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Mary's mantle

Superman has his red power cape. Elijah wore a cape to manifest his divine authority. Most famously, the Virgin Mary is usually portrayed wearing a cape-like garment known as a mantle, often blue and sometimes adorned with stars, to highlight her extraordinary role in history.
 
In the Church’s oldest Marian prayer we say, “Beneath your mantle we take refuge, O Mother of God.”
 
Medieval artists often depicted Mary under the title of Our Lady of Mercy, with her arms outstretched to reveal a crowd of tiny suppliants huddled in the folds of her mantle. All kinds of people found a place at Mary’s feet – from princes and pious nuns to slaves and peasants.
 
In The Virgin of the Navigators, a Spanish work, Our Lady’s mantle is full enough to envelope a whole armada of ships!
 
Through these paintings, whether they were seeking refuge from pirates or the
plague, medieval women and men expressed their faith in Mary’s motherly protection and powerful intercession.
 
Our Lady’s mantle had a special significance in the New World too. As Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Guadalupe, she assured him, “Do not let your countenance, your heart be disturbed. … Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? … Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?”
 
Mary explained to Juan Diego that a sanctuary should be built on the hill of Tepeyac so that she could demonstrate her merciful concern for God’s people: “I will give Him to the people in all my personal love, in my compassion, in my help, in my protection,” she told him. “I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings.”
 
The foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Jeanne Jugan, was also known for her mantle, a black hooded cape that billowed in the Breton winds and under which she fingered her rosary beads as she traveled on foot seeking alms for the elderly poor to whom she had given a home. Perhaps finding inspiration in the traditional images of Our Lady of Mercy, several artists have portrayed Jeanne Jugan gathering the elderly under her mantle and holding them tightly to her breast.
 
I find solace imagining those I love and care for sheltered in the folds of Mary’s mantle or nestled close to the heart of St. Jeanne Jugan. But I also sense a challenge, and I believe that is why God has inspired me to contemplate these images, which manifest the powerful yet gentle and merciful love of God himself.
 
I believe that God is calling the Church today, and each of us, to open our arms, reach out and draw all those on the peripheries of society into our circle of love. “We are called to bring to everyone the embrace of God, who bends with a mother’s tenderness over us … stooped down in a gesture of consolation,” our Holy Father once said to consecrated women and men.
 
These words of Pope Francis can motivate all of us. This is how we will be missionary disciples who bring the joy of the Gospel to the field hospital of today’s world.
 
St. Jeanne Jugan’s feast day is celebrated on Aug. 30, and during these last weeks of summer we celebrate Mary’s Assumption and queenship, as well as her birthday. On these special days let’s ask Our Lady and St. Jeanne Jugan to teach us how to extend a mantle of compassion over wounded souls, creating – and becoming ourselves – sanctuaries of that powerful yet gentle love which animates the heart of Christ.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 

St. Jeanne Jugan ‘walked the talk’ on mercy

During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy with new enthusiasm. A member of my religious community recently noted how blessed we are as Little Sisters of the Poor to have multiple opportunities each day to practice mercy: serving meals to the elderly, bathing and dressing those who need assistance, comforting those who are sad or lonely, keeping vigil with the elderly who are dying and accompanying them all the way to the grave.

St. Jeanne Jugan, who established our congregation in France when she offered her home and her heart to a homeless elderly woman, is our inspiration and example in the practice of mercy. Each time I enter our chapel I pass an icon of our foundress with two elderly residents; this image reminds me of her kindness and compassion toward the poor. 

Inside the chapel, there is another image, a statue depicting Jeanne Jugan sitting alone in a posture of prayer. This image reminds me of how she practiced the spiritual works of mercy in a profound way, especially when she was deprived of her role as foundress and forced into the shadows.

Although Jeanne had been legitimately elected superior by her companions, in 1843 she was removed from office by a priest who served as the community’s advisor. She was recalled to the motherhouse in 1852 and spent 27 long years there in forced retirement, enduring an obscurity so extreme that the young members of her congregation eventually had no idea that she was the foundress. Although she was no longer able to participate directly in our mission of hospitality, Jeanne continued to practice mercy in two remarkable ways.

First, she played a unique role at our motherhouse, even as she grew increasingly frail in her old age. Among the young novices, Jeanne practiced the spiritual works of mercy by instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and fervently praying for others. As she gave them moral support, practical advice and spiritual counsel, they felt loved by her, and in return, loved her as a mother. Several Little Sisters ultimately attributed their perseverance to her.

Many of the young sisters who knew Jeanne Jugan admired her spirit of faith and her profound humility, but the most striking example she gave them was the way she bore wrongs patiently and willingly forgave those who treated her unjustly. Placed in a similar situation, most of us would fight back, considering it a matter of justice to reclaim our rightful place, or at least to let others know about the wrongs committed against us. 

But in the case of St. Jeanne Jugan, there is not a single recorded instance of her trying to set the record straight or assert her legitimate authority. Among the numerous testimonies collected in view of her canonization there is just one incident in which she told the priest responsible for her deposition, “You have stolen my work — but I give it to you willingly!”

Such was St. Jeanne Jugan’s practice of the spiritual works of mercy. Her humility and long suffering were truly heroic. 

What was the secret to her sanctity? Jeanne found consolation and courage in the merciful heart of Jesus, gentle and humble of heart. She saw her life as a continuation of His and, out of love for Him, tried to incarnate His merciful love for the poor. Inspired by her love for Christ, she also bore her share of his cross joyfully until death.

Article written by Sister Constance Veit, director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
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