Be a silver lining to those in darkness

Guest column
By Sister Constance Veit, LSP
One of my favorite expressions has taken on new meaning during the COVID pandemic: “There’s a silver lining to every cloud that sails about the heavens if only we could see it.”

Without forgetting the terrible suffering of so many people, I’ve been amazed by those who have found a silver lining in these dark times by using their social isolation to learn a new skill, delve into a long-held interest, produce new works of literature, music and art or create meaningful connections with others.
Pope Francis is one of these inspiring people. Despite his advanced age, he has penned both an encyclical and a book before the close of 2020. Both works, Fratelli Tutti and Let Us Dream, focus on combatting the throw-away culture with a culture of encounter, tenderness and care for those on the peripheries.

Sister Constance Veit, LSP

“What is tenderness?” the pope asks. “It is love that draws near and becomes real. A movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands … The smallest, the weakest, the poorest should touch our hearts: indeed, they have a ‘right’ to appeal to our heart and soul. They are our brothers and sisters, and as such we must love and care for them” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 194).

Francis’ convictions are rooted in Catholic social teaching – human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. “Every human being has the right to live with dignity … Unless this basic principle is upheld, there will be no future either for fraternity or for the survival of humanity” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 107).

In Let Us Dream, he writes, “Solidarity acknowledges our interconnectedness; we are creatures in relationship, with duties toward each other, and all are called to participate in society. That means welcoming the stranger, forgiving debts, giving a home to the disabled and allowing other people’s dreams and hopes for a better life to become our own.”

On the other hand, subsidiarity, he writes, “involves recognizing and respecting the autonomy of others as subjects of their own destiny. The poor are not the objects of our good intentions but the subjects of change. We do not just act for the poor but with them …”

The World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11 gives us a perfect opportunity to practice these values.
In his message for this year’s celebration, the Holy Father reflects on the healing power of relationships. We must strive to create “a covenant between those in need of care and those who provide that care,” he writes, “a covenant based on mutual trust and respect, openness and availability.”

Pope Francis reminds us that it is Jesus himself who asks us to stop and listen to those who are sick or disabled. He asks us to establish personal relationships with them, “to feel empathy and compassion, and to let their suffering become our own as we seek to serve them.”

The pandemic has made us more aware of those who have chosen to share in the suffering of the sick, seeing them as neighbors and members of our one human family.

The pope lauds “healthcare personnel, volunteers, support staff, priests, men and women religious, all of whom have helped, treated, comforted and served so many of the sick and their families with professionalism, self-giving, responsibility and love of neighbor.”

The pope describes this closeness to suffering as a precious balm of consolation. I think of it as a silver lining in the dark clouds that still hover over us nearly a year after the onset of the pandemic.

To honor the World Day of the Sick, this year let’s ask ourselves how we can become a silver lining to someone passing through this COVID storm. We might take the time to express our appreciation to healthcare workers, or to reach out to a sick relative or neighbor, offering whatever assistance they may need.

Through our compassion, may the sick who are passing through darkness find a silver lining by realizing how much they are loved and cherished by others.

(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

A campaign to send a hug

By Sister Constance Veit, LSP
Summer is usually a lot of fun in our retirement homes. The elderly enjoy getting outdoors for picnics, gardening and community outings, especially when they include a stop for ice cream.

