By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Last week, we reflected on the newly canonized Saint Damien of Molokai and his heroic charity towards those afflicted with leprosy. This week, we reflect upon Saint Jeanne Jugan, who was also recently canonized by Pope Benedict, and her heroic charity towards the elderly poor.
The need for heroes
It seems that it would be correct to say that human nature craves heroes. We see examples of this all around us, throughout history and in our own lives. The infant who seems to have a special reaction to the smile or voice of a particular adult, often becomes the young person enthralled by a sports or rock star and, later, the adult with a particular attachment to a political figure and his or her ideas of government.
Nations and ethnic groups have their own heroes and history is filled with examples of people following their leaders through every adversity because of their confidence in their leadership. We might say that heroes, especially national ones, can sometimes bring up three results: They can unite a people; instill pride; and inspire a people to go forward, even in adversity. There are certainly many examples throughout history of people making fine choices in their national heroes and also, unfortunately, examples of tragic choices of heroes who led their people to untold misery. The recently completed twentieth century unfortunately contains several examples of those bad choices.
However, the Church our loving Mother also recognizes our need for heroes. She helps us with the wisdom and calm judgment of a mother in our choice of heroes who will be of genuine benefit to us and lift us to higher things. In the glorious army of the saints, which is constantly being renewed with additional members, the Church not only helps to fulfill our need for heroes but she does so in such a way that will lead to our salvation. When she adds new saints to her list of those who are publicly acknowledged to have lived heroic lives according to the Gospel, she gives us new courage to go forward in our effort to lead lives after the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel.
A life of Christian charity toward the most forgotten
Last week, when writing about Father Damien of Molokai, I wrote of a basic principle that we all know, which is that genuine prayer always results in charity towards our neighbor. In the life of her whom we also know by her religious name of Saint Mary of the Cross, Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) we are given yet another example of this basic principle of the Christian life.
Jeanne and two companions had rented rooms together in order to share their thoughts of God and help one another in their prayer lives. One evening, Jeanne came across a poor, blind old woman who had no one to care for her. She carried the woman up the stairs to her rented room and gave up her own bed to her. She soon took in another elderly woman who had nowhere to go. She and her companions entrusted their spiritual progress and their desire for lives of charity to a zealous young priest, who shared their desire to help the elderly poor and gave them every encouragement.
The women soon moved to a house down the street from their original rooms, so that they could take in more needy elderly women. In order to support these poor women, Jeanne took to begging. Even the tough, hard-working men who worked on the docks in her native town responded to Sister Mary’s begging.
It is interesting to note in Jeanne’s life a characteristic which priests and Religious Sisters have related to me over the years. It is the fact that very often somewhat rough, street-wise men, whose lives need some reform are often softened at the sight of a Religious Sister. The hard exterior of these men seems to yield before the generous heart of the consecrated Religious and they often delight in helping the Sisters in their work, showing them every mark of respect.
How beautiful this opportunity is! It is a way for God to see the good intentions of those who may not always lead blameless lives but who have not allowed the flame of charity to be extinguished within them. How many graces and conversions take place in these situations!
The founding of the Little Sisters of the Poor
As more women came to join in the work begun by Jeanne Jugan, they desired to unite themselves in a Religious Congregation. On December 8, 1842, with the first promises made by Jeanne and her first companions, the Little Sisters of the Poor came into existence. It was soon tested by a trial that is so often found in the lives of the founders and foundresses of Religious Congregations. It seems that the priest who had first encouraged the Sisters in their work gradually put himself forward as being the founder of the work.
Jeanne, now known as Sister Mary of the Cross, was deprived of her office as Superior General and assigned to live a life of quiet prayer and penance at the mother house. As with the lives of other founders, such as Saint Alphonsus Liguori of the Redemptorists, these crosses and misunderstandings turned out to be fruitful for the work of their Congregations. The obedience and suffering of the founders bore great fruit in the progress made by their communities and justice was ultimately served.
After Jeanne’s death, the Holy See learned of the deception and corrected it and the place of Founder of her Congregation was rightfully restored to her. In the meantime, as a fruit of her sufferings and union with the Cross of Jesus, hundreds of women came to join the original band of three women, so that the Little Sisters of the Poor were able to expand their work throughout the world. By the time of Jeanne Jugan’s death in 1879, the Congregation which she had founded numbered over 2,400 Sisters. They had expanded their mission throughout Europe and North America and, shortly after her death, they expanded further into South America.
“Gestures” of charity
I find it very moving that, in the history of the Little Sisters of the Poor, they refer to Jeanne Jugan’s carrying of that first poor and blind old woman up the stairs to the rooms shared by Jeanne and the two other woman as the “founding gesture” of their Congregation. In that phrase, “founding gesture,” we see the reality that this gesture was part of a continuity. It is indeed part of a continuity of “gestures” which continue to this day in the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Every day, in all their homes throughout the world, their loving care for the elderly, in whom they know they are serving Jesus Christ, is shown forth in thousands of loving, Christ-like “gestures.” How blessed we are in this Archdiocese of Philadelphia to have the presence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in our midst. Holy Family Home at 53th Street and Chester Avenue in the City of Philadelphia has been serving the elderly of our community for many, many years. I was so pleased to be able to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of Saint Jeanne Jugan in our Cathedral last week as a means of not only giving thanks to God for the great gift to the Church that Saint Jeanne Jugan is but also to give thanks to God for the presence of these Sisters in our local Church.
In anticipating the event of Jeanne Jugan’s canonization, Pope Benedict XVI said this: “This event will show once again how living faith is prodigious in good works, and how sanctity is a healing balm for the wounds of humankind.” Those wounds are ever present in our world. More than ever, the message of Jeanne Jugan that every person, including those who can do nothing for us and those who are the “least” in the sight of the world, is a creature of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and precious in His sight.
As I did last week, I once again appeal to our dear young people, who often have such generous hearts: Our world contains many who are wounded and many who are neglected because they seem to be “unproductive” in a world that values earthly success and power. Jesus is constantly looking for generous hearts who will help Him in his work. It is part of the spanine plan that God uses imperfect men and women to carry out His work. When we do His work, and do it with the holiness of the saints, we spread the healing balm of Jesus to a broken world.
5 November 2009