By Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p.
The feast day of Saint Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, is celebrated annually on August 30th. This year we prepare for Saint Jeanne’s feast against the backdrop of troubling world events – acts of terror in numerous locations around the world, a humanitarian crisis on our own southern border, continued advances of the culture of death and ongoing debate over the meaning of religious liberty in our country. As we look forward to her feast day, we might ask what Jeanne Jugan would do if she were here today, or how her charism might contribute to the resolution of these tragic situations.
We live in difficult times, but so did Saint Jeanne Jugan. Born on the cusp of the French Revolution’s infamous Reign of Terror, she grew up in the society depicted by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. In a milieu where those considered useless or undesirable too easily became society’s outcasts, Jeanne Jugan believed, as George Weigel once noted, “that there are no disposable human beings, that everyone is a someone for whom the Son of God entered the world, suffered and died.” Jeanne saw in the elderly the suffering members of Jesus Christ, and without distinguishing those who were “worthy” of her charity from those who were not, she responded to each elderly person in need with mercy and compassion.
Jeanne Jugan’s approach was simple: she offered a home to the poorest elderly in her midst, welcoming them as Christ, caring for them as family and accompanying them with dignity until God called them to himself. But what about today? Without getting caught up in the political rhetoric surrounding so many contemporary issues, Jeanne would take us back to basics — to the fundamental principle at the heart of the Church’s social teaching — the inviolable dignity of the human person created in God’s image and likeness, and our duty to treat others as we would care for Jesus himself, for he said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Jeanne’s reverence for the innate dignity of each person, no matter how difficult that dignity was to discern amidst the trials of poverty, disease and old age, sprang from her faith in the fatherhood of God and the redemptive love of his Son, Jesus Christ. In Evangelii Guadium Pope Francis explains how faith is the root of our convictions about the human person: “To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity. To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being.”
These words would have resonated in Jeanne Jugan’s heart as she served the elderly, but they apply to any group of people, in any time or place. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, recently spoke about human dignity as the root of the Church’s outreach in testimony before the Congressional House Judiciary Committee: “The Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person has a unique and sacred dignity. This dignity is not bestowed by governments or by laws or based upon their wealth or where they happen to be born. It inheres within the human being. We seek to be consistent in acknowledging the implications of this, namely that from the time we come to be in our mother’s womb until the moment our life comes to an end we are deserving of respect and care. This is true of the unborn child, the person with disabilities, the immigrant, the prisoner, and the sick. The more vulnerable and weak a person is, the more they are deserving of our love. This we understand to be the mark of the Christian and of a healthy society.”
Whether it be the needs of the elderly, the plight of unaccompanied migrant children, or any group in between, as Catholics we cannot deny the inherent dignity of each human person as the foundation of our works of mercy. Taking stock of our commitment to this conviction would be a wonderful way to honor Saint Jeanne Jugan on her feast day.
Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, LSP, is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States. (CNS photo/courtesy of the Little Sisters of the Poor)