Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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July 6, 2000
Saint Maria Goretti

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«In the past, great respect was shown to the elderly. 'Great was once the reverence given to a hoary head', says Ovid, the Latin poet… And what of today?… Among some peoples old age is esteemed and valued, while among others this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity. Such an attitude frequently leads to contempt for the later years of life, while older people themselves are led to wonder whether their lives are still worthwhile. It has come to the point where euthanasia [direct provocation of death] is increasingly put forward as a solution for difficult situations» (John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, October 1, 1999, no. 9).

To find a remedy for this depreciatory attitude, it is necessary to rediscover the value of the life of the elderly. To this end, «there is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has its proper role to play» (ibid., no. 10). In order to prove it, the Pope put forward to the Church and to the world a convincing example: on October 3, 1982 he beatified Jeanne Jugan, who had received from the Holy Spirit «like a prophetic intuition of the profound needs and aspirations of the elderly» (Homily from the Mass of beatification).

Born in Cancale, in the French province of Brittany, on October 25, 1792, Jeanne Jugan was baptized the same day. She was the fifth of seven children. Her father, who like most men from Cancale was a sailor, disappeared at sea the year Jeanne turned four. Little Jeanne learned very early from her mother to do the household chores, to look after the animals, and especially to pray. Like many other churches, the one in Cancale had been closed by the Revolution. There were no longer any organized catechism classes, but many children were instructed in secret by pious individuals. In 1803, Jeanne made her First Communion. From this day on, she became particularly obedient and gentle, eager to work, and assiduous in prayer.

«You will not find a better match»

At the end of 1816, a large «Mission» took place in Cancale; twenty priests divided up the sermons, the catechism, the Rosary, confessions, visits to homes, etc. They were days of graces and fervor for the entire parish. While she prayed, Jeanne felt a great desire born in her heart to devote herself to the service of the poor for the love of God, without expecting any human recompense whatsoever. At the end of the Mission, she definitively refused a marriage proposal. Her mother questioned her, «Why did you refuse? You will not find a better match.»—«The good Lord is keeping me for work not yet begun,» she replied.

The following year, Jeanne left Cancale and her family to serve Christ in the poor, and to live poor with them. She started working as a nurse in Du Rosais Hospital in Saint-Servain. But at the end of several years of service, she fell seriously ill. A charitable person, Mademoiselle Lecoq, welcomed her into her home. For twelve years, the two would lead a common life given rhythm by prayer, daily Mass, visits to the poor, teaching catechism to children. After the death of Mlle. Lecoq, Jeanne met Françoise Aubert, who shared the same ideal of life. They rented an apartment and dedicated themselves to the care of the poor. Soon a young girl seventeen years old, Virginie Trédaniel, joined them.

One evening, Jeanne returned with a preoccupied air from her day of work. Françoise kept an eye on the soup while spinning cloth. Jeanne told her, «I have just come from visiting a person truly to be pitied… Imagine an old blind woman, half paralyzed, all alone in a hovel during these first bad chills of winter!… Françoise, if you wanted, we could take her into our place. To cover the expense, I will work more.»—«As you like, Jeanne.» The blind woman was named Anne Chauvin. The next day, Jeanne searched her out and put her up in her own bed. The disabled woman became anxious: «What will you do to feed me? Where are you going to sleep if you give me your bed?»—«Don't worry,» replied Jeanne. A little while later, an elderly spinster, Isabelle Quéru, shivering from the cold, timidly knocked at the door. She had long worked without wages as a servant for financially ruined masters. After their death, she lived without shelter, without resources. «Isabelle,» Jeanne told her, «it's the good Lord who has sent you here. Stay with us.»

A friend of Virginie's, Marie Jamet, soon made the acquaintance of Jeanne and her household. On October 15, 1840 the three friends founded a little charitable organization directed by Father Auguste Le Pailleur, vicar of Saint-Servan. Françoise Aubert agreed to help them in caring for the elderly and mending, but considered herself too old to commit herself further. In compensation, a very ill young worker twenty-seven years old, Madeleine Bourges, whom Jeanne had taken in and cared for, joined the little group. Thus, around the two older women, a small cell was born, an embryo of the great congregation which would be called the «Little Sisters of the Poor.»

