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1AG - Then and now: looking back at the 1st General Chapter

Minutes cropped

Minutes of the 1st General Chapter; pictured below is the image of the Sacred Heart on the front of the College of St. Jean in San Quentin today.


The first General Chapter of the Priests of the Sacred Heart took place in 1886 in San Quentin, France. The number of delegates, including Fr. Leo John Dehon, was eight.

It is interesting from today’s perspective to look back at what preoccupied the members of the first chapter. The issues were much more down to earth: when and how do we pray as a community? What virtues ought to characterize members?

St Jean Heart of JesusThen as now, one of the primary tasks of the chapter was to elect a general administration. But is there a choice if the founder of the congregation is still alive? Fr. Dehon was quickly elected to continue as superior general. A two-member council was elected to assist him. Fr. Prevot, who only the previous year had made his first vows – after a four-month novitiate – was affirmed as the first novice master. Fr. Dehon named him to this position shortly before the chapter –– only a month after Fr. Prevot professed his own vows! He remained as novice master until 1907.

Delegates set educational standards in philosophy and theology for those pursing ordination. For those already ordained, a yearly test was to be developed ensure that what they learned in formation wasn’t forgotten.

On the last day of the chapter plans were begun for the creation of an apostolic school in Sittard (Netherlands).

Fr. Dehon closed the first chapter with a few reflections on oblation. Accepting the pain and suffering of life as an act of oblation (immolation and reparation) was a significant part of the spirituality of the young community. However, Fr. Dehon encouraged his confreres not to seek suffering for its own sake.

At this first chapter Fr. Dehon was beginning to formulate the thoughts behind his well-known quote that priests should “get out of the sacristies and go to the people!”
He told those early members of the community to offer themselves, but also to be useful and active members of the society in which they lived.


Two years later…

General chapters are now held every six years, but in the early days of the congregation there was no set schedule. The second general chapter took place in 1888, only two years after the first.

Once again in St. Quentin, there were only six delegates. They began with a retreat before settling into the business of the congregation.

Dehon color paintingFr. Dehon raised four topics: 1) the term of the superior general (he did not feel comfortable with his automatic reappointment as superior general so he asked, “Should it be for a set period of time or for life?”), 2) the term of the novice master (should he be elected for one or five years?), 3) how far should the vow of obedience go? and 4) a review of the vow of immolation.

The administration of the congregation expanded at this chapter. A general procurator was elected and the council was expanded to three with one of the three being named vice general.

Although Fr. Dehon’s preference was that the term of superior general be a limited, elected one, the chapter unanimously voted to keep it as a life term. As for the novice master, it was noted that if he is doing well the novice master could be renewed in his position indefinitely. However, because the role of novice master is so vital to the congregation, delegates voted to limit the term to a year at a time.

Unlike now, where delegates push an electronic button to cast their vote, delegates at the 1888 chapter simply raised their hands.

Regarding the vow of obedience, it was noted that only a major superior or the superior general could give an order under religious obedience. However, religious should be encouraged to meet the requests of their superiors (while at the same time superiors should be mindful of the pastoral role of leadership). 

As to the topic of immolation, the delegates echoed the words of the founder at the close of the first chapter. The profession of immolation asks members of the community to accept without complaint the trials that one encounters in life, but not to seek suffering for the sake of suffering.

These first two chapters were vital building stones in the foundation of the congregation.

Now, 129 years after that first chapter, the Priests of the Sacred Heart hold their 23rd.

The 2015 General Chapter runs from May 17 – June 6. Since the tradition of a “term for life” was eventually changed, one of the primary tasks of the chapter will be to elect a new general administration. Fr. José Ornelas Carvalho concludes his second (and final) six-year term this year.

Reports, photos and videos from the chapter will be linked to the Dehonians Worldwide Facebook page. Check it often!