Over the past year many Daughters of Charity have asked me to express my hopes for the Company, as I did a year ago for the Congregation of the Mission. I have hesitated for a very obvious reason: I am not a Daughter of Charity. I have never lived your life, even if at times I have shared in your joys and your sorrows. But I speak today because you, through your Constitutions, have asked me to be the Superior General of your Company. I also speak because I love the Company of the Daughters of Charity deeply. Some of the best women I have ever known live in your midst. With the freedom of one who loves, therefore, I will throw caution to the wind and will speak to you from the heart, trusting in your understanding.
What I express to you today is not a list of “impossible dreams.” It is a list of hopes. I think that all of them are realizable, though surely with some difficulty.
1. I hope that the international character of the Daughters of Charity will be deepened.
The Company was already international in the time of Saint Vincent. He sent Sisters to Poland. As you know he sent Missionaries to Algeria, Madagascar, Poland, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and also dreamed of the Indies, of Canada, of China. But, in reality, the Church has become a “world Church” only in the twentieth century. Vatican II, as Karl Rahner points out, is really the first “world Council.”1 Likewise, it is only in the twentieth century that the Daughters of Charity have become a worldwide Company with provinces on all the continents and on the pacific islands.
In this regard, a remarkable shift has taken place in the latter part of the twentieth century. Since 1970, for the first time in history, more than fifty percent of the world’s Catholics are living in the southern hemisphere2. WaIbert Biihlmann calls this the “coming of the third Church.”3
In order to realize this hope, I want to encourage every Sister and every province to have a global awareness. Let me mention three signs that will witness to global awareness in the Company.
A first, concrete sign is the ability to respond to emergencies. Actually, many Daughters of Charity have been heroic in this regard in places like Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Rwanda. Do not let provincial ties and provincial needs hold you back. When the needs of the Church are greater elsewhere, go with liberty.
A second sign of the international character of the Company, and of global awareness, is solidarity among the provinces. I urge you to cooperate with one another. This is already taking place through national and regional meetings of Visitatrixes, but I especially want to encourage you to cooperate in regard to the formation of candidates and in regard to assistance to poorer provinces. There are some things we can do together that we cannot do separately. Those of us who are better off materially can surely be of great assistance to those who have less.
Thirdly, a healthy sign of global awareness in the Company will be the presence of sisters from all the continents, with their varied races, here in the General Curia, An international Company needs ties between the center and the provinces. As the provinces of the “Third Church” grow, good communication with the center will be an utter necessity.
2. That its missionary character be highlighted.
The Mother General has already addressed this subject in her letter of January 6, 1994. This means that the Company will be mobile, flexible, responsive to the needs of the worldwide Church.
When the Company was founded, Saint Vincent and Saint Louise scattered tiny seeds—parish sodalities, so to speak—throughout France and then in Poland. Today the Company, by God’s blessing, is a huge tree under whose branches the poor in eighty-four countries take shelter. Some of its most fruitful branches are in distant lands.
I pose this question: Could every province of the Daughters of Charity take on the responsibility for a mission outside its own territory? Could the Company become missionary not just territorially, but in the heart and will of its members, showing great flexibility in moving to wherever the needs of the poor cry out, both within one’s province and outside?
One of the signs that the Company is filled with a missionary spirit will be the willingness to relinquish works that are well-established but which others can carry on, in order to free sisters for more pressing needs that others are unwilling or unable to meet.
3. That there be a more concrete collaboration with lay people, especially the young.
Pope John Paul H has often spoken of the generosity and the yearnings of young people. Echoing the words of Vatican II4 he calls young people “the hope of the Church.”5 He encourages us to reach out to them, to offer them a challenge. My predecessor, Fr. McCuilen, repeated this theme several times in his addresses. I want to reaffirm it today.
It is not easy to work with young people. They ask challenging questions. Their ways seem different. Sometimes they appear to lack the discipline and the permanence of commitment that older people expect from others.
But young people hold the key to the future. They will be the Church of tomorrow. They are the twenty-first century’s evangelizers of the poor. The inevitable, universal fact of human existence is that each of us passes on. We must, therefore, hand on the future to the young.
I challenge every province, even every work if possible, to reach out to young people. Involve them especially in the service of the poor. Involve them in your prayer and your reflection on the gospels. Involve them in some form of community living. All these things—service, prayer, community—are among the deepest aspirations of young people.
Today my hope is that you reach out to the young, wherever you labor. Share with them your wonderful charism. The strength and the charm of youth, Pope Paul VI said at the end of Vatican II, is “the ability to rejoice with what is beginning, to give oneself unreservedly, to renew oneself, and to set out again for new conquests6.
In placing this pastoral objective before you, I do not make vocational recruitment its motivation but, at the same time, I suspect that if we work generously with the young they will be drawn to be servants of the poor.
But let me also add an explicit word about vocations. Let your joy, your care for one another, your faith-filled lives, your service of the poor proclaim to young women the richness of your vocation. Encourage them. It is not easy for young people today to make permanent commitments. Say to them how deep God’s love is and how good it is to share it with the poor.
4. That each province develop concrete models for community living.
You are a community for the mission. I am convinced that the quality of community living affects the quality of pastoral service to others. The gospels tell us that there is no greater sign of the presence of Christ in the world than a vibrant love for one another. The rule of Saint Vincent7 and your present Constitutions speak of the affection you should have for one another8.
My concern is this. In recent years, it seems to me, we have been able to find a considerable number of renewed, creative ways of serving the poor_ But, along with many other Communities, we have had much difficulty in finding ways of significantly renewing community living.
