On the Feast of St. Jeanne Jugan


August 30 was the feast of St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. I celebrated Mass at St. Joseph’s Home in Palatine, IL. My homily was based on these special readings: Isaiah 58: 6-11; 1 John 3: 14-18; and Matthew 5: 1-12a.

We are celebrating a great saint today—Jeanne Jugan. Of course she would shudder at those words. She aspired not to be great but to be little.  She once said: “Be little, little, little; if you get big and proud, the congregation will fall.” And another time, “Only the little are pleasing to God.”

Why? Because this is God’s way. How did God choose to save the world? Not with worldly power and glory. Not with an army of angels that would force people to follow God’s way. God saved the world by becoming little—a little baby.

In his homily at Midnight Mass on Christmas 2008, Pope Benedict said that our first experience of God is one of distance. God seems so far above and beyond us. This transcendent God drew near, bridging the distance by becoming one of us. Pope Benedict went on to say that our experience of God is also one of glory and grandeur which provoke fear in us. So God became a tiny baby in order that we would no longer fear but love, for people love tiny, newborn babies. 

St. Paul wrote that the Son of God became poor in order to make us rich. He emptied himself and became little and in need of love and care. He shared our life with its sorrows and joys, its sufferings, both physical and spiritual when he felt totally abandoned as he hung dying on a cross. He shared in death itself.

The cross looks like a failure, but God’s ways are not ours. The failure of the cross is really a triumph in which the power of love wins over sin and death. 

“Love.” That word is used in so many different ways that it has lost its meaning. We talk about loving our pets and ice cream. We love whatever and whomever makes us feel good, gives us pleasure. It’s all about “me” and how I am feeling.

In our second reading St. John says that love is not about feelings and not about words, but about deeds and action.

This is why “hospitality” is such an important word. Hospitality is love in action.

It begins in hearts—hearts open to others, to all, especially the poor and the sick, the neglected and rejected of what Pope Francis calls our “disposable culture.”  We must open our hearts to them just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is open to them.

This is what Jeanne Jugan did. Her heart was open to the elderly poor. She felt their need.  She had compassion and suffered for their sufferings.  And she responded. She not only opened her house to them; she gave up her own bed to that first poor blind woman that she carried into her home. 

This spirit of hospitality lives on today in the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their Constitutions state: “Consecrated hospitality is, in the midst of the world, a witness to the mercy of the Father and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus.”

Hospitality means opening our hearts, our doors, our wallets.  But ultimately the greatest hospitality is sharing the life of the other. Jeanne Jugan shared in the poverty of the poor, becoming a beggar for the beggars.  Her complete trust in Providence, not having endowments or investment income, continues today as the Little Sisters depend upon the generosity of others.

In his Lenten Message this year, Pope Francis said that Christ did not love us like someone who gives a little out of his or her abundance. He gave all and sacrificed his very self.

So did St. Jeanne Jugan who wanted to be known by her religious name Sister Mary of the Cross. She shared in the sufferings of the Crucified One as did His Mother who stood under the cross and suffered as only a mother could watching her son suffer and die. Mary joined her sufferings to those of Jesus for the salvation of the world. St. Jeanne also offered herself and sacrificed what was most dear to her, her own congregation. It was taken from her when she was relieved of any leadership position and lived a hidden life in the novitiate where the young did not even know who she was.

She was able to do this because she had become little. She had become the last and least. She found her strength and consolation in one place—in Jesus, who assured her that blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who suffer persecution.

When he canonized her in 2009, Pope Benedict said: “In the Beatitudes Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life.”

He went on to say: “This evangelical dynamism is continued today across the world in the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which she founded and which testifies, after her example, to the mercy of God and the compassionate love of the Heart of Jesus for the lowliest. May St. Jeanne Jugan be for elderly people a living source of hope and for those who generously commit themselves to serving them, a powerful incentive to pursue and develop her work!”

We gather for the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” We are grateful for the Sisters who faithfully live the charism of St. Jeanne Jugan. We are grateful for the staff, workers, and volunteers who share in that charism. We are grateful for the benefactors who support the Sisters in following their charism of total trust in God.  But most of all, we are grateful for the residents who give us an opportunity to love and care for Jesus who said “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”