«With my basket…»

Soon other poor elderly persons asked to be taken in, and the Sisters moved into larger accommodations. The generosity of friends and the income of the Sisters, whose work provided for the house, were not enough. The good elderly women who were in the habit of begging, told Jeanne, «Replace us, collect for us!» A religious of Saint John of God urged the foundress to follow this advice and offered her her first collection basket. Jeanne's natural Cancalaise pride rebelled against this necessity, but she ended up bringing herself to do it. «They will send you to take up the collection, my little daughters,» she would later tell the novices; «it will cost you. I also did it with my basket; it cost me, but I did it for the good Lord and for the poor.» This is the origin of the collection, a major resource for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

On her rounds, Jeanne asked for money, but also for gifts in kind: vegetables, used woolens and linens, a cauldron, etc. The reception was not always kind. One day, she rang the doorbell of an old rich miser; she persuaded him and received a good offering. The next day, the collection taker presented herself again to him: this time, he became angry. «My good sir,» she replied to him, «my poor were hungry yesterday, they are still hungry today, and they will still be hungry tomorrow…» Calmed, the benefactor gave again, and promised to continue to do so. Another time, an elderly bachelor became irritated and slapped her in the face. Humbly, she told him, «Thank you; that was for me. Now, please give me something for my poor!» Such leniency opened the old bachelor's wallet. Thus, with a smile, she knew how to invite the rich to reflection, to discover the needs of the poor, and the collection became true evangelization, a call to conversion of heart.

Jeanne Jugan loathed idleness. «The Blessed Virgin was poor,» she liked to say. «She did as the poor do: she didn't waste time, for the poor must never be without occupation.» Having obtained distaffs, spinning wheels, and reels, she put them into the hands of the least disabled of her guests. The latter, proud to earn by their work some pennies for the community purse, took a greater interest in the life of their home.

Little by little, Jeanne and her friends became organized. They adopted similar dress, religious names—Jeanne's was «Sister Mary of the Cross»—and pronounced private vows of obedience and chastity. A little later, they would add those of poverty and hospitality. By this last vow, they consecrated themselves to the welcome of the elderly poor. At the end of 1843, the Sisters had 40 people staying with them, both men and women. On December 8, they carried out elections, and Jeanne was unanimously reelected Superior. But on the 23rd, Father le Pailleur in the authority of his office, declared this election void and designated Marie Jamet as Superior, who was just 23 years old (Jeanne was 51). He indeed feared being unable to lead the congregation as he wished with Jeanne as Superior, whose experience and renown stood in his way. Jeanne looked at the crucifix hung on the wall, then at a statue of the Virgin; she then knelt before her new Superior to make her promise of obedience. Her role from then on would be that of collection taker.

A soul less tempered would have shrunk from the prospect of losing the command of a house organized as she liked, in order to become a beggar. «To my mind,» declared a Franciscan religious, originally from Cancale, «it was a great act of virtue on the part of my venerable fellow compatriot, when, deposed of her office of Superior, she became a simple little beggar, because the women of Cancale are rather independent, indeed, even authoritarian, and they prefer to command than to obey.» From December 24, despite the rigorous fast of the Christmas vigil, Jeanne took up her collection rounds again. «Who will say,» an orator exclaimed, «the trials and merits of this collection full of anguish, always made with a view to the necessities of the day or the next day. She had to go out in all kinds of weather, endure the heat, the cold, the rain, approach all kinds of people, make long trips, carry heavy burdens!» But Jeanne's soul was «truly immersed in the mystery of Christ the Redeemer, especially in His Passion and His Cross» (John Paul II, October 3, 1982).

Mother or child?

United with Christ, Jeanne willingly accepted humiliations, and even went to the point of loving them and searching them out. One of those which perhaps cost the most to her native pride came in the way her Superior lavished advice on her. In a letter of January 26, 1846 Marie Jamet, 27 years younger than Jeanne, wrote to the latter: «My dear child… How good God is, who permits a poor girl like you to be so well received!… However, my child, be careful not to be importunate, and if you should annoy anyone even a little, do not take advantage of this excellent person's kindness… I recommend that you take care not to conceive the slightest sentiment of self-love. Be well convinced that, if someone acts with kindness towards you, it is not because of you, but it is God who allows it for the greater good of His poor. As for you, consider yourself for what you truly are, that is to say, poor, weak, wretched, and incapable of all good… Your Mother, Marie Jamet.» Jeanne received these pieces of advice with meekness and humility.

