Anniversary Mass for Little Sisters of the Poor

Homily of Bishop Dermot Farrell on the occasion of the anniversary of 150 years of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Saturday 14th April, 2018, Ferrybank.

150th Anniversary of the arrival of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Waterford

It commenced with one – one young woman – one extravagant gesture of loving kindness – giving up her bed to an old, homeless, blind woman.   Like the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus “what she has done will be told also, in memory of her” (Matt 26:13; Mk 14:9).  What inspired Jeanne Jugan were the values she picked up from her mother as a child, the example shown by her employers, and the spirituality of St John Eudes and the Brothers of St John of God. Since then the example that she gave has been followed. You are now a beautiful family of sisters distributed over five continents and 31 countries.

The first time I encountered the Little Sisters of the Poor was when as a teenager I was with my late father in the Cattle Mart in Maynooth; two of the Sisters were questing there. I now realise that this seemingly humiliating activity is an important part of the Congregation’s charism. Today we might call it fundraising. 

The Beatitudes, which are all about grace, were the inspiration for Jeanne’s absolute confidence in God’s Providence.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for a reason, and it isn’t economic. To be poor in spirit was for her “to have nothing, to await all from God.”  When God became more clearly into focus on the horizon of Jeanne’s life she discovered that the face of God was imprinted on the faces of the neediest of those among her.  Today, too, our merciful actions make us more open to grace, and grace makes us more sensitive to the neediest among us and compassionate in responding to them. The power of one, the smallest gesture toward a poor, elderly person has the power to transform not only the recipient but the carer, and the observer. As Pope Francis says, the credibility of an institution is not based on its declarations, but on the continuation of Jesus’ life and virtues today by its members.

In order to let the heart of Christ be in your heart each individual in the Congregation must be steeped in her relationship with Jesus Christ – being fed on the word and the Eucharist. It is there we realise that is it God who brings people to Christ who wants to instruct us in the great mysteries of faith. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs” is the first and most fundamental condition for belonging to Christ. Those who are poor in spirit are aware of their utter need for God.   Blessed are those who know their need of the grace of Christ. Blessed are those who know their hope is in Christ.

I am struck by the name of the Congregation. I see the word “Sisters of”, not “Sisters for” which would denote power over someone. To be “a sister of” is to walk the road with or journey with another. You cannot establish truly close relationships while keeping yourself above others. Your specific charism is to the elderly poor – not just to provide accommodation and food to them – but to bring every woman and man a certain quality of relationship, a presence, a closeness, and a quality of life and dignity which will draw the elderly poor out of their isolation and free them from fear and anxiety. It is a moment of grace easing the pain of loneliness, loss and the fear of being unwanted which is the most awful poverty. History will record that it is an invaluable service. 

Our airwaves are clogged with talk on the homeless poor today. It is a huge reality in our country. Would that you could have the resources to grow your ministry to encompass so many people who find themselves without a front door or a kitchen table to sit around.

On the 25thMay we will have a Referendum on the Right to Life. The primacy of human life, from its first instant until its natural end, appears to be something of which we urgently need to acquire an awareness in the face of the culture of death which is becoming more and more evident in society. To an elderly person in the grip of fear and increasingly isolated, in some European countries a rapid and mockingly happy death is proposed. The ultimate delusion, euphemistically expressed, is a ‘happy death.’  This slippery slope, naively embraced by some convinced supporters, is too slippery to be defended as a right.  The slope of the aging population, along which Ireland is sliding, presents major challenges. Perhaps never before has there been such a need to care for the aging poor, as would Jesus Christ himself, and serve them with love and respect until death. In the words of Pope Francis: “A people that does not have care for the elderly, that does not treat them well, has no future: such a people loses its memory and its roots” (28thSeptember 2014, St Peter’s Square).

While Robert Ellsberg was not thinking explicitly of Saint Jeanne Jugan what he expressed with powerful simplicity could easily be applied to her: “We are accustomed to thinking of saints as people who stand out for their heroic faith and witness to Gospel values.

Perhaps we are inclined to put them on a pedestal — to imagine that we could never do what they do. But before their bold and courageous actions, perhaps what distinguished such people, was their way of seeing and interpreting reality. They looked at the world through a Gospel lens — and in doing so, saw things according to a new scale of value.” (Extract from Learning to See, Robert Ellsberg [publisher of Orbis Books] on All Saints).

What would Jeanne Jugan be doing if she were among us today?  I think she would look at the world through the lens of the Beatitudes. If we are not to be trapped by isolation and indifference we must assimilate the past so as to move creatively into the future. Of course, be faithful, but be willing to risk to deal with the unique problems of the elderly poor today.

Congratulations on the 150th anniversary of your arrival in Waterford. Since your arrival here it would be impossible to measure your impact on generations of families in the locality. I am delighted that your Congregation took up residence here in Ferrybank in the Diocese of Ossory, and today has a very visible and active presence here.

May the Holy Spirit enlighten you on the paths you are called to walk; comfort you in the face of challenges and difficulties; may you continue to be inspired by the magnificent figure of your foundress whose contemplation of the self-emptying of Christ was the source of her apostolic zeal. The same Holy Spirit came down upon Mary, and the power of her‘Yes’ to God changed the world forever.  By entrusting your Congregation and all its members to the intercession of Saint Jeanne Jugan, I pray the Virgin Mary to keep you under her maternal protection.

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