Homily of Pope John Paul II, Beatification of Jeanne Jugan – October 3, 1982
And he lifted up the lowly! These well-known words of the Magnificat fill my spirit and my heart with joy and emotion after I have just declared the humble foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor one of the Blessed. I give thanks to the Lord for bringing about what Pope John XXIII had so rightly hoped for and Paul VI so ardently desired. This text I have cited could surely be applied to the countless followers of Christ who have been beatified or canonized by the supreme authority of the Church. Nevertheless, a close reading of the Positio on the virtues of Jeanne Jugan, as well as of recent biographies about her and her epic of evangelical charity, inclines me to say that God could glorify no more humble a servant than she. Dear pilgrims, I have no fears about encouraging you to read or reread these works which speak so well of the heroic humility of Blessed Jeanne as well as of that wondrous divine wisdom which so carefully and patiently arranges events destined to help an exceptional vocation to flower and a new work to blossom, a work which is at once ecclesial and social.
Actuality of Her Spiritual Message
Having said this, I would like to meditate with you, and for you, on the actuality of the spiritual message of the newly Blessed one. Jeanne invites all of us, and I quote here from the Rule of the Little Sisters, “to share in the beatitude of spiritual poverty, leading to that complete dispossession which commits a soul to God.” She invites us to this much more by her life than by those few words of hers which have been recorded and which are so marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit, such as these: “It is so beautiful to be poor, to have nothing, to await all from God.” Joyfully aware of her poverty, she depended completely on Divine Providence, which she saw operative in her own life and in that of others. Still, this absolute confidence did not make her inactive. With the courage and faith that characterizes the women of her native land, she did not hesitate to beg on behalf of the poor whom she cared for. She saw herself as their sister, their “Little Sister.” She wanted to identify herself with all those elderly who were, often, more or less infirm and sometimes even abandoned. Is not this the Gospel in its pure form (cf. Mt. 25:35–41)? Is not this the way which the Third Order of Saint John Eudes had taught her: “to have one life, one heart, one soul, one will, with Jesus,” to reach out to those whom Jesus had always preferred: the little ones and the poor? Thanks to her daily exercises of piety—long periods of silent prayer, participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and reception of Holy Communion more frequently than was the custom at that time, thoughtful recitation of the rosary, which she had always with her, and fervent kneeling before the Stations of the Cross—the soul of Jeanne was steeped in the mystery of Christ the Redeemer, especially in his Passion and his Cross. Her name in religion, Sister Mary of the Cross, is a real and moving symbol of this. From her native village of Petites-Croix (in English, Little Crosses . . .was this a coincidence or a sign?) until her departure from this world on August 29, 1879, this foundress’ life can be compared to a long and fruitful Way of the Cross, lived with a serenity and joy conformable to the Gospel. Must we not recall here that four years after the foundation of the Order, Jeanne was the victim of unjustifiable interference extraneous to the group of her first companions? She allowed herself to be stripped of the office of superior, and a little later on she accepted to return to the motherhouse for a retirement that was to last twenty-seven years, without the slightest complaint.
When summing up events such as these, the word “heroism” comes spontaneously to mind. Saint John Eudes, her spiritual master, used to say, “The real measure of sanctity is humility.” By the fact of so often repeating to the novices, “Be little, stay little! Keep the spirit of humility, of littleness! If we begin to consider ourselves as something, the Congregation would no longer cause God to be honored and we would fall,” Jeanne was really disclosing her own spiritual experience. In her long retirement at La Tour Saint-Joseph, many novices and Little Sisters came under her decisive influence, and she left on her Congregation the stamp of her spirit by the quiet but eloquent radiance of her life. In our day, pride, the pursuit of efficacy, the temptation to use power, all run rampant, and sometimes, unfortunately, even in the Church. They become an obstacle to the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is why the spirituality of Jeanne Jugan can attract the followers of Christ and fill their hearts with simplicity and humility, with hope and evangelical joy having their source in God and in forgetfulness of self. Her spiritual message can lead all those baptized and confirmed to a rediscovery and a practice of that realistic charity which is stunningly effective in the life of a Little Sister or of a lay person when the God of Love and mercy reigns there completely.
Actuality of Her Apostolic Message
Likewise, Jeanne Jugan has left us an apostolic message most relevant for our day. You could say that she received from the Holy Spirit what may be called a prophetic intuition of the needs and deep desires of the elderly: their desire to be respected, esteemed and loved; their fear of loneliness and at the same time their wish for a certain independence and privacy; their longing to still feel themselves useful; and very often, a strong desire to deepen their life of faith and to live it all the more. I would even add that, never having read the beautiful passages of Gaudium et Spes, Jeanne was already in secret harmony with what they say about establishing a great human family where all men are treated as brothers (n. 24), sharing the world’s goods according to the law of justice which is inseparable from the law of charity (n. 69). Though the structures of social security systems have done away with much of the misery of Jeanne Jugan’s time, still her daughters come across great need among the elderly in many different countries today. And even where those structures do exist, they do not always provide the kind of home atmosphere the elderly so deeply desire and need for their physical and spiritual well-being. You can see it today: in a world where the number of older people is constantly growing, the timeliness of the apostolic message of Jeanne Jugan and her daughters cannot be disputed. From the start, the foundress did not want her Congregation to limit itself to the West of France, but rather to become a real network of family homes where each person would be received, honored and even, to the extent possible to each one, brought to a new widening of his or her existence. The timeliness of the apostolate undertaken by this foundress can be seen from the fact that there are today constant requests to be admitted to these homes and to found new ones. When she died, two thousand four hundred Little Sisters were ministering to the needs of the aged poor in ten countries. Today, there are four thousand four hundred of them in thirty nations and on six continents. The whole Church and society itself must admire and applaud the amazing growth of this little seed of the Gospel, sown in the soil of Brittany almost one hundred and fifty years ago by that most humble woman of Cancale, so poor in possessions yet so rich in faith.
May the beatification of their well-loved foundress impart to the Little Sisters of the Poor a new élan of fidelity to the spiritual and apostolic charism of their Mother! May the repercussions of this event, reaching to all the houses, have the effect of drawing more and more young women throughout the world into the ranks of the Little Sisters! May the glorification of their fellow countrywoman be a vigorous call to the parishioners of Cancale and the whole diocese of Rennes to the faith and love of the Gospel! Finally, may this beatification be a refreshing source of joy and of hope for all the aged of the world, thanks to the witness, hereby solemnly acknowledged, of the woman who loved all of them so much in the name of Jesus Christ and of his Church!