The charity's developments obliged her to extend the collections farther. Jeanne was sent to Rennes. From the first days there, she noticed the beggars, the most elderly of whom demanded urgent help. Quite obviously it was necessary to found a house in this city. With the help of Saint Joseph, on March 25, 1846 a house was purchased. Jeanne took up her collections again in the cities of the West. Houses were opened in Dinan, Tours, Paris, Besançon, Nantes, Angers, etc. On several occasions, because she had won the confidence of everyone, Jeanne saved from disaster the charity whose direction she had seen taken away from herself. She came, obtained the lacking funds, encouraged here one, there another, then slipped away to help somewhere else. She seemed to have nowhere to rest her head, but she relied completely upon Providence.

«Saint Joseph, some butter!»

Jeanne Jugan wished that the elderly might feel truly at home in the houses that received them. One day, in the foundation at Angers, she perceived that the old men were eating their bread without butter. «This is the land of butter!» she exclaimed. «How is it that you are not asking Saint Joseph for it?» She lit a vigil candle before a statue of the foster father of Jesus, had all the empty butter pots brought in, and placed a sign there: «Good Saint Joseph, send us butter for our elderly!» The visitors were surprised or amused by this candor. But a deep faith was hidden under this apparent naïveté. A few days later, an anonymous donor had a sizable batch of butter sent, and all the pots were filled. Jeanne also wanted to bring cheerfulness to her poor. She went to the colonel who commanded a unit garrisoned in Angers, and asked him to send, the afternoon of a feast day, some musicians from the regiment for the joy of her good elderly. «My Sister, I will send you the entire band to please you and delight your dear old men.» And the Angers brass band went to contribute to the elation of the feast.

In May of 1852, the Archbishop of Rennes, where the Mother House of the Sisters was situated, officially approved the charity's statutes and gave it its name: family of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Sisters, while providing assistance to the abandoned elderly, highlighted the irreplaceable value of human life in old age. Their testimony acquires particular importance in our time, when the progress of technique and medicine have brought about a prolongation of the average life span.

The esteem shown to the aged is based on the natural law expressed in God's commandment: Honor your father and mother (Dt 5:16). «Honoring older people involves a threefold duty: welcoming them, helping them and making good use of their qualities» (John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, no. 12). The elderly have need of assistance in proportion to the diminution of their strength and possible infirmities, but they can on the other hand contribute much to society. The trials and tribulations endured during their lives have equipped them with an experience and maturity which lead them to regard the events of this world with more wisdom. In their school, the younger generations take history lessons which should help them not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our society dominated by hastiness and unrest forgets the fundamental questions about vocation, the dignity and destiny of man. In this context, the affective, moral and religious values lived by the elderly represent an indispensable resource for the equilibrium of society, of families and of individuals. In the face of individualism, they recall that no one may live alone, and that solidarity is necessary between generations, each growing richer through the gifts of the others.

Missionaries at retirement

The elderly also have a role to play in evangelization: in many families, the grandchildren receive from their grandparents the first rudiments of the faith. Seniors, even the most ill or those who are constrained to immobility, can also carry out, for the good of the Church and the world, the service of prayer. Through this, they likewise participate in the sufferings as well as the joys of others; they break the circle of isolation and powerlessness. Drawing their strength from prayer, they become capable of restoring courage, by the testimony of suffering welcomed with patience in abandonment to God.

