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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.
 

Religious liberty and Fortnight for Freedom

By Sister Constance Veit, lsp
 
In college I grew in my Catholic faith and had a strong experience of religious pluralism. I was involved in the Newman Center daily, but I also had many non-Catholic friends and even frequented Hillel House, the Jewish student center.
 
Several of my Jewish friends worked in Hillel’s kosher dining room, and since they couldn’t work on the Sabbath or religious holidays, they got me and some other non-Jewish girls jobs there; we served kosher food and did the dishes on Friday evenings and Jewish holidays.
 
At 19, I didn’t know much about Jewish traditions. My orthodox friends took their religious obligations seriously and faithfully observed the weekly Sabbath, or Shabbat as I learned to call it. I tried my best to respect their deeply held convictions, even when I didn’t understand them, since I didn’t want to offend either my friends or their faith. I secretly admired the courage of the Orthodox Jewish students who unabashedly proclaimed their religious identity through their yarmulkes, their food choices and other observances.
 
Through these experiences, I learned to approach other faith traditions with reserved curiosity and respectful appreciation. As I learned more about Judaism, while at the same time examining Catholicism in depth, I came to understand that even when we are at a loss to explain the nuances of our faith experiences to skeptics and unbelievers, this does not weaken the sincerity or strength of our convictions.
 
Things have changed a lot since my college days. As the Little Sisters have spent the last several years in the limelight due to our Supreme Court case over the HHS contraceptive mandate, we have received valuable support and encouragement from many sources. But we have also been the object of mean-spirited hate mails, uninformed critiques and partisan judgments of our supposed hidden motives. The vitriol directed against us has been both disturbing and disheartening.
 
Remembering the mutual respect I experienced during my college days, I am deeply saddened to see our current culture’s disdain for traditional religious values and its apparent amnesia in relation to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. For me the most jarring moment occurred last year when a major political candidate proclaimed, referring to pro-lifers, “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”
 
We claim to live in a pluralistic society that defends human dignity and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such a society is committed to making room for everyone including those whose convictions run counter to the mainstream but who wish to live peaceably with others and contribute to the common good. This does not mean that every individual will find every job or social situation a perfect fit. Nor does it mean that every employer, organization
 
or service provider will be able to satisfy the desires and aspirations of every person who walks through their doors.
 
In a pluralistic society, religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor will inevitably encounter requests for services that run contrary to our beliefs, but refusing to provide such services does not offend the conscience rights of others. Nor does it constitute discrimination or bigotry. It is, rather, a means of safeguarding our personal integrity and the Catholic identity of our organizations.
 
Washington, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl said it well in Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge: “There are some things that the Church simply will not do, and it is not discriminatory to say, ‘We do not do that.’ … We must remain true to who we are. We cannot be expected to embrace error and give up our identity, which inspired us to form ministries of teaching, healing and charity in the first place.”
 
As we observe the sixth Fortnight for Freedom (June 21 through July 4), let’s pray that religious liberty will once again be respected as the most cherished of American freedoms. Let’s pray for the freedom to serve in harmony with the truths of our Catholic faith.
 
Finally, let’s pray for the wisdom to know how to contribute to a better understanding of this important issue in a way that respects all people of good will.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 

Healing the loss of a loved one

By Sister Constance Veit, lsp
 
I lost my mother unexpectedly last November after having lost my father after a long illness eight years earlier. My siblings and I suddenly found ourselves “orphans” as we marked our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without either of our parents. Now we are anticipating our first Mother’s Day without Mom.
 
We’ve spent the past few months dismantling and selling my parents’ home of 50 years. It’s the only house we knew growing up, and it has continued to be our emotional hub as our adult lives have taken us across the country. As we bring closure to this phase of our grieving just in time for Mother’s Day, I feel drawn to share a few reflections on how my faith has supported me during this time of mourning.
 
The loss of a loved one can engender intense and contradictory feelings; this is especially true with our parents, since our bond with them is so profound. We may experience an overwhelming sense of loss at a parent’s death, especially if they were involved in our daily lives, or we in theirs. In all likelihood, we also mourn a combination of unexpressed sentiments, unresolved issues, unfulfilled hopes and plans and family milestones that will never be celebrated together.
 
In the case of my mother, I have also been deeply grieved by the suffering she experienced in her final days.
 
So what do we do with all of these intense emotions? I have found that the Church’s 50-day celebration of Easter has offered me unexpected graces and consolations as my siblings and I mourn the loss of our mother.
 
Two Easter symbols have helped me to believe that in Christ crucified and risen all of our grief and pain – all our woundedness – can be healed. The first is the Paschal candle and the second is The Divine Mercy image. Despite participating in the Easter Vigil every year, I never really paid attention to the five grains of incense with which the Paschal candle is inscribed before being lit.
 
These symbolize the wounds of Christ. As he presses the grains into the candle, the priest says, “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ the Lord guard and protect us.”
 
In her book on the healing of memories, “Remembering God’s Mercy,” well-known author Dawn Eden observes “that it is only after these wounds are called to memory that the light of the risen Christ, symbolized by the ignited candle, shines forth and spreads its glow … The light of faith – the lumen fidei that shines upon us and gives us our identity as Christians – is the light of Christ precisely as wounded.”
 
