Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 19, 2009
St. Jeanne's humility serves as radiant example for all
Humility, next to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, is the greatest of the virtues. One way of knowing this is that we admire humility so much in others, but are loathe to practise it ourselves. Another way of knowing humility's value is that if we recognize our place in the cosmos - that God is God and we are creatures - we cannot but be humble.
On Oct. 11, Pope Benedict canonized St. Jeanne Jugan, the 19th century French founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. However, it is only in recent years that the world realized St. Jeanne, in fact, was the community's founder.
Jeanne, in 1837, took a blind, infirm woman into her apartment. In order to provide a more dignified life for this woman, Jeanne moved into the attic. This led to more acts of kindness toward the elderly poor and soon women came to join in her acts of mercy, as the story is recounted by National Catholic Reporter editor Thomas Fox.
By 1841, the women had formed a small religious order and Jugan was elected superior. She was re-elected in 1843. At that point, however, a priest loosely connected with the community, on his own authority declared Jugan's re-election void and appointed a young sister as superior.
The priest declared himself father general of the order and falsified documents to show that he had been the founder. He sent Jugan out to beg on behalf of the poor and as sisters entered the order, they had no sense that Jugan was its founder. Only when the female superior appointed by the priest made a deathbed statement about his manipulations did the truth become known.
Even so, the priest's false story remained the story that the world knew until the most recent times.
One can certainly see this story as an example of male suppression of women in the Church. One can also see in it the witness of a woman who followed a vocation to serve the elderly poor, seeking no recognition for herself. Many of us would see this as an injustice, a cross too heavy to bear. Jeanne made it a path to sanctity.
If one is too eager to have justice and recognition for oneself, community can be destroyed, a vocation undermined. A community cannot survive if it is filled with people who strive for what they perceive to be their full place at the table. No table is that large.
Community requires humble servants. This is especially clear in marriage. If both partners say to themselves, "Why do I always have to be the one who gives in and who is humble?" the marriage will not survive. But if both are constantly willing to take the lowest spot then the marriage will be a reflection of God's love.
St. Jeanne Jugan suffered injustice and someone should have spoken out for her. She would not have been wrong to speak out for herself. But because she accepted the lowest place in the community, something beautiful was allowed to flourish.
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