Many of the practices and structures that gave shape to community living in an earlier era have disappeared. In almost all cases, we could surely not now return to those same structures. Most of them served their purpose in their own time, but gradually became over-formalized, inflexible, and out-dated. Still, they often aimed at values that have abiding validity: unity with one another, common vision and energy in the apostolate, prayer, revision de vie, penance and conversion. With the passing away of former practices, however, we have unfortunately not yet come up with sufficient contemporary means for forming “New Communities.”
Having visited, at one time or another, all of the continents, I see that it is quite difficult to envision a single model of community living.
One of the principal means that your Constitutions envision toward the building up of a living community is the local community plan9. This plan is, in a sense, a covenant entered into by the members of the local community, by which they pledge to work toward certain common goals and engage in certain common practices. It is to include all aspects of community living and to be evaluated and revised periodically10. The Constitutions leave considerable flexibility to the local community for fleshing this plan out.
I encourage each of the provinces, and each of the Visitatrixes, to work creatively at evolving models for local community plans. These models should be flexible and demanding at the same time. I say flexible, because they will vary from culture to culture and place to place. But I say demanding because we commit ourselves to living together. In speaking with married couples, we often encourage them to be with their children, to eat with them, to instruct them, to recreate with them, to listen to them. We may even warn them that, if they neglect to do so, their bonds with the children will eventually be strained and broken. Analogously, if we neglect our Sisters in community, if we fail to be present to them, if we fail to share with them the key elements that constitute our life together (our apostolic mission, our prayer, our attentiveness to mutual listening and service), the bonds of our union will gradually be dissolved.
Working up good models of community living is a demanding objective. It will require creativity and discipline (two qualities that are not easily married!).
5. That the Company will continue to emphasize and find creative means for integral formation on both initial and ongoing levels.
Such integral formation would have various aspects: human, spiritual, apostolic, Vincentian, biblical, theological, professional. On all levels, the person herself will be seen as the one primarily responsible for her own formation.
I encourage you to be especially attentive to the formation of Sisters in the early years after the seminary. Bring them together often. Help them build a deep spiritual foundation, a rootedness in God. It is only in this way that they will be fully alive and persevering in the service of the poor.
6. I would hope that the Company could develop prayer forms which are “something beautiful for God” and attractive to the young.
I would like to see the following principles guide the preparation and the practice of your daily prayer:
a. it should be beautiful
b. it should be simple
c. it should be attuned to the prayer of the Church
d. it should be flavored by the tradition of the Company
e. it should be flexible (adaptable to various situations).
Could each province and each house work at creating a daily common prayer that has these characteristics?
7. I hope that the sick poor will always have a privileged place in the mission of the Company and in each of its provinces.
The sick poor are often the poorest of the poor, and today with maladies like AIDS, the most abandoned. I ask you to remember this: The mission of the Daughter of Charity is intimately bound up with the sick poor. Of course, over the centuries the charity of Christ drove the Daughters to serve many others in distress, but the foundational inspiration of the first Daughters of Charity was to give their whole lives in the service of the sick poor. Marguerite Naseau was the model Saint Vincent held up before the Company. She lived and died for the sick poor, because in 1633, at the age of 39, after having placed in her own bed a patient afflicted with plague, she succumbed to the plague herself. Saint Vincent loved to tell the story of this first Daughter of Charity. She inspired hundreds of thousands of others who would follow in her footsteps.
The original approbation of the Company, dated November 20, 1646, and signed by the Archbishop of Paris, reinforces this focus on the sick poor: “God has inspired [these young women] to dedicate themselves to the service of the sick poor.”11 The original statutes of the Company say the very same thing: This small group, which Saint Vincent de Paul originally envisioned as a parish sodality and which later was to become an enormous community, are called “servants of the sick poor.”12
8. I hope that every Daughter of Charity will give primacy to these words of Saint Vincent: “The Daughter of Charity is a Daughter of God.”
Your name is Daughter of Charity. It means Daughter of God, Saint Vincent said, because God is charity13. Never forget that name. Seek to be well-informed, skilled nurses, teachers, administrators. But be known also as someone who brings God’s peace into the room of the sick person, and deep faith and understanding into the meetings of the parish. Remember that it is only because of your love that the poor will recognize you for who you are. Let the poor sense in you the presence of God, as they did in Saint Louise. In the end, let them be able to say of you: “She walked with God. She was a true Daughter of Charity.”
Those are my hopes, my sisters. I ask you to join with me in making them a reality.
- K. Rahner, “The Abiding Significance of the Second Vatican Council,” in Theological Investigations XX, 90-102; cf. also “The Future of the Church and the Church of the Future” in Theological Investigations XX, 103-14.
- W. Biihtmann, The Church of the Future (Marylcnoll: Orbis, 1986) 4-5.
- Cf. W. Balmoral, The Coming of the Third Church (Slough, England: St. Pauls, 1976.
- Gravixsirnum Edieratioms, 2.
- Origins, vol. 14, n. 43 (April 11, 1985) 712.
- Closing Message of Vatican II, AAS 58 1466) 18.
- Rules of the Daughters of Charity V. 1.
- Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity 2.17.
- Ibid., 3.46.
- Statutes of the Daughters of Charity 57.
- La Compagnie des Filies de la Charity aux origines, presentation par Soeur Elisabeth Charpy (Paris, 1989) 440.
- Ibid, 441.
- Cf. SV IX 14, 27, 59, 143, 149, 153, 210, 227, 435; X 128, 490, 501.