I found Eden’s words especially helpful in accepting my mother’s death. “When I unite my own wounded heart with the wounded and glorified heart of Jesus,” she writes, “his wounds heal mine.”
 
In The Divine Mercy image revealed to St. Faustina, Jesus, though risen, reveals the wounds of His crucifixion and His pierced heart. In her diary, St. Faustina relates numerous occasions when Christ invited her to take refuge in his sacred wounds as in a safe hiding place. Christ also refers to His wounds as a fountain of life and mercy, and St. Faustina saw in them a sign of God’s great love. The image of the risen Christ still bearing the wounds of His passion is thus not morbid. It is consoling for me to realize that in his unfathomable mercy Christ embraces both my mother and myself, with all our human imperfections, hiding us in His merciful wounds.
 
The Divine Mercy image and the Paschal candle remind me that it is in the liturgy, especially at Mass, that we are bathed in the waters of new life, fed with His living bread and healed of our wounds. It is also in the Eucharist that we are united with the communion of believers, including those who have passed on ahead of us. It is there that I can still experience communion with my parents – though in a manner quite different from our regular visits and phone calls.
 
As our Catholic faith teaches in the catechism, the union of those who sleep in the Lord with those who are left behind “is in no way interrupted … [but] reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods.”
 
The catechism informs us that those who have gone before us to their heavenly reward do not cease to intercede for us. “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness.” By their concern, “our weakness is greatly helped.” In faith, I know that my bond with my parents is not broken by their passage from this life.
 
I’m sure that my mother, who never gave up trying to direct her children – even after they had reached adulthood – rejoiced to find out that she could continue doing so from heaven. We, her children, are consoled to know that now she has the perfect vantage point! We are not really orphans after all.
 
Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 

Other persons are a gift

A few days ago I met a very little girl who made a big impression on me. Grace and her older brother, Benedict, suffer from a rare genetic disorder that has resulted in serious hearing impairment and limited physical growth. The two come to our home for the elderly each week with their mother to pray the rosary with our residents. Watching Grace and Benedict interact with the elderly, I was amazed by their maturity and graciousness. I almost felt that I was in the presence of angels – such was the radiance of these two beautiful little ones in the midst of our frail seniors.
 
In all likelihood, Grace and Benedict will never make an impact on the world scene, and yet I believe that they, and so many other little, hidden souls, make a huge difference in our world spiritually. This is what our Holy Father is suggesting by his Lenten message this year.
 
The theme he has proposed for our 2017 journey through Lent is “The Word is a Gift. Other Persons are a Gift.”
 
Using the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from St. Luke’s Gospel, Pope Francis turns our attention to those whom we might usually ignore. He compares the anonymity of the rich man, who is never named in Scripture, with Lazarus, who appears with a specific name and a unique story. Lazarus “becomes a face, and as such, a gift, a priceless treasure, a human being whom God loves and cares for, despite his concrete condition as an outcast.”
 
The pope continues, “Lazarus teaches us that other persons are a gift. A right relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value.” Lent, he says, is a favorable season for recognizing the face of Christ in God’s little ones. “Each of us meets people like this every day,” says the pope. “Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love. The word of God helps us to open our eyes to welcome and love life, especially when it is weak and vulnerable.”
 
This is what our foundress St. Jeanne Jugan did so beautifully. Mindful of Christ’s promise that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to Him, she opened her heart and her home definitively to the needy elderly of her day. She often counseled the young Little Sisters, “Never forget that the poor are Our Lord. … When you will be near the poor, give yourself wholeheartedly, for it is Jesus Himself whom you care for in them.”
 
Jeanne Jugan looked upon each elderly person with the loving gaze of Christ and so she saw each one as a treasure worthy of reverence and loving care. She knew that despite outward appearances, each person to whom she offered hospitality was someone for whom Christ died and rose again; each one was someone worthy of the gift of her own life.
 
Pope Francis’ prayer this Lent is that the Holy Spirit will lead us “on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need.” Let us pray for one another, he concluded, “so that by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and the poor. Then we will be able to share to the full the joy of Easter.”
 
I thank God for my recent encounter with Grace and Benedict, for they opened my eyes anew to the beauty in each human person. My wish for you this Lent is that God lead might you to a similar life-changing encounter.
 
Sister Constance Veit is the director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 

The sick, our everyday heroes

By Sister Constance Veit, lsp
 
Recently two of my family members were talking about a mutual friend who, though chronically ill, routinely does heroic acts of kindness for others. Though they get exasperated with her when she overextends herself, they realize that caring for others is what makes life meaningful. I thanked God that these women are kind enough to support their friend through both good times and bad, helping her to live a full life.
 
This incident came to mind as I read Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of the Sick (celebrated this year on Feb. 11) in which he reflects on St. Bernadette’s relationship to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady spoke to Bernadette “as one person to another,” he says, treating her with great respect, even though she was poor and sickly. “This reminds us that every person is, and always remains, a human being, and is to be treated as such. The sick and those who are disabled, even severely, have their own inalienable dignity and mission in life.”
 
