25/10/09 Canonisation of Jeanne Jugan

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Mount Merrion, 25th October 2009

The life story of Jeanne Jugan is at the same time an ordinary story and an extraordinary one.   That story blossomed and gave birth to the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor who have kept alive the tradition of their foundress right down to our day, amid all the changes and challenges of history. 

That story reached a special high point two weeks ago with the Canonisation of Jeanne Jugan as a Saint, as someone whom we know to be in the presence of God, from where she can intercede for us and guide us and inspire us.   We have come together to thank God for her life and mission and for the work she established that has endured and flourishes down to our own day.

Jeanne Jugan’s was an ordinary life.  She had no particular education and worked hard often at menial tasks, but they were tasks always which in some way or other were at the service of others, especially the sick.  No stage in her life was ever marked by self-centeredness or centred on self-achievement.  Wherever she worked she put whatever talents she had at the disposal of others.  Indeed, for many years, she preferred to suffer herself and be misjudged rather than let her vision and her commitment be weakened.   The work she knew that God had entrusted to her was more important than herself.

In that sense Jeanne Jugan teaches all of us that even the most modest talent can be used and taken up by the Lord.   She reminds us also that the responsibility of caring for the weakest belongs to each member of the Christian community and can never be simply delegated to others or be left to the public authorities or to philanthropy.  The Christian vocation is always a call to reflect in our lives and in our society the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
 Providence was to determine that much of Jeanne Jugan’s time would be dedicated to an unusual task:  begging.  I have often told people that the spell-check of my computer will not accept the word foundress but replaces it with fundraiser.  Jeanne Jugan was foundress with vision, whom circumstances forced also to be a fundraiser.  She was not a fundraiser in the sense of today where we encounter professional fundraisers and advisors who can sit in their elegant and well equipped offices, quite detached form the mission for which they collect funds.

Jeanne Jugan has no plush office.  Begging was not her first choice.  But it became clear that her begging activities were not just aimed at gathering money.  She went from door to door delivering a deeper message, perhaps the deepest message of her own mission.  She was a witness to that deeper message of her recognition of the generosity of God.  She said:  “It is so good to be poor, to have nothing, to depend on God for everything”.   Through undertaking the humiliating task of begging she witnessed to the fact that she had nothing and desired nothing for herself, except the confidence that God was with her in her project and that he would provide.  She knew that her project was really God’s project and her efforts were always subordinated to God’s design.

In today’s world – curiously perhaps even more so in a moment of economic crisis – we can be tempted to build around us a protective wall of security which can become almost the dominant characteristic of our lives, and can even disenable our capacity for generosity and solidarity and indeed of trusting in God.

Let me be clear, I am not underestimating the dramatic significance in today’s world of the precariousness which has hit many families especially through the loss of a job.  Nor am I saying that it is responsible to be reckless and not to make adequate provision for one’s life and future and health so as not to become burden on others.  But there is a witness in Jeanne Jugan’s attitude which stressed that her work was never really her work and that the more she became a minister of God’s love for others, the more God would provide through the love of others, even the most unlikely.

Her life is full of stories of which in her work of begging she touched and changed the hearts even of the most arrogant and thoughtless exploiters of others.   The hearts of the arrogant are changed through being exposed to the humility and total detachment from worldly goods and ambition of those who follow the Jesus of the Beatitudes.

Love changes life.  We have to develop more and more our understanding of what is means to say that “God is love”.   Holiness is not attained by just keeping rules or by drawing up a check list of our own achievement.  We are saved by opening ourselves to God’s saving love.  We really achieve something in life when we allow that love of God to work through our inadequacy.  The life of Jeanne Jugan shows us that.  

When we allow God to work through us, then God changes the world around us also.   Our first reading stresses that providing shelter and clothing and bread to the hungry not only provides relief for their suffering, but allows a light to rise in the darkness, to change the face of the earth, to change a harsh world into a caring world.  A world without generosity and care and self giving would be a very harsh world.   In following Jesus we share his love with others and we enrich ourselves to such a degree as the reading notes that we receive “new strength in our bones” and a new sense of meaning in our life “which endures like a spring of water which will never run dry”.    On the other hand if we place our trust only in ourselves we will never attain fullness of life.  

Jeanne Jugan’s project of bringing God’s love to those who were abandoned and alone grew slowly.  She did not start out with strategic plans and solid investments. Her work sprang rather from a life time involvement as a working Christian lay woman who dedicated her time to prayer, teaching catechism to the poor and care for the sick.

These three elements belong togethher.  Without a sense of prayer her work would have developed in a totally different way.  Prayer is the recognition of the otherness of God, the reecognition that our life is defined by recognising that God is there as a God of love.  When we place ourselves in God’s presence in prayer our lives and our sense of generosity take on a new quality.

In her early life, Jeanne Jugan attached great importance to teaching catechism to the poor. If we have experienced God’s love in our lives then we cannot keep that reality as a secret.  Catechism is not just formulas and rules; it is about putting into formulae what the love of God means.  Our experience of God’s love changes our understanding of God himself.  The great temptation is to create a God of our own making which responds to our personal needs and indeed could very easily only mirror our own personal inadequacies and the anxieties and distortions of our own lives.

“Teaching catechism”, evangelising, today means witnessing to others about a God who liberates, a God who places as the essential characteristic of our lives the gentleness, the mercy and the honesty of heart which are the logic of the Beatitudes.   Evangelization is about knowing the Jesus of the Gospels and teaching as Jesus did in the Gospels:  he always accompanied the proclamation of the word of God, with curing, caring, healing and liberating people from the bonds that entrap them

The logic of the Beatitudes is far from the logic of the world; in the logic of the Beatitudes the poor move beyond just being an object of our concern; the poor and the humble and the excluded and those who are troubled become the path which lead us to understand God.   “It is good to be poor, to have nothing, to depend on God for everything”

The Little Sisters of the Poor came to Ireland in 1862.  Their work has become especially a work of caring for the elderly, a work whose importance will only grow in the years to come.  Longevity is a special gift of God to our generation.  The blessing of a long life challenges us to reflect on the true meaning of life.  The way in which we as a community respond to the needs of the elderly is an indication of the way we understand the meaning of life itself.

We are grateful to the Little Sisters of the Poor for the work they have done over many decades and continue to do so today.  We are grateful for their service and we are grateful for their witness of what being poor means and to the spiritual resources such a spirit of poverty generates.

We pray that the charism of Jeanne Jugan will be taken up in new and creative ways in the years to come, by the Sisters but also by lay persons. We thank God for the gift of Jeanne Jugan and the Congregation of Sisters she founded.  We pray that Jeanne Jugan who led a great part of her life as a committed lay woman will touch the hearts of many lay men and women, especially young pope, to rediscover their Christian vocation to witness to the love of God in concrete and innovative ways in our world of today and tomorrow.