Today is the feast of St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious community of women founded and dedicated to care for the elderly poor.
Jeanne was born in France in 1792, amid the turmoil of the French Revolution. She was the sixth of eight children. When Jeanne was four, her father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Her mother was left to raise the children on her own – and to secretly catechize them at home, with anti-Catholic persecutions on the rise in France.
Jeanne, like all her siblings, was sent to work at a young age to keep the family afloat. She was a shepherdess, a seamstress, and then a kitchen maid in the home of a devout French noblewoman.
The noblewoman, the Viscountess de la Choue, frequently took Jeanne with her when she’d bring food and care packages to indigent families and ailing poor people. Those visits imbued in Jeanne a sense that she had a call – though she didn’t think any of the religious orders or communities she knew about were her vocation. Instead, Jeanne told her mother she was called to something not yet founded, and that God would reveal it.
She worked as a hospital nurse for six years in her 20s, with her eye open for her call from the Lord. Then she started working as a servant in the home of an older devout woman, with whom Jeanne became close.
Soon, Jeanne realized she was already living her call, or at least part of it. Jeanne and her boss had a regular life of prayer, Jeanne lived a servant’s life, identifying with Christ the servant. They were visiting the sick, and Jeanne and her boss eventually began teaching catechism classes as well.
In 1837, Jeanne and the noblewoman, Francoise Aubert, began living together as a community of prayer in a little cottage. They were joined by a 17-year-old girl named Virginie Tredaniel. They taught catechism, and they visited indigent people who were ill. Jean had a sense she had found her call - and she also suspected much more was coming from the Lord.
More came in the winter of 1839. Then Jeanne met a poor, elderly, blind, and physically handicapped woman named Anne Chauvin. Anne was homeless.
And all at once, the pieces of Providence came together. Jeanne found her call in a moment – she took Anne home, placed the woman in her own bed, nursed her sores, and gave her something to eat.
God wasn’t calling Jeanne and her companions to go out and care for the sick and the poor. He was calling Jeanne and the others to invite the elderly poor into their home, to live with them, and to help them prepare to die.
“The founding of the Little Sisters dates back to the day in 1839 when a single act of mercy was made on behalf of an old blind woman. The world changed that day,” preached Bishop James Massa not long ago.
“A community was formed out of this one small sacrifice. One great act of love, shared within a community attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, began then to attract other young women who sought to care for the elderly poor and the sick, to make of themselves what St. Paul calls … ‘living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.’”
As people came to live with them, local villages began to call Jeanne and her companions the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Little Sisters found their lives in the love of Christ in the elderly poor. They built a life of prayer, of begging for supplies, and of welcoming poor elderly people preparing to die. It was hard work, and the sisters looked to Christ on the cross for grace.
“We are grafted into the cross and we must carry it joyfully unto death,” Jeanne told her companions. She took the religious name Sister Mary of the Cross.
What began in prayer was followed by politics; as is inevitable in the Church. By 1850, Jeanne’s Little Sisters of the Poor had over 100 women, several houses, and hundreds of poor people in their community.
But by that same year, a local bishop had appointed one of his priests the superior general of the community, and – amid some disagreements, and probably some ambition on the part of the priest – he sidelined Jeanne Jugan. He removed her from leadership positions, and made her one of many community almoners, sent out each day to beg for food and supplies.
When she died 27 years later, there were homes for the indigent elderly in North America and Europe, in several countries. Thousands of elderly people were cared for in their dying days.
But by then, many of the youngest Little Sisters of the Poor had no idea that Sister Mary of the Cross was the foundress of their community. Many learned who she was only after she died.
I think St. Jeanne Jugan was probably fine with that. I think she found joy in that cross.
Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor work very hard to provide dignified, direct, hands-on, pastoral and nursing care for poor people who are preparing to die.
Sure, you probably know about them because of their landmark litigation against the federal contraceptive mandate, but I think they’d rather be known for the love they show for elderly, poor, men and women who are seen with little value by most people – and seen with inestimable valuable by those who recognize in them Jesus Christ.
But, I think because of how hard they work, not so many women are hearing the Lord call them to the Little Sisters these days. As a result, they’re closing some of the homes where they’ve lived and worked.
Given an emerging social push toward euthanasia of suffering elderly people, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to see the possibility of something on the spiritual level going on – the Little Sisters closing homes, just while the evil one spreads the pernicious lie that their indigent elderly friends have no “quality of life,” and would be better off dead.
So let’s pray today for the intercession of St. Jeanne Jugan. Let’s pray for the community of sisters who hear the call she heard. Let’s pray more women hear that call.
And let’s pray that all of us will be courageous to love people “on the peripheries” with the concrete, visceral, committed love of St. Jeanne Jugan – and that we’ll find Christ as we’re “grafted into the cross.”
St. Jeanne Jugan, pray for us!
Pope Francis on Saturday began a consistory of the College of Cardinals, elevating 20 men to the college, including the American now-Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego.
