back and worked with young people and the novices," the Pope said. "One day they told him the nuncio called and he said, 'Tell him I'm not here,' and once again, he hid. In the end, the nuncio called me trying to find him. 'You know where he is.' I knew and I said, 'I don't know. I'll look for him.' Then I told Virginio, 'Call the nuncio,' and he said, 'I don't want to.' He ended up a bishop and vice president of the bishops' conference. He's good!"

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