Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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July 11, 2002
Solemnity of Our Father Saint Benedict

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

An error, «today abundantly widespread, is disregard for the law of human solidarity and charity, dictated and imposed both by our common origin and by the equality in rational nature of all men, whatever nation they belong to. This law is sealed by the sacrifice of redemption offered by Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross to His heavenly Father, on behalf of sinful humanity » (Pius XII, encyclical Summi pontificatus). It is therefore necessary and urgent that we develop this social charity, which is a «demand of human and Christian brotherhood» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1939). In particular, «Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples. International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this» (CCC, 1941).

On October 1, 2000, the Pope canonized a courageous American woman, Katharine Drexel. Because she sought first the Kingdom of God and His justice, she understood the importance of solidarity and thus contributed to social peace and development.

Building a secure foundation

Katharine Mary Drexel was born on November 26, 1858 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, Francis, along with his two brothers, owned an international banking trust which included companies in New York and London. Her mother, Hannah, died four weeks after Katharine's birth, leaving behind two daughters, Elizabeth and Katharine. Francis entered into a second marriage with Emma Bouvier, from which union a daughter, Louise, was born. The Drexels, members of Philadelphia's high society, were very generous and contributed large amounts of money to charitable organizations. Francis, without it being known, strove to offer assistance to the needy. He particularly tried to make the acquaintance of and support immigrant priests who had come to serve their penniless fellow countrymen. Every day, when he came home from work, he spent a good while in his room praying. So as to make sure her children had contact with the poor, Emma opened her home to them three times a week. The husband and wife were convinced that their wealth belonged to God and that they must use it to help the poor. They followed Saint Paul's advice to the letter: Tell those who are rich in this world's goods not to be proud, and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth. Let them trust in the God who provides us richly with all things for our use. Charge them to do good, to be rich in good works and generous, sharing what they have. Thus will they build a secure foundation for the future, for receiving that life which is life indeed (I Tim. 6:17-19). The family gathered every day to pray and attended Mass every morning. Emma provided her daughters with a thorough education in the humanities: literature, mathematics, philosophy, art, music, languages. Being well off did not excuse the girls from learning to cook and to sew their own dresses.

Frequent trips to Europe for her father's banking interests gave Katharine and her sisters the opportunity to visit the wonders and famous sites of this ancient continent. Always joyful and an eager traveler, Katharine, because of her deeply religious nature, judged all things in their proper value. The galleries, palaces, and works of art she saw in the cities of Europe left her with a feeling of dissatisfaction. No tourist attraction, no cultural must-see could satisfy the burning desires of her heart. Indeed, «God alone satisfies,» as Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote (Commentary on the Credo). Granted, every person has the desire for happiness, as Saint Augustine noted: «It is certain that we all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated.» But this desire is of divine origin; God has placed it in the heart of man so as to draw us to Him Who alone can satisfy it. For «God calls us to His own beatitude... God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve Him, and so to come to Paradise» (CCC, 1718-1721).

In 1879, Emma fell ill. Katharine, then 21 years old, tenderly took care of her during the three years of her illness. Contact with suffering purified her already clear outlook on life. She realized that wealth is one idol of the day and that nothing in the immense Drexel fortune could lessen Emma's suffering or prevent her death. Katharine asked herself what the real meaning of wealth and honor were, and thinking seriously about the meaning of existence, she understood that «true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement—however beneficial it may be—such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the Source of every good and of all love» (CCC, 1723).

Give freely

Emma died in January 1883. In order to distract his daughters, Mr. Drexel decided to take them on another trip to Europe. On November 18, 1883, in Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice, Katharine saw a painting of the Blessed Virgin and heard Her say to her: You received freely, give freely. She immediately recognized the passage from the Gospel (Mt. 10:8) which had had a profound influence on Saint Francis of Assisi. In fact, the young woman had a great devotion to the saint, with whom she shared a love for nature and zeal for the poor. These words seemed to be pointing her in a direction for her future, even if she did not yet realize in what way she would have to «give.»

After another trip, this time to the American West, where Katharine first came into contact with the life of the Native Americans and where she made her first donations to the missions, tragedy struck the Drexel family again. Her father, Francis, died on February 15, 1885, leaving his three daughters heirs to an immense fortune.

