The intersection of charism and apostolate

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“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary .…”

I was perched on the arm of an empty recliner when I heard those words. Glancing across the room, I discovered their origin in a seemingly unlikely pair: a youthful, pastel-clad nurse and Betsey, an elderly woman who was confined to a wheelchair and whose dementia often left her feeling anxious and distressed. At this moment, however, Betsey’s face was serene as she and the nurse recited the familiar words of the Memorare prayer.

This summer, I had the privilege of living, working, and praying in this environment — the Boston home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The congregation, founded in 19th-century France by St. Jeanne Jugan, has the unique mission of caring for the needy elderly. The Sisters welcome the elderly poor into their homes as if these people were Christ, and the nuns care for these new family members throughout their final days on earth.

Born to poverty in the French fishing village of Cancale, Jeanne Jugan was 47 years old when she encountered a blind, infirm, elderly woman on the streets of Saint-Servan. Nourished by a life of prayer, Jeanne immediately recognized Christ in the person of the beggar, picked her up, carried her to her home, and placed her in her own bed. Beginning with this small gesture, a community blossomed in their midst.

Though more than a century has passed since Jeanne Jugan’s death, her spirit remains palpable in the homes of the Little Sisters. Her words and humble example continue to inflame their hearts and sustain their love for Christ in the elderly poor. Their homes are authentic families in which Sisters, staff, and volunteers labor for the residents’ happiness and temporal needs, yet always “in view of the eternal good of their souls,” as one of their daily community prayers relates.

The familial nature of the home was evident to me upon my arrival: the hallways were decorated for Memorial Day, the tables in the dining rooms were laden with cloth napkins and flower arrangements, the staff was welcoming, and the residents insisted that there was no better place to be. Quickly, the reactions of family and friends to my summer occupation (“You’re spending your summer doing what?”) disappeared from my thoughts.

Even on Betsey’s floor of the Boston home — where many of the residents experience a variety of symptoms of dementia, others have lost the ability to walk, and some suffer from these or other infirmities — the Sisters and staff work tirelessly to maintain a sense of purpose in the residents’ lives.

Unable to venture downstairs, these residents are given the option of hearing Mass from a balcony overlooking the chapel each day. During Communion, a Sister, ever-mindful of her foundress’ insistent refrain, “Never forget that the poor are Our Lord,” visits them with Communion, lovingly giving Christ to His poor.

Despite their efforts to imitate Jeanne Jugan’s “littleness,” the Little Sisters have been the focus of media attention recently as a result of their case against the Department of Health and Human Services, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. Under the Obama Administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, religious-affiliated organizations can sign a form authorizing the government to provide contraceptive coverage through a separate insurer. However, the Little Sisters assert that this concession still forces them to violate their consciences, as signing the form would make them complicit in the purchase of contraception.

In January 2013, the Supreme Court granted the Sisters relief by issuing a temporary injunction. Then, on July 14, 2015, two days before I left the Boston home, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Little Sisters, denying them further relief. The Sisters have since received a reprieve until the Supreme Court hears their case.

Surprisingly, my roommate and I did not learn about the Court of Appeals’ decision until reading about it in a newspaper the following evening. Contrary to what I would have expected, the ruling was not a subject of gossip around the home. When I mentioned it to one of the Sisters, her response was simple: “We’re going to fight it.” She added, “And we’ll just keep praying.”

Fight and keep praying. What else can they do, and what could possibly be more efficacious? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has offered them one option, but the Sisters insist that this would require them to abandon their work. Severed from its foundation of faith, from the very heart of the Church, their apostolate would suffocate. Paradoxically, their work’s success is entirely dependent upon their faithful adherence to Jeanne Jugan’s witness of “finding God enough” and choosing Him always, even when that means championing an unpopular belief or opting for littleness and poverty over wealth and prestige. 

Is not this what all Catholic institutions are called to? Is not this also, perhaps especially, the call addressed to Notre Dame, “to be a living institutional witness to Christ and His message,” as St. John Paul II wrote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae

The Little Sisters’ homes are impressive not because of efficiency or luxury, but because of the way that they reflect a unity of charism and apostolate that prevails in everything from the training of employees to the smallest gestures of hospitality. As the intimate moment of prayer between Betsey and the nurse illustrates, embracing poverty can be humbling, but it is precisely this receptivity to the designs of Providence that makes such work abundantly fruitful. 

Nicole O’Leary is a sophomore at Notre Dame University and is campus editor for the Irish Rover, one of the university’s two school newspapers. She is a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Orleans. Contact her at noleary@nd.edu.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts