Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the Feast of St. Jeanne Jugan

August 30 was the feast of St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. I celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s Home in Palatine, IL. My homily was based on these special readings: Isaiah 58: 6-11; 1 John 3: 14-18; and Matthew 5: 1-12a.

We are celebrating a great saint today—Jeanne Jugan. Of course she would shudder at those words. She aspired not to be great but to be little.  She once said: “Be little, little, little; if you get big and proud, the congregation will fall.” And another time, “Only the little are pleasing to God.”

Why? Because this is God’s way. How did God choose to save the world? Not with worldly power and glory. Not with an army of angels that would force people to follow God’s way. God saved the world by becoming little—a little baby.

In his homily at Midnight Mass on Christmas 2008, Pope Benedict said that our first experience of God is one of distance. God seems so far above and beyond us. This transcendent God drew near, bridging the distance by becoming one of us. Pope Benedict went on to say that our experience of God is also one of glory and grandeur which provoke fear in us. So God became a tiny baby in order that we would no longer fear but love, for people love tiny, newborn babies. 

St. Paul wrote that the Son of God became poor in order to make us rich. He emptied himself and became little and in need of love and care. He shared our life with its sorrows and joys, its sufferings, both physical and spiritual when he felt totally abandoned as he hung dying on a cross. He shared in death itself.

The cross looks like a failure, but God’s ways are not ours. The failure of the cross is really a triumph in which the power of love wins over sin and death. 

“Love.” That word is used in so many different ways that it has lost its meaning. We talk about loving our pets and ice cream. We love whatever and whomever makes us feel good, gives us pleasure. It’s all about “me” and how I am feeling.

In our second reading St. John says that love is not about feelings and not about words, but about deeds and action.

This is why “hospitality” is such an important word. Hospitality is love in action.

It begins in hearts—hearts open to others, to all, especially the poor and the sick, the neglected and rejected of what Pope Francis calls our “disposable culture.”  We must open our hearts to them just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is open to them.

This is what Jeanne Jugan did. Her heart was open to the elderly poor. She felt their need.  She had compassion and suffered for their sufferings.  And she responded. She not only opened her house to them; she gave up her own bed to that first poor blind woman that she carried into her home. 

This spirit of hospitality lives on today in the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their Constitutions state: “Consecrated hospitality is, in the midst of the world, a witness to the mercy of the Father and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus.”

Hospitality means opening our hearts, our doors, our wallets.  But ultimately the greatest hospitality is sharing the life of the other. Jeanne Jugan shared in the poverty of the poor, becoming a beggar for the beggars.  Her complete trust in Providence, not having endowments or investment income, continues today as the Little Sisters depend upon the generosity of others.

In his Lenten Message this year, Pope Francis said that Christ did not love us like someone who gives a little out of his or her abundance. He gave all and sacrificed his very self.

So did St. Jeanne Jugan who wanted to be known by her religious name Sister Mary of the Cross. She shared in the sufferings of the Crucified One as did His Mother who stood under the cross and suffered as only a mother could watching her son suffer and die. Mary joined her sufferings to those of Jesus for the salvation of the world. St. Jeanne also offered herself and sacrificed what was most dear to her, her own congregation. It was taken from her when she was relieved of any leadership position and lived a hidden life in the novitiate where the young did not even know who she was.

She was able to do this because she had become little. She had become the last and least. She found her strength and consolation in one place—in Jesus, who assured her that blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who suffer persecution.

When he canonized her in 2009, Pope Benedict said: “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.”

He went on to say: “This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of the 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!”

We gather for the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” We are grateful for the Sisters who faithfully live the charism of St. Jeanne Jugan. We are grateful for the staff, workers, and volunteers who share in that charism. We are grateful for the benefactors who support the Sisters in following their charism of total trust in God.  But most of all, we are grateful for the residents who give us an opportunity to love and care for Jesus who said “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Prayer for Enemies

We often think that in the “good old days” of the early Church there were no conflicts and disagreements. Wrong!  The saints whom we celebrated on August 13 show that strong divisions were part of the early Church. St. Hippolytus was a theologian whose liturgical prayers became the basis of Eucharistic Prayer II in the Roman Missal.  He considered Pope Callistus “soft” on heresy and had himself declared pope, the first “anti-pope” in history.  He continued to oppose Callistus’ successors, Popes Urban I and Pontian. During a persecution in the year 235 Hippolytus and Pontian were both exiled to the mines of Sardinia where they died from the mistreatment they received and hence are considered martyrs or witnesses to the faith.  Tradition has it that Pontian abdicated so that the Church would not be without a shepherd while he was in exile and that the two were reconciled before they died.