In light of the expanding legalization of assisted suicide, Pope Francis’ insights are invaluable.
 
Studies have shown that the majority of people who support assisted suicide do so because they fear the loss of personal autonomy and dignity in their final days. Suffering, they say, is meaningless and should have no place in the human experience. It seems that the thought of having to go on living when faced with serious disability or illness is becoming unacceptable in our post-Christian society.
 
What I find most tragic in this exaltation of independence and personal choice is that this attitude denies the beautiful reality that we are made for community. Created in the image and likeness of God, who is a Trinity of Persons, we are inherently relational, not autonomous. Mutual dependence, rather than independence, is the true Gospel value, and so we should not be ashamed when we need the assistance of others. Our weakness or infirmity can be a graced opportunity for those who help us, as well as for ourselves, for as St. John Paul II so often repeated, we can only find fulfillment through the sincere gift of self to others.
 
This is why Pope Francis is asking us to honor the sick by helping them to share their gifts and abilities. “Let us ask Mary Immaculate for the grace always to relate to the sick as persons who certainly need assistance,” he writes, “but who have a gift of their own to share with others.”
 
St. Bernadette turned her frailty into strength by serving the sick and offering her life for the salvation of humanity. The fact that Mary asked her to pray for sinners, the pope writes, “reminds us that the infirm and the suffering desire not only to be healed, but also to live a truly Christian life.”
 
Social media has allowed me to become acquainted with numerous heroes who go on giving in the midst of tremendous suffering. If you are looking for inspiration just Google Zach Sobiech or Lauren Hill, young adults who made a difference in the world while dying of cancer; J.J. Hanson, president of the Patients Rights Action League, who triumphed over a brain tumor; or O.J. Brigance, a former professional football player who inspires thousands though he is completely paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease.
 
I am sure that you have unsung heroes in your midst in the person of sick, disabled or elderly persons who enrich your life despite their own trials. This year as we celebrate the World Day of the Sick, let’s honor these everyday heroes by letting them know that we admire them and are there for them in their moments of need, and by asking them to pray for us.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 
  • Published in World

Our Elders Are Lonely: Do We Care?

Recently I’ve been asked to speak about loneliness in the elderly on numerous occasions. I was even quoted in a recent article by Catholic journalist Mary Rezac, entitled “Our Elders Are Lonely – Do We Care?” As we look forward to Christmas, let’s hope we can all say, “Of course we do!”
 
The issue of loneliness in the elderly may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While one recent study reported that nearly half of people over 60 said they feel lonely on “a regular basis,” another asserted that only 6 percent of American seniors said they “often” feel this way. Contradictory statistics aside, in our country roughly one third of those over 65 and half of those over 85 live alone.
 
Sociologists see this trend as a sign of social progress. Improved health care, increased wealth and the emergence of retirement as a relatively long stage of life, they say, have created more choices for seniors and enabled them to live independent of their adult children. This situation, often referred to as “intimacy at a distance,” respects the life choices and autonomy of both older persons and their adult children, fostering more positive and supportive emotional bonds for all.
 
In his book, “Being Mortal,” surgeon and author Atul Gawande wrote, “The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated….The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people –- the young and the old –- a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by the veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.”
 
The problem is that our exultation of personal autonomy over family and community fails to acknowledge that sooner or later each of us will need the help of others to survive and enjoy a meaningful life. This brings us to Christmas. What is Christmas without family and community?
 
And yet this season can also be a time of stress for those who are estranged from their loved ones, those who cannot afford to fulfill their children’s wishes, those whose holiday joys are but a distant memory and those who find themselves alone in this world.
 
Christmas is the perfect time to begin promoting (rather than demoting) family and practicing what our Holy Father asked in his apostolic letter for the closing of the Year of Mercy, “Misericordia et Miseria.” As we gather in our families, social circles and faith communities –- even at our office parties -– may we look around to see who is standing on the periphery, who is at risk of being excluded from the joys of this season. Inspired by mercy, let us offer a word of consolation and begin restoring joy and dignity to those who feel left out. God’s mercy, Pope Francis suggested, finds expression in the closeness, affection and support that we offer our brothers and sisters and in the strength of family. “The drying of tears is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped,” he wrote.
 
Mercy leads us to see each person as unique. “We have to remember each of us carries the richness and the burdens of our personal history;” Pope Francis wrote; “this is what makes us different from everyone else. Our life, with its joys and sorrows, is something unique and unrepeatable that takes place under the merciful gaze of God.”
 
If you are young, you can share God’s mercy this Christmas by patiently listening to your grandparents’ stories or offering them a hand in a way that says, “You are important to me.”
 
If you are a grandparent, look to see which one of your children or grandchildren is waiting for your affirmation or your words of wisdom.
 
Even if you are infirm or in need and feel that you have nothing to give, you can still offer your smile, your thanks or a word of kindness to those who help you.
 
Our Holy Father reminds us that God never tires of welcoming and accompanying us, despite our sins and frailties. Let our loving presence be the gift we give others this Christmas.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 
  • Published in Nation
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