The cardinals met on Monday, and again today, in closed door meetings to discuss the state of curial reform, and its importance in the life of the Church.
Emerging from those meetings are some conflicting reports, and some consistent reports. There are cardinals who say the whole affair was rather scripted, and then cardinals who say there was a great deal of open conversation.
But whatever the atmosphere, some Italian Vaticanists are reporting – and we’re getting confirmation of this from some of our sources – that two important themes have emerged during discussion among the cardinals – a desire to have clarity about which Vatican dicasteries can be led by lay people, and a desire to have a more precise and concrete definition of “synodality” - the idea important to Pope Francis, which refers to a kind of prayerful ecclesial discernment of God’s will, through prayerful conversation.
There are a lot of cardinals, it seems, who want to know a bit more about what synodality is, and what it isn’t – especially as it’s more frequently evoked by those calling for controversial “developments” of Christian doctrine.
How will Pope Francis respond to those themes? We’ll find out.
But we did report this week that the Holy See has provided clarity on something more concrete related to the consistory – the status of Pillar reader Angelo Cardinal Becciu, who is on trial for corruption, resigned in 2020 the rights and privileges of a cardinal, and was invited last week to attend the Vatican’s weekend consistory celebrations.
There have been a lot of questions about what that invitation meant, and what it would portend for his trial – whether Pope Francis was trying to signal to the courts his favor towards Becciu, especially before Becciu offers more testimony about high-level Vatican dealings.
Well, if there was a signal, it was partial, at best. We reported yesterday that in the Holy See’s newly released statistical overview of the College of Cardinals, Becciu was listed as a “non-elector” - indicating that he is the only cardinal under 80 ineligible to participate in the election for the next Bishop of Rome.
You can read about that right here.
Becciu’s status is not the only thing the Holy See is clarifying in recent days.
There is the question of why Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for Life, went on Italian TV Friday and said that a law permitting abortion is a “pillar” of Italian society. I’ll have an entire analysis for you on that later today – I wanted to have it by the time of the newsletter, but I had a very, very, very busy weekend, which bled into Monday, and, well, I didn’t get the homework done on time.
But there was also this morning a Vatican effort to clarify what Pope Francis thinks about the war in Ukraine.
Since Russia began in February its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis has taken a lot of flack among Ukrainians for seeming to “both-sides” the conflict – for making a series of moves that some said equated the two sides - invaders and invaded - in a general plea for peace and condemnation of the war.
Francis is taking the same flack on Nicaragua, where even one bishop has said that the pope’s call for “dialogue” was inappropriate while the Church is persecuted by a dictator.
But with Ukraine, the criticism has gotten especially intense, such that the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See asked last week whether Francis could tell the difference between rapist and rape-victim. His words, not mine.
So the Vatican released a communique this morning which said it wanted to clarify the pope’s interventions in light of “public discussion.”
Tuesday’s text was unambiguous:
“As for the large-scale war in Ukraine, initiated by the Russian Federation, the Holy Father Francis’ interventions are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant, and sacrilegious.”
The directness of that statement is striking; the Holy See has until now been more circumspect. But the most striking part is the word “sacrilegious.”
Reader, there is no way to take the charge of “sacrilege” but as a direct criticism of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a supporter of President Vladimir Putin, towards whom Francis has spent months making ecumenical overtures.
Francis had been planning to meet with Kirill next month at a kind of interreligious summit in Kazakhstan. Last week, Kirill announced he wasn’t going to the meeting. It seems Francis and his State department have had enough – the gauntlet, it seems, has come off.
So what comes next?
We’ll find out. But the Vatican’s “mic drop” moment this morning is sure to prompt reaction in Kyiv, and in Moscow.
Read what’s happened already, right here.
Speaking of synodality (we were speaking of it, just a couple of paragraphs ago), the USCCB’s “national synthesis document” for the first stage of the Church’s synod on synodality is due to the Vatican on Wednesday.
We interviewed last week the USCCB’s organizers for the synod on synodality, who told us that there is much “more to be done” in the U.S. to accomplish the goals of the global synodality synod.
We asked the conference about themes emerging from the consultation, about low participation rates, about concerns that synod participants lacked diversity, and about what comes next.
Well, if you want to understand what the conference thinks about all of this – and the prospect for ongoing calls toward synodality in the U.S., don’t miss this interview.
It’s elucidating, I promise you that.
Also - if you want to know whether your diocese has published its synod on synodality report, check out our database
Ninety four of 176 Latin Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have made public their reports thus far. Is yours one of them?
Finally, I want to commend to you two interviews with bishops published by The Pillar in recent days.
The first is a conversation with Bishop Julius Yakubu Kundi of Kafanchan, Nigeria.
The Kafanchan diocese has seen six priests kidnapped in the eight months of 2022.
Six priests. Kidnapped. In eight months.
And that’s not all.
