October 16, 2009

Prayers answered through canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan

Sister Margaret Banar, a member of the international Little Sisters of the Poor congregation, looks at photographs with St. Augustine Home for the Aged resident Beatrice Spurgeon of Indianapolis in this Dec. 22, 2007, file photo. (File photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Sister Margaret Banar, a member of the international Little Sisters of the Poor congregation, looks at photographs with St. Augustine Home for the Aged resident Beatrice Spurgeon of Indianapolis in this Dec. 22, 2007, file photo. (File photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

By Mary Ann Wyand

Countless prayers were answered on Oct. 11 when Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Jeanne Jugan and four other saints at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The French-born nun founded the international Little Sisters of the Poor congregation in 1839, which currently numbers 2,700 sisters and is dedicated to caring for the elderly poor who reside at their 202 homes in 32 countries.

About 4,000 pilgrims from the United States—Little Sisters, residents of their homes, volunteers, benefactors and other supporters—traveled to Rome for St. Jeanne Jugan’s canonization. The Indianapolis pilgrims included Sister Elizabeth Kleibusch as well as several residents and lay volunteers. (Related: Oct. 25 Mass at St. Luke Church to honor St. Jeanne Jugan)

During an Oct. 2 interview, Sister Judith Meredith, superior of the 11 Little Sisters of the Poor at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis, talked about the life of her congregation’s foundress and the sisters’ ministry.

Q. What are your personal prayers for Blessed Jeanne Jugan’s canonization?

A. It’s like a dream come true really. For so many years, we’ve prayed that—if it would be God’s will—this would come about, that our foundress, Blessed Jeanne Jugan, would be canonized.

… I think that the Lord knows the right time. His time is not always our time. I think right now is really the ideal time.

Q. What do people need to know about the sisters’ ministry to the elderly poor?

A. In our society, there is not always appreciation for the elderly person for various reasons. Sometimes it seems like they’re not appreciated for all the contributions that they have made in the past to society. Sometimes they’re only perceived the way they are now, not being able to work any longer, and some of them are sick or mentally infirm.

… To me, the biggest testimony that our mother foundress gave us was how much we should see the person of Jesus Christ in each elderly person that we take care of. Part of it is to realize how much respect and dignity this person should be given—first, as a child of God and, second, for all that they have done throughout their many years of service to their families, the Church and humanity.

… We receive so much more from the residents than we could possibly give them. It’s such a privilege to care for these people, many of them in their 80s and 90s, in our homes, and to witness their joy despite their infirmities, to see their great spirit of faith, and to see God’s will in many events of their life—sometimes losing a spouse, losing a child or losing their assets. Maybe they’ve never really had a lot of assets. They’ve been very poor, but they have such an acceptance of the will of God and they’re happy people.

I think this is a real witness to me personally of what the elderly can teach us. I think through their many years of life, they have acquired a real wisdom, and they realize what is important and what is not important. Their priorities are really straight. It’s good for us to be reminded that they are looking at eternity, and they realize that their relationship with the Lord and their spiritual values are what are important. It’s a beautiful testimony.

Q. As our country’s economic troubles continue, the elderly are often the hidden poor. Is it because they stay at home and people don’t know what their needs are?

A. The canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan is an opportunity for us to be aware of the needs of all the elderly, not just the elderly poor living in our homes.

… Many of the elderly nowadays are struggling, and sometimes by the end of the month they have to make the decision about whether they’re going to buy food or medicine or pay their utility bills.

If she could have, Jeanne Jugan would have embraced all the poor in the world and brought them together in a loving home atmosphere. But that’s not possible.

Q. What lessons can we learn from the humble life of St. Jeanne Jugan?

A. For us, as Little Sisters of the Poor, she is our motto and has shown us the way. … She tried to make the elderly feel useful, but said, ‘You’re not going to be out on the street any more. I will go and beg for you.’ That is how totally encompassing her love was for the elderly poor person. She was wise. She wanted to make the residents feel useful.

… She was a model to us in many ways. In the 27 years that she lived a hidden life, she was not recognized as the foundress. There was no recognition given to all that she had started after all the work had been done with the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit. She was the instrument that God chose, but was not recognized for that.

During those 27 years that she was living among the novices who were the future Little Sisters of the congregation, she was able to give them so many pearls of spirituality and wisdom.

Q. How will St. Jeanne Jugan’s canonization affect the mission of the Little Sisters of the Poor?

A. St. Jeanne Jugan said, ‘Always keep the spirit of littleness,’ of humble service. … Nowadays, we have to be more visible than we were even 20 years ago because of the fact that we need people to help us in our mission. We need monetary help and volunteers. We can’t do it alone.

But even with that, when we do go out to speak to groups for different functions, we are always to have this idea that, ‘I’m just a useless servant. I’m only an instrument in God’s hands.’ This is his work and his mission, and we are here to do our little part. … It’s not because of us that all these beautiful things are being accomplished. It’s God’s grace and the help of so many good people who help us in our mission.

Q. How will her canonization benefit religious vocations for the congregation?

A. The need is great, although we have been very blessed in that we consistently have at least five or six young women that enter our congregation every year [in the U.S.]. We’ve always continued to have vocations, but not nearly the number that we need.

Our mission is so meaningful and so needed at this time because there are so many older people … who are outliving their resources. … In order to continue it, … we have to have young women that will follow in the footsteps of St. Jeanne Jugan.

… Our congregation is trying to do a lot more vocation encounters with young women. Our St. Anne Novitiate in Queens, N.Y., does at least three encounters a year. ... Even in our homes, at the local level, we’re inviting women to come and stay with us to see what a beautiful vocation we have with the elderly poor.

Q. Pope John Paul II beatified Jeanne Jugan and now Pope Benedict XVI has canonized her. She has been called ‘a saint for old age and every age.’ What can the elderly teach us about Christian suffering?

A. I think Pope John Paul II’s own example, as he became elderly and was given the cross of his Parkinson’s disease, had to be difficult for him. He didn’t have to continue his travels. … But he wanted to witness to people about the value of Christian suffering and that, as long as we live, we’re never too old to be able to give this witness of God’s love for others.

He was such a tremendous witness of what Christian suffering can do and how the love of Christ can compel us at any age—young, middle aged or elderly—to do God’s work and bring his love to everyone. … He gave everything that he had to give in service to God.

… Our mother foundress was always very, very faithful to the Church. … She always said that, first and foremost, we have to be faithful daughters of God, the Church and the congregation. … We have to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel and to the Gospel of Life. … No matter how physically or mentally infirm that elderly people are, they are still very much children of God, and they are to be loved and cared for until death. We take care of our residents until they go to their heavenly home in eternity. †

Oct. 25 Mass at St. Luke Church to honor St. Jeanne Jugan

In honor of the canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan on Oct. 11 in Rome, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving at 2 p.m. on Oct. 25 at St. Luke the Evangelist Church, 7575 Holliday Drive East, in Indianapolis.

The public is invited to join the Little Sisters of the Poor at this Mass followed by a reception after the liturgy at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged, 2345 W. 86th St., in Indianapolis.

For more information, call the St. Augustine Home for the Aged at 317-872-6420. †

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