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By Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p.
No politician was Saint Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. But she lived in politically charged times not unlike our own.
Born during the French Revolution, she witnessed the violent suppression of organized religion in the name of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” She also saw the weakest and most vulnerable left behind in the wake of a rapidly evolving society.
As we prepare to celebrate her feast day on August 30, Saint Jeanne Jugan reminds us of two Catholic principles which we would do well to apply to the great social and political questions of our own day – the dignity of the human person and the value of solidarity.
Jeanne Jugan saw the divine image in each person she encountered, especially the poorest and most forsaken. “Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone … Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.” Jeanne Jugan lived these words long before they were written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For her, the poor and forsaken were suffering members of Jesus Christ who deserved special care and attention.
The first homes of the Little Sisters of the Poor welcomed the elderly from the margins of society; many had been beggars. Jeanne and her companions gave them the place of honor in their home. They treated them with compassion and respect and helped them to rediscover their dignity as children of a loving and provident God. In some cases the local townspeople no longer recognized them!
Jeanne also possessed a prophetic vision of the solidarity of the human family. She believed that God has confided each one to the love of all. This conviction gave her the courage to set aside her pride and go out begging on behalf of the poor.
In response to a potential benefactor who asked her why she burdened herself with all those old women, Jeanne replied, “We will share them between us today, Sir, if you will be so kind. You will feed them and I shall look after them.” She always envisioned her mission of hospitality as a diverse network of persons working together to relieve the sufferings of their elderly brothers and sisters and make them happy.
Such was Saint Jeanne Jugan’s vision as foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. She believed that every person is a someone – that there are no disposable human beings – and that we are all responsible for one another.
Is there room for such convictions in our secular society? Jeanne’s compatriots have always thought so and so have many others.
In 1845 the French Academy awarded Jeanne Jugan the prestigious Montyon Prize based on her work as a humanitarian. During her canonization festivities in 2009, Prime Minister François Fillon of France suggested that Jeanne could help solve the international economic crisis. “Our contemporary world is searching for meaning and ethics,” he said. “The present crisis is not only a crisis of a financial system – it is also the mirror of our society … This crisis reveals that a certain number of values have been put in jeopardy: those of responsibility, honesty and solidarity.”
“In warning our civilization of its materialistic weaknesses, its hostile instincts, its fanaticisms” Mr. Fillon continued, “you give us a greater understanding of the human condition, its ethical duties, its fragility and its mystery.
Thank you, Saint Jeanne, for witnessing to the inviolable dignity of every human person, no matter how poor or frail, and for reminding us that each one of us truly is responsible for our brothers and sisters. Saint Jeanne Jugan, woman of prophetic intuition, advocate for the needy and neglected, pray for us!
Photo: Saint Jeanne Jugan, with her elderly poor, receives the Montyon Prize from the French Academy. Detail from an icon by George and Sergio Pinecross; photo © Willy Berré.