by Sr. Constance Veit, l.s.p.
During this Year of Mercy Pope Francis has encouraged us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy with new enthusiasm. A member of my community recently noted how blessed we are as Little Sisters of the Poor to have multiple opportunities each day to practice mercy — serving meals to the elderly, bathing and dressing those who need assistance, comforting those who are sad or lonely, keeping vigil with the elderly who are dying and accompanying them all the way to the grave.
Saint Jeanne Jugan, who brought our Congregation to birth when she offered her home and her heart to a homeless elderly woman, is our inspiration and example in the practice of mercy. Each time I enter our chapel I pass an icon of our foundress with two elderly residents; this image reminds me of her kindness and compassion toward the poor. Inside the chapel there is another image, a statue depicting Jeanne Jugan sitting alone in a posture of prayer. This image reminds me of how she practiced the spiritual works of mercy in a profound way, especially when she was deprived of her role as foundress and forced into the shadows.
Although Jeanne had been legitimately elected superior by her companions, in 1843 she was removed from office by a priest who served as the community’s advisor. She was recalled to the motherhouse in 1852 and spent twenty-seven long years there in forced retirement, enduring an obscurity so extreme that the young members of her congregation eventually had no idea that she was the foundress. Although she was no longer able to participate directly in our mission of hospitality, Jeanne continued to practice mercy in two remarkable ways.
First, she played a unique role at our motherhouse, even as she grew increasingly frail in her old age. Among the young novices Jeanne practiced the spiritual works of mercy by instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and fervently praying for others. As she gave them moral support, practical advice and spiritual counsel they felt loved by her, and in return, loved her as a mother. Several Little Sisters ultimately attributed their perseverance to her.
Many of the young Sisters who knew Jeanne Jugan admired her spirit of faith and her profound humility, but the most striking example she gave them was the way she bore wrongs patiently and willingly forgave those who treated her unjustly. Placed in a similar situation, most of us would fight back, considering it a matter of justice to reclaim our rightful place, or at least to let others know about the wrongs committed against us. But in the case of Saint Jeanne Jugan, there is not a single recorded instance of her trying to set the record straight or assert her legitimate authority. Among the numerous testimonies collected in view of her canonization there is just one incident in which she told the priest responsible for her deposition, “You have stolen my work — but I give it to you willingly!”
Such was Saint Jeanne Jugan’s practice of the spiritual works of mercy. Her humility and long-suffering were truly heroic — the stuff of saints! What was the secret to her sanctity? Jeanne found consolation and courage in the merciful heart of Jesus, gentle and humble of heart. She saw her life as a continuation of his and, out of love for him, tried to incarnate his merciful love for the poor. Inspired by her love for Christ, she also bore her share of his cross joyfully until death.
As I write this reflection we are preparing for our annual celebration of Saint Jeanne Jugan’s feast day on August 30. During this month I invite you to visit our website to learn more about our foundress (http://www.littlesistersofthepoor.org), and to confide your needs and intentions to her by submitting a prayer request — especially if you feel burdened by any type of misunderstanding or injustice. Saint Jeanne Jugan will understand your anguish and help you to follow the way of the cross with courage, patiently bearing with wrongs and forgiving those who cause you suffering. She walked the talk all the way to sainthood and can help lead you there too!