Sister Constance Veit, LSP

Not so this year! As summer wears on with no end to the pandemic in sight, the mandated social isolation is beginning to take a serious toll on our elderly residents.
In many of our homes, the residents have been living in forced isolation in their rooms since late March. Direct contact with family and friends has been forbidden for the last five months. While people from many walks of life have been incredibly generous in sending messages to our residents and helping us to provide for their physical needs, and we have been able to use technology to ensure screen contact between the elderly and their loved ones, screen time cannot fully replace person-to-person connections with loved ones and socialization with fellow residents.
The longer the pandemic lasts, the more concerned I am about the isolation of the elderly. It’s bad enough for our residents, but I can’t even begin to imagine how lonely it is for seniors who live by themselves, especially in rural areas and regions that lack adequate internet service – an estimated half of all Americans lack high-speed internet service at home – or for those unfamiliar with technologies many of us take for granted.
Since the beginning of the pandemic celebrities of all types have reached out online to lift our spirits and remind people that we are all in this together. “Alone together” has become a popular catch-phrase, but what about the 50 percent of Americans – including many seniors – who lack internet access and who are especially vulnerable to the scourge of loneliness?
I’m afraid that the marginalization of frail seniors could become the new normal. A recent study carried out by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that both economic damages and loss of life from COVID-19 might best be limited by “a simple targeted policy that applies an aggressive lockdown on the oldest group and treats the rest of the population uniformly.”
The NBER working paper (May 2020) states that gains from “targeted policies” can be substantially increased by combining them with additional measures such as increasing the “social distance” between the oldest group and the rest of the population, reducing visits to older relatives and segregating the times when different demographic groups can go to grocery stores and pharmacies.
Such measures are referred to as a form of “protective custody” intended to protect the elderly.
After seeing our Residents suffer through five months of lockdown, concepts such as “targeted policies” and “protective custody” make me cringe. Surely our society can do better than this for our seniors!
Feeling the weight of these issues, I happened upon a recent tweet of Pope Francis. “The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that our societies have not organized enough to make room for the elderly, with just respect for their dignity and fragility. Where you don’t care for the elderly, there’s no future for the young,” he wrote.
And then I read our Holy Father’s message to young people on July 26, the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus. He asked the young to perform “a gesture of tenderness towards the elderly, especially the loneliest, in their homes and residences, those who have not seen their loved ones for many months.”
“Dear young people,” he said, “each one of these elderly people is your grandparent! Do not leave them by themselves. Use the inventiveness of love, make telephone calls, video calls, send messages, listen to them and, where possible, in compliance with the healthcare rules, go to visit them too. Send them a hug.”
Taking up our Holy Father’s challenge, the Vatican has launched a campaign entitled “The elderly are your grandparents.” It invites young people to be inventive and do something concrete for older people who are vulnerable to loneliness. The campaign is associated with the hashtag #sendyourhug.
Let’s evaluate our own attitudes and behaviors during this difficult time, asking ourselves if we are sensitive to how our actions might adversely affect the wellbeing of others, and if we could do more to safely reach to the most vulnerable.
Let’s get inventive and find ways to make sure that our elders never feel marginalized or forgotten, no matter how long the pandemic lasts!

(Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

Elders shape the future

Sister Constance Veit, LSP

GUEST COLUMN
By Sister Constance Veit, LSP
During February my thoughts turn to two of my favorite biblical figures, Simeon and Anna.

Simeon is described in St. Luke’s Gospel simply as “a man in Jerusalem” and Anna as an 84-year-old “prophetess.” These two elders greet Mary and Joseph as they bring their newborn infant to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. We celebrate this moment in Jesus’ life, referred to as the Presentation in the Temple, on February 2.

Simeon and Anna are not just two pious old people making a fuss over a baby. Each one had been waiting for the coming of the Lord for many years. Their whole lives were defined by their patient, prayerful waiting. When the moment came, they recognized Jesus as the Messiah and testified on his behalf before all the people.

Pope Francis wrote, “When Mary and Joseph reached the temple to fulfill the law, Simeon and Anna jumped to their feet. They were moved by the Holy Spirit. This elderly couple recognized the child and discovered a new inner strength that allowed them to bear witness.”

Simeon and Anna have an important message for our time. They represent the crucial role of older people who “have the courage to dream,” as Pope Francis said. “Only if our grandparents have the courage to dream and our young people imagine great things will our society go on.” Francis believes that older people who dream are able to move forward creatively as they envision a future.

“Without the witness of their elders’ lives, the plans of young people will have neither roots nor wisdom,” he said. “Today more than ever, the future generates anxiety, insecurity, mistrust and fear. Only the testimony of elders will help young people look above the horizon to see the stars. Just learning that it is worth fighting for something will help young people face the future with hope.”

We Little Sisters are privileged to share our lives with many successors of Simeon and Anna – older people who have persevered in their faith through the years as they sought a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Among them is a woman I know who poured her life-savings into the rehabilitation of a child stuck in the cycle of drug addiction, and who later sacrificed her own comfort to support three generations of her family members who were displaced after a hurricane ravaged their island home.

Another resident, a tiny woman in her mid-80’s, divides her time between helping in our chapel and working in the parish founded by her priest-brother – the only Vietnamese parish in our diocese – helping with sundry tasks and taking Holy Communion to the sick.

I recently attended Mass at this Vietnamese parish as part of our annual fund raising appeal and enjoyed seeing our resident in action. While she and many of the women of the parish wore their traditional Vietnamese tunics and flowing pants in bright hues and varied designs, most of the young people came to church in the jeans, yoga pants and baggy sweatshirts typical of American youth.

The liturgy was completely in Vietnamese. I saw what a fine line these young people walk – with one foot planted firmly in the land of their parents and grandparents and the other in America.

I was touched to see that even the young people venerated our resident. As she scurried around the church attending to many details, she would give the young people a quick word of direction in Vietnamese or a charming smile of encouragement.

Our residents embody Pope Francis’ dream of elders as “a choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.”

Although I am not yet a senior it won’t be long before I am, and I am grateful for the example of our residents who, like Simeon and Anna, are teaching me how to assume the mantle of a wise elder in the believing community.

(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor. )

The language of love and service

Sister Constance Veit

GUEST COLUMN
By Sister Constance Veit, LSP
During a recent Catholic conference, I saw a Scripture quote on a poster that read: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

A series of talks by Catholic theologians and public figures drove home for me just how applicable these words are today.

From the recent scandals in the Church to the continued legal threats to religious liberty, traditional marriage and family and the dignity of human life, the times in which we are living seem catastrophic for Christians. Is there any hope for the future of the church in western societies like ours? What are we ordinary Catholics to do?

As I pondered these questions, the words of St. Peter provided me with two take-aways. First, we should not be afraid to speak up for Christ and the Gospel in the public square. And second, we will be able to make a difference only if we do so with kindness and humility.

St. Peter advised the early Christians to always be prepared, which presupposes we have done our homework. A Dominican speaker at the conference emphasized the need for serious study because standing up for our Catholic faith today requires intelligent answers. But he added that effective evangelization is not purely a matter of intellectual effort; it involves both knowing and authentically living our faith. Actions speak louder than words – and when we do speak, our personal witness of grace can touch hearts more effectively than theological treatises.

I think this is what St. Peter meant when he spoke about “the hope that is in you.” This hope is not something remote or academic – it is the living presence of Christ in our hearts.

We all share in the pledge of an imperishable inheritance by virtue of our Baptism, but this living hope is not bestowed on the church as a corporate body. It is a promise given to each of us individually as a beloved son or daughter of God. “Christ in you – and in me – for each of us, our hope of glory!” (cf. Colossians 1:27).

If we are tempted to become discouraged in the face of so many threats to our Catholic faith, perhaps it is because we have not yet taken full ownership of the hope that is in us.

Saint Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, took hold of this living hope and exercised it as confidence in Providence and sure faith in what awaited her in heaven (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Jeanne Jugan often reminded the young Little Sisters about the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, in the poor and in their own hearts. She advised them to look to Jesus for strength in all their trials and difficulties. Faced with challenges she would say, “That seems impossible, but if God is with us it will be accomplished.”

As strong as her faith and hope were, Jeanne Jugan was fully aware of the limited power of words to win over hearts and souls. She counseled the Little Sisters not to prolong chapel devotions, lest the Residents become bored and walk away.

She also advised the Sisters not to rush their begging rounds, impetuously blurting out their needs as if they were their due.

Finally, she taught the Little Sisters to pray discreetly when out in public so that they would neither draw undue attention to themselves nor offend nonbelievers.

In a word, Saint Jeanne Jugan taught the Little Sisters to let their humble acts of charity do the talking in drawing others to Christ. The annals of our Congregation are filled with stories of elderly individuals who were converted or led back to the practice of their Catholic faith through the quiet but heroic charity of generations of Little Sisters.

Many of the speakers at the conference I attended talked about missionary discipleship. Even the most well-known and intellectually intense spoke about service and solidarity with the poor as essential means of evangelization in today’s polarized world.

“Nothing is more exhilarating than bringing others to Christ,” George Weigel exclaimed with an enthusiasm that made me want to go out and announce the Good News – knowing that the only convincing way to do this today is through the language of closeness, generous love and humble service.

(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

Little Sisters named ‘witnesses to freedom’

Guest Column
By Sister Constance Veit, lsp
Each year since 2012, Catholics in the United States have observed the Fortnight for Freedom in preparation for Independence Day on July 4th. The theme set by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference for this year’s Fortnight was “Witnesses to Freedom.”
The bishops offered 14 men and women who bear witness to freedom in Christ – one for each day – for our reflection during the two weeks. Thirteen of these figures have already passed from this world into heaven and the majority of them are martyrs. The lone “person” who is still alive? The Little Sisters of the Poor!
We Little Sisters were shocked to find ourselves on a list of freedom fighters. I began to realize the significance of this when I read a reflection on the Fortnight by Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “Reflecting on the lives of these great men and women can show us how we might serve as witnesses to freedom today,” he wrote.
“They love their country, yet this love does not surpass their love for and devotion to Christ and his Church … By pondering the lives of these exemplary Christian witnesses, we can learn much of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in today’s challenging world. We pray that over these two weeks, the grace of God will help us to grow in wisdom, courage, and love, that we too might be faithful witnesses to freedom.”
We realize that in light of our Supreme Court case we Little Sisters of the Poor have become a symbol of courage to many people. As the bishops’ list of witnesses for freedom demonstrates, countless Christians down through the centuries, and in our own time, have shed their blood and given their lives for the faith.
I am both humbled and embarrassed to find us listed in their company, because I truly believe that our courage is quite relative. Our suffering is of the type that Pope Francis recently called “polite persecution.” After all, we Little Sisters have not been imprisoned or had to resist to the point of shedding blood!
I have always found the parable of the useless or unprofitable servants in Luke’s Gospel rather unpalatable, but in light of our current notoriety I have come to appreciate it. This is the parable where Jesus tells his apostles, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Luke 17:10). Like the useless servants in the Gospel, we Little Sisters have done only what we should have done in standing up for life and religious liberty.
We profess to be daughters of the church – how could we not uphold her teachings, especially when they touch on something as basic as the right to life? Surely, we never thought our cause would go all the way to the Supreme Court, but we believe that all happened according to God’s plan.
As I reflect back on the experiences of the last three years, I thank God for the vast cloud of witnesses who have supported us every step of this journey, beginning with our legal team at the Becket Fund, whose constant good cheer and professional expertise were heaven-sent.  They are the real heroes. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the people around the world who offered their prayers and sacrifices for our case.
Finally, we are indebted to our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, and to the generations of Little Sisters who have gone before us, many of whom persevered through much more trying circumstances than anything we have had to face, including religious persecution. If we are a beacon for our contemporaries in this struggle for religious liberty, it is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

Keeping elders connected a work of mercy

Guest Commentary
Sister Constance Veit, lsp
During a recent family reunion my elderly mother and I were the only ones at the table without smart phones. We felt left out. A few days later I read that Pope Francis advised parents to ban mobile devices from the dinner table to help restore the quality of family relationships.
These two occurrences reminded me of the life of our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan. In her time the poor were essentially swept aside in the wake of the French Revolution and rapid industrialization. Today we are experiencing a different type of revolution as digital technologies evolve nearly every day.
New modes of social communication, it is claimed, foster unimagined levels of human connectedness. But just as the poor and elderly were marginalized in Saint Jeanne Jugan’s day, they are often left behind in the communications revolution of today when they lack the means or the know-how to keep up with the latest technology. Consider these statistics from the Pew Internet and American Life Project:
•    While 95 percent of millennials own cell phones, less than half of those over 75 own one. Only 18 percent of seniors own a smart phone.
•    Only 10 percent of those belonging to the G.I. Generation own a laptop, compared with 70 percent of Millennials and 65 percent of Baby Boomers.
•    Only 27 percent of older adults engage in online social networking.
•    Younger, higher-income and more highly educated seniors use the internet more than those who are older or of more modest means. For both groups, usage drops off dramatically after age 75.
Regardless of age, users of social networking say they interact more with other digitally connected people than with those who do not use digital communication. These new forms of technology, with their rapid changes, have created a new generation gap.
Recently I was shocked to read that more than one million older people in the United Kingdom go a month without talking to another human being. This figure would surely be comparable in our own country. Such loneliness is deadly! Studies show that inadequate social interaction is linked to premature death. The increased mortality risk associated with loneliness is comparable to smoking, and twice as great as the risk associated with obesity!
I hope you find this data as startling as I do. Through Pope Francis’ repeated calls for a culture of encounter I believe God is asking us to do something to relieve the social isolation of the elderly and poor. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy he is inviting us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; among these are visiting the sick and imprisoned and comforting the afflicted.
So what can we do? If you know an older person, who has the means but not the know-how to access digital media, then practice mercy by teaching them how to use the technology they already own.
For those unable to afford computers and smart phones, as well as those whose physical or cognitive limitations prevent them from being able to use them, visit them with your laptop on a regular basis and facilitate their connection to long-distance loved ones via Skype or a similar platform.
Finally, enrich the lives of the elderly through real, in-person face time. What better way could there be to celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy than to commit to spending time with our elderly loved ones or homebound neighbors and sharing a meal or a memory with them?
Pope Francis inspires us to practice this form of mercy: “Sharing and knowing how to share is a precious virtue!” he said. “Its symbol, its ‘icon,’ is the family gathered around the dinner table. The sharing of meals – and in addition to food also of affection, of stories, of events – is a common experience.”
The pope added, “A family that hardly ever eats together, or that does not talk at the table but watches television, or looks at a smartphone is a ‘barely familial’ family … It is like a boarding house!”
Let’s apply the pope’s thinking to our relationships with elders. Let’s do all we can to make sure that family togetherness and intergenerational bonds grow stronger during this Jubilee Year of Mercy!
(Sister Constance Veit is the communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.)

