In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave us "a mandate" to "go forth and be witnesses of God's mercy, a source of hope for every person and for the whole world."
By David Came (Oct 15, 2009)
On Oct. 11, Pope Benedict XVI canonized five new saints, among them were St. Damien (1840-1889) and St. Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) — two apostles of mercy who cared for the marginalized of society. In the case of St. Damien, it involved ministry to the lepers on the Island of Molokai in Hawaii, where he himself died of the ravages of Hansen's Disease or leprosy. In the case of St. Jeanne, it meant caring for the elderly poor in her native France and founding the Little Sisters of the Poor, a congregation that continues her work throughout the world.
What the Pope Said about These Apostles of Mercy
During his homily at the canonization, the Holy Father spoke of how St. Damien's "missionary activity" reached "its summit in charity" and of how he became "a leper with lepers." The Pope summed up in stirring words St. Damien's call to us today to "the charity of our serving presence":
Jozef de Veuster, who in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary received the name of Damien, when he was 23 years old, in 1863, left his home in Flanders to proclaim the Gospel on the other side of the world, the Hawaiian Islands. His missionary activity, which gave him so much joy, reached its summit in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who were there, abandoned by all; thus he exposed himself to the disease they suffered from. He felt at home with them. [He] thus became a suffering servant, a leper with lepers, during the last four years of his life. ...
In following St. Paul, St. Damien leads us to choose the good battle (cf. 1 Tim 1:18), not those that lead to division, but those that gather together. He invites us to open our eyes to the leprosy that disfigures the humanity of our brothers and today still calls, more than for our generosity, for the charity of our serving presence.
When Pope Benedict turned in his homily to St. Jeanne Jugan (St. Marie de la Croix), he spoke of how her service was characterized by a "compassionate gaze on the aged" that recognized Christ in them and of how she herself wished to be "a poor person among the poor." The Holy Father also said the congregation St. Jeanne founded "bears witness to her following the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the littlest ones":
Through her admirable work in the service of the poorest elderly, St. Marie de la Croix [Jeanne Jugan] is also like a beacon to guide our societies which must always rediscover the place and unique contribution of this period of life. Born in 1792 in Cancale, Brittany [France], Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters in humanity whom age had made vulnerable, recognizing in them the person of Christ Himself. "Look at the poor with compassion," she would say, "and Jesus will look at you with goodness on your last day." This compassionate gaze on the aged, drawn from a profound communion with God, was carried by Jeanne Jugan throughout her joyous and disinterested service, practiced with gentleness and humility of heart, wishing to be herself a poor person among the poor. ... Her charism is always relevant, while so many aged persons suffer different types of poverty and solitude, sometimes even abandoned by their families. The spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on limitless trust in Providence, which Jeanne Jugan drew from the Beatitudes, illuminated her whole existence. The evangelical impulse is followed today throughout the world in the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which bears witness to her following the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the littlest ones.
More Background on These Apostles of Mercy
To learn more about St. Damien and St. Jeanne Jugan, we'll turn to some good articles on these apostles of mercy that appeared in the October 2009 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.
In the magazine, Lisa Dahm, a freelance reporter and photographer for the Hawaii Catholic Herald, writes of St. Damien:
[Upon his arrival on the Island of Molokai in 1873 to serve the lepers who had been abandoned there], Father Damien immediately began transforming the community. He cared for the dead and the dying, built coffins and conducted dignified Christian burials. He organized a Christian Burial Association and formed a group to play music for the funeral Masses.
With the help of the stronger patients, Father Damien built houses and an orphanage. He enlarged the church and the hospital. He laid hundreds of yards of pipe to deliver fresh water from a neighboring valley. He built a school for the children, created a band and a choir, and organized religious associations.
He visited every house in the settlement at least once a week, nursing the sick, administering the sacraments, protecting parentless children. Without regard for himself, he invited the people into his home, ate with them from the same bowl and shared even his pipe.
Ever faithful to his priesthood and his religious order [the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary], Damien celebrated daily Mass and made time for adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Into each day he scheduled prayer, adoration, private meditation, the Divine Office, spiritual reading and the rosary.
[Then] in 1884, while soaking his feet in hot water, be noticed blistering but no pain. Father Damien knew he had contracted leprosy. A doctor later confirmed it, and Father Damien was listed by in the Board of Health ledger as Patient 2,886.
The disease took its toll on Father Damien, and he died five years later on April 15, 1889 — the Monday of Holy Week. He was 49.
Carol Ann Morrow, a freelance writer and former staffer at St. Anthony Messenger, writes of St. Jeanne Jugal:
The whole story began in the winter of 1839, when Jeanne and her two companions [in France] took in Anne Chauvin, a blind and infirm elderly widow. Jeanne, who was 47 years old, carried Anne up the stairs to the second-floor rented space where the three women lived and prayed. She gave up her own bed to Anne. Jeanne began to sleep in the attic.
Since her mid-20s, when she refused a proposal of marriage, Jeanne had been convinced that a special work of God lay in her future. Now that work had a face: Anne Chauvin. By 1840, Anne was one of 26 guests. Jeanne, her companions and their guests required a larger space and she began her mission of begging for the poor in her care.
The biographers of Jeanne Jugan seem to marvel at the rapid growth of the Little Sisters [of the Poor]: from a trio of women, to a charitable organization, to a fledging religious order, to one with thousands of members by the time of their founder's death in 1879 [ — including foundations in Africa, Ireland, and Italy, as well as in France and the United States].
Learning from St. Damien and St. Jeanne Jugan
Now that we know a little about these new saints, what can we learn from their examples of mercy?
We can take our cue from Benedict, our Mercy Pope. With St. Damien, consider how our Holy Father sums up his example: "[Saint Damien] invites us to open our eyes to the leprosy that disfigures the humanity of our brothers and today still calls, more than for generosity, for the charity of our serving presence."
Like St. Damien, how can we exercise "the charity of our serving presence" for the marginalized"? He invited the lepers he served into his home and ate with them — becoming one with them in their daily struggles.
For us, it might mean serving the hungry at a local soup kitchen each week and getting to know them as individuals as we serve them a meal. Or it could mean helping to build affordable housing through volunteering at a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In that case, as we build a house for a homeless family or person, we can make it a priority to get to know them as individuals, celebrating with them the joy of owning their own home.
Whatever we do, the key is not only to serve but to be a presence to those we serve.
With the example of St. Jeanne Jugan, consider these words of Pope Benedict: "Her charism is always relevant, while so many aged persons suffer different types of poverty and solitude, sometimes even abandoned by their families."
So, following St. Jeanne's example, how can we care for the elderly poor in our own families, neighborhoods, and parishes? Like St. Jeanne herself says, it all starts with "look[ing] at the poor with compassion." And the needs are so great in light of our continuing economic difficulties.
Do we know of a poor and elderly widow or widower in our own neighborhood or parish who barely scrapes by? As we look at such an elderly widow with compassion, what can we do? Can we offer to help pay for her groceries or even her heating bill with the onset of winter? If we are barely scraping by ourselves, can we offer to shovel her driveway and sidewalk during the winter?
As we prayerfully consider how to respond to the merciful examples of St. Damien and St. Jeanne Jugan, let's ask for their intercession:
Saint Damien, help us to exercise the charity of a "serving presence" as we care for our brothers and sisters in need. Saint Jeanne, help us to look at the elderly poor with compassion, "recognizing in them the person of Christ Himself." Amen.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. His new book is Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.