Katharine's health was ruined by her parents' deaths. To restore her good health, her sisters suggested a visit to the Schwalbach baths in Germany. They took advantage of their stay in Europe to recruit priests and religious for the Indian missions in the United States and to go to Rome where, in January 1887, they were received by Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. When Katharine begged the Holy Father to send missionaries to the Indians, she received this unexpected response: «Why, my child, don't you yourself become a missionary?»—«Your Holiness,» she answered, «I didn't ask for Sisters, I asked for priests.» She did not really understand the meaning of the Pope's question, but the anxiety that had long pressed her reached its peak. From the age of fourteen, she had felt a constant attraction to religious life. She had even spoken of it often to her stepmother, without receiving any encouragement from her. A vocation to the cloistered religious life, yes, but to the missionary life... She had never thought about it!

In September of that same year, Katharine, in the company of her sisters, visited the Indian missions in the Dakotas on horse, by wagon, and by rail, across rough and dangerous territories. There she met Red Cloud, the famous Sioux chief, and experienced the Indians' pitiful conditions. When she returned home, Katharine made up her mind to offer unconditional aid to the Indian missions. In four years, she financed the construction of thirteen schools. This attention given the Indians was coupled with concern for the fate of African-Americans who, despite the official emancipation, were still the subject of unfair treatment. «Truly there needs to be a greater spirit of solidarity in the world, as a means of overcoming the selfishness of individuals and nations. Only in this way will it be possible to curb the pursuit of political power and economic wealth with no reference to other values» (John Paul II, on the occasion of the Jubilee of Government Leaders, Members of Parliament and Politicians, November 4, 2000).

A beneficial perspective

In all the poor Katharine recognized children of God who needed to be led to Him. As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me (Mt. 25:40), Jesus will say on the last day to those who have performed works of charity. Considering God's judgment is a necessary light for our life on earth. Saint Benedict also recommended thinking about it often (Rule, ch. 4). «The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life» (CCC 1039). Saint Augustine remarked, «The Lord will then turn to the wicked, telling them: 'I placed my poor little ones on earth for you. I as their head was seated in Heaven at the right hand of my Father—but on earth my members were suffering, my members on earth were in need. If you gave anything to my members, what you gave would reach their Head. Would that you had known that my little ones were in need when I placed them on earth for you and appointed them your stewards to bring your good works into my treasury. But you have placed nothing in their hands; therefore you have found nothing in my presence.» On the contrary, «It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize His chosen ones» (CCC, 2443).

For a long time, Katharine had been dissuaded from following a religious vocation by her spiritual director, Most Reverend James O'Connor, Bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, who thought her incapable of enduring its austerities. He encouraged her to reflect, wait, and pray. Finally, in November 1888, while reading a letter in which Katharine revealed the anxiety and sadness she felt in waiting, Bishop O'Connor changed his mind and suggested three religious congregations to her. Katharine answered that she wanted a missionary order for the Native Americans and American Blacks—but none existed! So Bishop O'Connor encouraged her to found a new Congregation herself. This prospect did not fill Katharine with enthusiasm: «The responsibility of such a call almost crushes me, because I am so infinitely poor in the virtues necessary.» Nevertheless, the bishop did not change his mind and, on the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1889, Katharine surrendered: «The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and Colored, to enter fully and entirely into your view as to what is best for the salvation of the souls of these people.» Bishop O'Connor then asked the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh to form Katharine in the religious life. She was received into their novitiate on November 7, 1889, but several months later, Bishop O'Connor's death deprived the foundation plan of its sole support. Though in apparence so untimely, this death purified Sister Katharine's soul and prepared her for her future work. It was then that the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Patrick Ryan, came to her assistance and offered his help.

The fate of the Holy Family

On February 12, 1891, Katharine Drexel made her profession as the first «Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.» «The vows do restrict liberty,» she observed, «but they give us the freedom to do good. We are strengthened to bear and to do things that seem impossible.» To the standard vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience she added that of being «the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races according to the rule of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; and not to undertake any work which would lead to the neglect or abandonment of the Indian and Colored races.» Her new institute's convent not yet completed, she opened her novitiate in Torresdale, in her family's summer home. Ten novices and three postulants soon joined her. One year later, the community numbered 21 members! The Sisters occupied the convent under construction before work was completed and thus experienced many mortifications, living without water, light, and heat. «Every trial that we experience,» the foundress wrote, «is an act of God's mercy to detach us from earth so we approach nearer to God.»

The community received frequent visits from bishops and missionary priests who asked Sister Katharine for nuns. But, on Archbishop Ryan's advice, the Sisters waited three and a half years before opening their first boarding school at Saint Catherine's Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Sisters adapted well there in spite of the difficult life in this almost desert-like location. The Native Americans respected and protected them. One day, Mother Katharine, wanting to care for the victims of an epidemic in a village near the mission, was refused admission—the Indians thought too much of her to see her expose herself to the contagion in this manner.