October offers chance for miracles

guest column
By Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p.
The month of October is a real bonanza for us Little Sisters of the Poor. During October we celebrate the anniversaries of the birth, beatification and canonization of our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan. Along with Catholics all over the United States, we also observe Respect Life Month. Rereading Pope Benedict’s canonization homily recently, I realized how appropriate it is to simultaneously celebrate Saint Jeanne Jugan and respect for life.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ greeting for England’s 2013 Day for Life, the theme chosen for our U.S. Respect Life observances this year is Each of Us is a Masterpiece of God’s Creation.
“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect,” he said. Time and time again we see Pope Francis demonstrating the truth of these words in his humility, warmth and compassion for each person he encounters.
“We want to be part of a society that makes affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast,” Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap., chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, wrote in his message for Respect Life Month. “Our mission is to show each person the love of Christ. As uniquely created individuals, we each have unique gifts which we are called to use to share Christ’s love.” This is exactly what Saint Jeanne Jugan did as she devoted her life to elderly persons in need.
“Born in 1792 at Cancale in Brittany, France, Jeanne Jugan was concerned with the dignity of her brothers and sisters … whom age had made more vulnerable, recognizing in them the Person of Christ himself,” Pope Benedict XVI said at her canonization. “‘Look upon the poor with compassion,’ she would say, ‘and Jesus will look kindly upon you on your last day.’
Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor.”
Pope Benedict rightly attributed Saint Jeanne’s compassionate love to her profound union with God, which she achieved through many years of prayer and an active sacramental life. Cardinal O’Malley suggests that we pursue the same course – to draw close to Jesus in prayer and the sacraments – asking God for the grace to see ourselves and others as he sees us, as masterpieces of his creation.
“When God created each of us, he did so with precision and purpose, and he looks on each of us with love that cannot be outdone in intensity or tenderness.” If we wish to help build the Culture of Life, we should reflect on these words of Cardinal O’Malley until they are assimilated into the deep recesses of our minds and our hearts. From there they will give birth to deep convictions: “We must look at ourselves and at others in light of this truth and treat all people with the reverence and respect which is due.”
This was Jeanne Jugan’s secret. She saw in each elderly person a suffering member of the Body of Christ, and she treated them as she would have treated Christ himself. Jeanne Jugan’s canonization process involved the recognition of two miracles worked through her intercession. But our foundress hasn’t stopped working miracles now that she is a Saint!
During this Respect Life Month, pray through her intercession for the miracle of a conversion of our society’s values to those of the Culture of Life. And ask Saint Jeanne Jugan to help you realize your own dignity, and the dignity of all those with whom you share your life, as masterpieces of God’s creation.
(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)