Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota these days. Actually, Woodbury, a suburb of St. Paul. I'm giving an 8 day retreat based on the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius to a group of 12 Sisters who are members of an international congregation called the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver. Each day I give three half hour talks, meet with individual Sisters over a 4 to 5 hour period, celebrate Mass, and participate in a nightly holy hour. It's like being on retreat myself. I always find that in preaching the "Spiritual Exercises" the various reflections, especially on the life of Jesus, become deeper for me.

It's always a blessing for me to meet groups of consecrated persons whom I've never met or known and to find out more about their founders and their charism. The Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver were founded in 1894 by Blessed Mary Theresa Ledochowska (1863-1922). She came from a prominent Polish family, the niece of a brave archbishop who opposed the unjust laws of the German Chancellor Bismarck, who was detained for three years as a result and, when freed, went to Rome where he became the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, the Vatican office that organized the Church's missionary work.

Mary Theresa heard stories of cruelty and slavery in Africa and was particularly moved by a speech by Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the Missionaries of Africa (the "White Fathers"), who was traveling around Europe denouncing slavery. Here is part of it:

"Christian women of Europe! It is up to you to make these abominations known everywhere and to stir up against them the indignation of all civilized people. Do not leave your husbands, brothers and fathers in peace until they have used their authority, their eloquence and their goods to prevent further bloodshed. If God has given you a writer's talent, put it at the service of this cause: you will find none holier. Do not forget that it was a woman's book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, translated now into all languages, that helped bring about the emancipation of slaves in America."

Galvanized by these words, Mary Theresa set to work doing everything she could to bring an end to slavery in Africa and to help the missionaries there. She wrote a play called Zaida, after its heroine, which became a box office success. It was the beginning of her vocation. She wrote to her uncle, Cardinal Ledochowski, in 1889, asking him to find out if the Pope would support her efforts to end slavery by founding a new religious congregation named after the Jesuit saint who called himself "the slave of the slaves forever." He wrote back:

"My dear niece, I hasten to reply to your letter ... in order to dispel any doubts or uncertainty you may have concerning Cardinal Lavigerie's work against slavery, which has the full backing of the Holy Father. Could you imagine any work more worthy of interest or support? ... Do not be afraid then, dear niece, that you could possibly be taking a false step in joining, with so many others, the struggle against the slave trade, especially among the blacks."

With this encouragement, she began her life work of working and praying for the missions, especially in Africa. Her desire was not to go to the missions herself but rather, with the help of other Sisters, to publicize the situation and work of the missionaries and to collect funds to help them. She thought of herself and her congregation as the hidden root that fed the tree which bore the fruit. Everyone could see the tree and its fruit, but these were only possible because of the hidden life that came from the Sisters' prayers, sacrifices, and work to raise funds for the missions. It's a work that continues today through this small congregation of less than 300 Sisters and their magazine Echo (from Africa and other continents).

In her Easter letter of 1916, Blessed Mary Theresa Ledochowska, who was beatified in 1975, wrote about the joy of offering up all in order to bring souls to God:

"I wish you all the riches of peace and the joy of Easter and thinking especially of the beautiful Feast of Easter which, we hope, we will celebrate one day, all united in heaven, united also to the many souls which we will have the grace to save for Heaven by means of our work."

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