Twelve years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI canonized Jeanne Jugan about whom he said:
By her admirable work at the service of the most deprived elderly, St Mary of the Cross is also like a beacon to guide our societies which must always rediscover the place and the unique contribution of this period of life. Born in 1792 at Cancale in Brittany, Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters in humanity whom age had made more vulnerable, recognizing in them the Person of Christ himself. “Look upon the poor with compassion”, she would say, “and Jesus will look kindly upon you on your last day”. Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor. Jeanne lived the mystery of love, peacefully accepting obscurity and self-emptying until her death. Her charism is ever timely while so many elderly people are suffering from numerous forms of poverty and solitude and are sometimes also abandoned by their families. In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life. This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!
Recently a friend of mine said something to me that was an epiphany. She reflected, “I don’t know anything about suffering being redemptive without others’ suffering being open to me.”
This immediately struck a chord and resonated within me profoundly.
Sometimes we need a friend to speak the truths we’ve known all along with the credibility of living witness.
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI explains the way in which suffering that is shared becomes transformed:
Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude.
Something else that comes to mind in thinking about this is the line from the Anima Christi prayer which says: “Within your wounds hide me.”
What is it to be hidden within another’s wounds?
How can a loved one’s wounds actually be a shelter for us?
Have we considered the ways in which a wound creates the actual space for greater openness and depth?
Without attempting to justify any evil, hurt, or injustice, how can revealing our woundedness to others create the hospitality in us for others in their woundedness such that “suffering is penetrated by the light of love”?
Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.
During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?
Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”
This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.”
Today is the death anniversary and feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha – an indigenous Catholic who was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother.
During the homily announcing her canonization in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Kateri impresses us by the action of grace in her life in spite of the absence of external help and by the courage of her vocation, so unusual in her culture. In her, faith and culture enrich each other! May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
In honour of the occasion, I discussed the life, death, and legacy of St. Kateri with my good friend Maria Lucas who is herself an indigenous Catholic.
Check out our discussion about St. Kateri’s virtues, her willingness to chart her own course in obedience to God’s will, the ways she navigated her indigenous Catholic identity, and how she died with tremendous faith and peace at age 24.
Photo: Statue of St. Kateri at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (2017)
Jozef De Veuster was a Belgian Catholic who asked God to be sent on a mission.
Having done his formation for the priesthood in Belgium, he was then sent to Honolulu and was ordained two months later.
He took the name Damien and began his priestly ministry in the Hawaiian Islands.
During Fr. Damien’s time, there was a public health crisis. Mortality rates were high due to infectious diseases for which there was no herd immunity. Chinese workers were suspected of having brought the disease to the islands. The outbreak was not well understood and experts were unsure as to how it spread, whether it could be cured, and whether transmission could be stopped. The government passed mandatory quarantine legislation, even sending some people to isolate in remote locations. The officials insisted that these were not prisons, but there was certainly not enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses. Some experts thought the lepers would be better off dead. One health official conjectured, “It would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”