By Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p.
This year Pope Francis has asked consecrated persons to “wake up the world” with their “prophetic and countercurrent witness.” This might sound like a tall order – but religious life is, by its very nature, countercultural. For us Little Sisters of the Poor, giving the kind of witness our Holy Father is calling for means being faithful to the spirit of our foundress.
Saint Jeanne Jugan lived her vocation without illusions: “Call me now the humble servant of the poor,” she told an old friend soon after she began welcoming the needy elderly into her home. Humility and servanthood– I can’t imagine two more countercultural values! EvenChrist’s first disciples squabbled about who was the greatest among them!
Today radical feminism and a secularized culture make the concept of humble service somewhat incomprehensible. Taking the last place, letting others have the credit for a job well-done, or putting others’ needs before one’s own– such acts are seen as servile, demeaning, even unhealthy. A young woman in discernment once told me, “I really like your community, except for the humility thing.” I’ve had plenty of chances to tease her about this over the years, because she did, in fact, become a Little Sister of the Poor!
On the other hand, a fellow religious recently voiced her concern that if we see ourselves as bending down to serve others (as Pope Francis asks us), we risk getting caught in an attitude of condescension toward those less fortunate. The antidote to this temptation is simple: When we accept the yoke of service in imitation of Christ,who was gentle and humble of heart, we cannot be vain. Christ teaches us that servanthood is the greatest demonstration of love – not pride.
Before he gave his life for his friends, Jesus washed their feet and told them, “I have given you an example. As I have done for you, so you must do.” These words are for Christians of all ages, but none more so than those in religious life. “If, on the one hand, the consecrated life contemplates the sublime mystery of the Word in the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn1:1),” Saint John Paul II once wrote, “on the other hand it follows the Word who became flesh (cf. Jn1:14), lowering himself, humbling himself in order to serve others” (Vita Consecrata, n. 75).
In his words and gestures, Pope Francis gives the world a powerful witness of what it means to be a humble servant. His bending low has nothing to do with condescension and everything to do with love: “As living icons of the motherhood and of the closeness of the Church, we go out to those who are waiting for the Word of consolation,” he said to consecrated persons, “and we bend down with motherly love and fatherly spirit towards the poor and the weak.”
Writing to the whole Church in The Joy of the Gospel, our Holy Father articulated a beautiful vision: “True love is always contemplative, and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances: ‘The love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely.’ The poor person, when loved, ‘is esteemed as of great value,’ and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology, from any attempt to exploit the poor for one’s own personal or political interest… Only this will ensure that ‘in every Christian community the poor feel at home.…’” (E. G. n. 199).
“Making the poor feel at home” -– I find my foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, in these words of Pope Francis. I also sense in them the countercultural witness we Little Sisters of the Poor are called to offer the world during this Year of Consecrated Life. We have received a priceless gift in the charism of Saint Jeanne Jugan and the call to follow her, but at the same time we know that without God’s grace we can do nothing. Please pray for us, that we will live our charism authentically and offer the world a prophetic witness of God’s merciful love.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.