How should we deal with conflicts? Jesus gives instructions in Matthew 18: 15-20. He says that if a brother or sister in Christ sins against you, you should first discuss the matter with that person. If you do not receive a hearing, then bring one or two witnesses with you and confront the person. This is similar to what we call an “intervention” today. If the person still refuses to listen and to accept responsibility, then you are to “tell the Church”—go to a higher authority within the Christian community.  And if that doesn’t work, then Jesus says “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

This sounds pretty negative.  But remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles like the Roman Centurion? He called a tax collector to follow him and he brought mercy and healing to another one, Zacchaeus. He healed the Centurion’s servant and commended that Roman’s great faith.  Jesus loved tax collectors and Gentiles.  Ultimately, he died for them.

Perhaps the way to interpret these words of Jesus is in light of the entire Gospel message which includes the challenge to love our enemies and to pray for them.

Jesus is Mercy Incarnate. The Good News he brought is that God loves us very much. The Son of God suffered, died, and rose not only to bring mercy but to give us the power to forgive as well.  Conflicts are not new but the power to forgive is ever-new and ever-present through Jesus present in the Sacraments.

How should we treat those with whom we are in conflict? Even if the conflict continues, we should "will" their good and pray for them, for their conversion and salvation.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Sisters of Life

I am half way between New York City and Albany at St. Joseph Camp which the Sisters of Life are using for their retreat. I am with Fr. Christopher Collins, S.J., and Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. and we are directing 17 Sisters in their annual eight day retreat.  The Sisters of Life are a new religious congregation which John Cardinal O’Connor of New York City founded on June 1, 1991. 

In a retreat conference, Cardinal O’Connor spoke of the rationale for this new order: “Over the course of hundreds of years Almighty God has inevitably seemed to raise up religious communities to meet the special needs of the day. I am convinced that the crucial need of our day is to restore to all society a sense of the sacredness of human life. Basic to the worst evils of our day is surely a widespread contempt for human life.”

He went on: “Now it seems time for a religious community to pray each day at some length, by way of the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office, in contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, in the holy rosary, in various other forms of prayer.  In addition, the community will engage in active ministries which will be an extension of contemplation.”

These Sisters are certainly prayer warriors in the cause of promoting a culture of life, a civilization of love.  Their annual, individually-directed eight day retreat, of which I am blessed to participate, is a prime example of this. 

On the day of their foundation, the Cardinal told them:  “It is your charism to plead for the protection of all human life at every level, with a special focus on those most helpless and unwanted, and to advance a sense of the sacredness of all human life.” 

Cardinal O’Connor told the first Sisters of Life that their consecration was a witness to sacrifice, the antidote to what St. John Paul II called “the culture of death.”  He said: “It will not be through your human persuasion, it will not be through your writings, it will be through your prayer, through your apostolate, through your example of consecrating yourselves that other women will come to understand and will consecrate themselves. It is imperative that you see the relationship between your laying down your life and your encouraging these women to be willing to sacrifice rather than to destroy or permit to be destroyed, the life of their unborn child. This is true not only for the unborn; it is true for all human life, human life which has come to be held in such contempt. The refugees in the Middle East at this moment are enduring unbelievable suffering, not simply because of the war but because the world has accepted this kind of contempt for human life. The world has accepted bombings and artillery fire which, even if destined only against a military adversary, by its nature is going to kill, to maim, to wound, to leave hungry and homeless hundreds of thousands of human beings created in the image and likeness of God.”

Those words were spoken in 1991, but could have been spoken today. Today there are millions “of human beings created in the image and likeness of God” who have been left “hungry and homeless” by war in the Middle East.  During this month of August Pope Francis has asked us to pray in a special way for them and for all refugees.

While reading Cardinal O’Connor’s remarks at the foundation of the Sisters of Life I discovered that another group of Sisters, to whom I gave a retreat acouple years ago, played a significant role in the early life of this new congregation.  They are the ParishVisitors of Mary Immaculate.  The Cardinal placed the early formation of the Sisters of Life in the hands of the Parish Visitors, saying: “I have known you since I was the Bishop of Scranton and Sister Mary played the same guitar for me that she played today. I have admired you. Your lives are contemplative, missionary. That will be the lives that these women will lead. I cannot, and I say this to you sincerely, I cannot think of a congregation anywhere in the world who will give them a better example, who will better model for them our Blessed Mother, who will give them a greater example of devotion to Our Lord and to the service of His people. They will see you as you pray, they will see you in many of your activities. They will learn from you. They will grow rapidly under your care, as Jesus the Christ Child grew in wisdom and grace under the tutelage of His mother and father.” 

The Sisters of Life. The Parish Visitors. One of the blessings of being the director of the Apostleship of Prayer in the U.S. is praying with these consecrated women who are true Apostles of Prayer and who are devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as they live the Daily Offering.