The elderly find the opportunity to complete, in their flesh and in their heart, that which is lacking to the Passion of Christ (cf. Col 1:24), in offering the trial of sickness and suffering—their common lot—to the intentions of the Church and the world. Yet, for this mission, they need to feel loved and honored, for it is not easy to accept suffering humbly. It sometimes happens that people who undergo great sufferings are tempted to exasperation and despair. Their loved ones can therefore feel inclined, by a misunderstood compassion, to think euthanasia, the direct provocation of death, reasonable. But, «regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God's law and an offence against the dignity of the human person» (John Paul II, Letter to the Elderly, no. 9; cf. encyclical Evangelium vitæ, no. 65). God alone determines the beginning and end of human life, according to His plan as Creator, and He calls each person to become His child by their participation in His own Divine Life. This incomparable dignity comes from Christ who, in the Incarnation, «has in a certain way united Himself with each man» (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, no. 22); it must therefore be respected. This is the principal reason for the dedication of the Little Sisters of the Poor to the elderly, in which Jeanne Jugan taught them to see Jesus Christ.

«I give it over to you willingly!»

After having served Christ by her collections, the Blessed would finish her life in silence. Indeed, in the course of 1852, Father Le Pailleur enjoined her to retire to the Mother House. From then on, she would have no more regular contact with the benefactors, nor any noticeable function in the congregation. She lived another twenty-seven years, hidden from the eyes of men, occupied with humble household tasks, without making any demands whatsoever. Very clear-headed about the situation, she kept her heart free enough to say to Father Le Pailleur: «You have stolen my charity from me; but I give it over to you willingly!» In the spring of 1856, the Mother House of the Little Sisters of the Poor moved into La Tour Saint Joseph, an immense estate acquired thirty-five kilometers from Rennes. There, Jeanne lavished her spiritual advice on the novices. In difficult moments, she would say, «Go find Jesus when you are at the end of your patience and strength, when you feel alone and helpless; He is waiting for you in the chapel. Tell Him, 'You know well what is happening, my good Jesus, I have nothing but You, who know everything. Come to my assistance.' And then go, and do not worry about how you will make it through; it is enough that you have told God about it; He has a good memory.»

She was insistent that the novices not increase their prayers of devotion too much: «You will tire your elderly, they will become bored, and they will go out to smoke… even during the Rosary!» She informed the young ones about her experience: «My little ones, you must always be in a good mood; our little elderly do not like sad faces!… You mustn't fear the trouble of cooking, or caring for them when they are ill. Be like a mother for those who are grateful and also for those who do not know how to acknowledge all that you do for them. Say to yourselves, 'It's for you, my Jesus!' » And again: «You must pray and reflect before acting. I have done this all my life. I weighed all my words.»

In the last years of her life, Jeanne often spoke with serenity of her death. But before leaving, she experienced one last joy. On March 1, 1879, Leo XIII granted final approval of the constitutions of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The congregation at that time counted approximately 2,400 Sisters and 177 houses of welcome. The following August 29, Jeanne passed away gently after saying, «O Mary, my good Mother, come to me. You know that I love you and that I want to see you!»

Such a humble life was bound to bear much fruit. At the threshold of the third millennium, 3,460 Little Sisters operate 221 houses, spread over the 5 continents. By the marvelous attention of Providence, they still live principally from donations.

During the beatification of Jeanne Jugan, Pope John Paul II said, «The entire Church and society itself cannot but admire and applaud the marvelous growth of the tiny evangelical seed cast to the Breton soil by this very humble Cancalaise woman, so poor in goods, but so rich in faith!…Et exaltavit humiles (He raises the humble). These well-known words from the Magnificat fill my spirit and my heart with joy and emotion… The attentive reading of the biographies dedicated to Jeanne Jugan and to her epic of evangelical charity encourage me to say that God could not glorify a more humble servant… In often recommending to the Little Sisters: 'Be little, very little! Keep the spirit of humility, of simplicity! If we should happen to believe that we are something, the congregation would no longer glorify God, we would fall,' Jeanne indeed gave away her own spiritual experience… In our day, pride, the quest for efficacy and the temptation of powerful means are common in the world and sometimes, alas, in the Church. They are an obstacle to the coming of the kingdom of God. This is why the spiritual physiognomy of Jeanne Jugan is capable of attracting disciples of Christ and filling their hearts with hope and evangelical joy, drawn from God and forgetfulness of oneself.»

Blessed Jeanne Jugan, you who were a «sign of the presence of God in history» (John Paul II), teach us to humbly serve our neighbor for the love of Jesus Christ.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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