In July, a Kafanchan priest named Fr. John Mark Cheitnum was killed by the Islamist terrorists who kidnapped them. As they fled his rectory, they decided he was running too slow, so they shot him, and left his body to rot in a field.
So what does the bishop of a place like that think? How does he care for his people?
Here’s Bishop Kundi:
We are facing a situation that could best be described as a state of near-anarchy.
Our situation leaves vulnerable people, especially women and children and those without any form of protection, to the mercy of God. For more than 5 years now, we have witnessed a deliberate and calculated attempt at wiping out and displacing major indigenous ethnic groups in the northern part of Nigeria. Thousands of our innocent people, in several states but especially in southern Kaduna, are being massacred without any provocation by the well-known Fulani terrorists, under the watch of a democratically elected government, sworn in to protect the lives of all citizens.
An honest assessment of the security situation in Kaduna, therefore, is that life for us has suddenly become short, brutish, and difficult. Our joy is stolen; our esteem wounded.
Certainly, we need an international response to help us cope with the victims directly affected by the pogrom against the persecuted Christians and other innocent victims of the ongoing terrorism in Nigeria. Our land is drenched with so much innocent blood. We need help, wherever it may come from to stop it.
We also call for prayers, for God to take us out of this mess which the politicians have put us into due to their greed, for we have come to the understanding also that the security situation with us has been politicized.
We also continue to preach peace to all peace-loving citizens of this country and keep strengthening our parishioners to remain strong and shun any attempt to get involved in anything evil and contrary to the Gospel values.
Guys, Bishop Kundi said he wants the world to know about a genocide of Christians in his country. And we should know about it. We shouldn’t look away.
So read what Bishop Kundi has to say.
And then join me in praying fervently for the people of Nigeria.
The second interview is with the most interesting bishop I’d never before heard of – the Trappist brewmaster and contemplative of Norway, Bishop Erik Varden.
Bishop Varden talked with Luke Coppen last week about prayer, brewing beer, the Church in Norway, and the sacred liturgy.
The man has a broad reach – he had really insightful things to say on a lot of important topics.
In fact, I’m reticent to give you an excerpt, because I don’t want to suggest the interview is just about the one thing I choose. It’s really a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation with a prayerful thinker.
But if I have to excerpt one part to get you to read it, here’s this:
What is prayer?It’s the lifting up of the heart, to cite that phrase from the dialogue before the Preface of Mass. It is an opening of my being to the reality of God and an engagement of my being with God’s being in a kind of dialogue, which is sometimes an explicit dialogue and sometimes very implicit and mysterious.
I sometimes think that we overcomplicate prayer. I’m sure you’re familiar with the writings of Anthony Bloom. There’s a marvelous story when he goes to an old people’s home and he encounters this old lady who is in a great spiritual crisis because she says she recites the Jesus Prayer day and night and yet she is in this state of spiritual desert.
Metropolitan Anthony listens to all this and says: “May I give you a piece of advice?” And she says: “Of course.” Then he says: “I want you to act on this advice.” And she says: “Yes, of course.” And he says: “From now on, I ask you to spend half an hour a day not saying any prayers, but simply sitting in your chair and knitting in the face of God.”
It totally revolutionized this woman’s spiritual life.
Sometimes, if we could learn just to shut up, and to open ourselves attentively, much of what we think of as our great spiritual crisis might actually be resolved.
As I say, that’s just one section. If you’re interested in liturgy, religious life, the spiritual life, the Church’s renewal, or – well, any of the things Pillar readers tend to be interested in, read this.
It should be clear to you that the summer slowdown has come to an end, and there’s a LOT of news to cover in the life of the Church. Stay tuned this week for reports on the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Order of Malta, and a lot more.
And to wish you a good day, here’s a little slice of the Flynn family’s domestic bliss:
Before we were married, Mrs. Flynn was a regular volunteer at a Little Sisters of the Poor home in Chicago, and thought very seriously that she had a vocation to their religious life.
Providence unfolds in surprising ways for each person, of course.
Mrs. Flynn discerned eventually that she was called, rather than to that religious life, to the cross (and grace) of becoming my wife. I’m very glad she discerned that — Mrs. Flynn is a saint, and I love being married to her.
But I mentioned this morning, as we talked about Jeanne Jugan, that there’s something funny about my wife’s vocation. While she didn’t join the Little Sisters of the Poor, God called us to adopt children, and in that call, Mrs. Flynn opened our home to disabled people - our children - who are in need of regular and full-time care and love, as are the residents of the Little Sisters.
“We kind of ended up with a Jeanne Jugan vocation of a different type,” I pointed out over coffee. “Except you didn’t get the habit.”
“Yeah, that habit,” Mrs. Flynn said wistfully as she went to get more coffee.
Then she kind of sized me up. I think she might have been assessing my overall health and fitness. And I don’t know how I fared.
“Maybe someday,” she said. “It’s not too late.”
Please pray for us, and be assured of our prayers for you.
Yours in Christ,