Often during her numerous trips across the continent, Mother Katharine was rejected, sharing the fate of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, which gave her the inspiration for this reflection: «It seems so appropriate for a Convent of the Blessed Sacrament—Christ dwelling with us—and the School of the Immaculate Mother to have people of the city have no room for our precious charge. They say, 'There is another place on the city's outskirts' for our educational work. How truly was the Cave of Bethlehem the great educator of the world!... Do not fail to think of Him with whom I profess to be in love! Be in love with His humiliations.»

Katharine Drexel had renounced a fortune in order to embrace poverty voluntarily, and this poverty was precious to her, as is shown in these lines written to one of her religious: «If you are detached from the things of the earth, you will have the kingdom of God in you. If you are not detached, you will persuade yourself that many things are necessary, and you will succeed in living a life of ease. God fills what is empty.» She realized that «love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use» (CCC, 2445). But she understood above all that the best way of helping those who are poor and marginal is to work towards their full development. «It is not only a question of raising all peoples to the level currently enjoyed by the richest countries,» Pope John Paul II reminds us, «but rather of building up a more decent life through united labor, of concretely enhancing every individual's dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God's call. The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know Him and to live in accordance with that knowledge» (Encyclical Centesimus annus, May 1, 1991, no. 29). This is why the new Institute's efforts were not reduced to a simple material «charity,» but to the human and Christian formation of disinherited populations. Love for the poor «extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty» (CCC, 2444).

The deepest bond

As foundress, Mother Katharine wrote a rule of life for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In July 1907, she received a first approval in Rome from Pope Saint Pius X, and, shortly thereafter, was elected Superior General of the Institute of the «Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for the Indians and Colored.»

Why «Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament»? Her insight had grasped that the Eucharist, Jesus' living Presence, is the deepest bond between men, and thus among all the races called to live in the same country. «Jesus is the only source of true peace,» said John Paul II. «There cannot be hope of real peace in the world apart from Christ... How does Christ bring about this peace? He earned it by His Sacrifice. He gave His life to bring reconciliation between God and man... This sacrifice which draws the human family to unity is made present in the Eucharist. Thus, each Eucharistic celebration is the source of a new gift of peace... The gift that Christ made of Himself is more powerful than all the forces of division that oppress the world» (At the Eucharistic Congress, March 11, 1988).

The benefits of the Eucharist extend to each of Mother Katharine's daughters. The foundress wrote, «The religious needs strength. Near the tabernacle the soul finds strength, consolation, and resignation. The religious needs virtue. Jesus is the model of virtues in the Blessed Sacrament. The religious needs hope. In the Blessed Sacrament we possess the most precious pledge of our hope. The Host contains the germ of future life.»

In September 1912, during a visit to the Missions in New Mexico, Mother Katharine contracted typhoid. Seeming close to death, she confided, «I feel perfect peace.» But after a stay in the infirmary at the mother house, she regained her health and took up her activities again. In April 1913, she embarked once more for Rome, where she obtained final approval for her Congregation.

An effective method of prayer

In 1935, during a visit to the Missions in the West, she suffered a major heart attack and had to retire from active life. Nevertheless, she lived about twenty more years in constant prayer, patiently enduring infirmity. «The patient and humble endurance of the cross—whatever nature it may be—is the highest work we have to do,» she wrote. She wholly devoted herself to the contemplative life she had dreamed of in her childhood and which had finally been granted her. «I have discovered how to pray in an extremely efficacious manner, » she confided. «The Heart of Jesus is also my heart since I am a member of His body and with this Heart I will pray to God, my Father, and my prayer will always be heard.» On March 3, 1955, Mother Katharine Drexel peacefully rendered her soul to God and joined Jesus, her Divine Spouse, in eternal beatitude. Today her Congregation numbers 229 Sisters who, in the fields of education, pastoral work, and health, serve the poorest and most neglected among the Indians and Blacks in 14 American states, Haiti, and Guatemala.

Saint Katharine Drexel's beautiful example is an encouragement for our own behavior. Saint Rose of Lima said, «When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus.» This is why the Church has always had a preferential love for the poor.

For those who have neither the means nor the strength to assist the poor directly, the last twenty years of Saint Katharine's life are a beacon. She conformed herself to the will of God in the acceptance of her sufferings and in fervent prayer. «By His Passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to Him and unite us with His redemptive Passion. [...] By prayer we can discern what is the will of God (Rom. 12:2) and obtain the endurance to do it. Jesus teaches us that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing the will of My Father in heaven (Mt. 7:21)» (CCC, 1505 and 2826).

May the Lord grant this grace to you and to all your loved ones!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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