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.)