Jeanne Jugan knew poverty. Her father was a fisherman, who was lost at sea when she was only 4 years old. Her mother raised eight children as a single mom. The family struggled to eat, and for a place to live, and often enough they knew real hunger, real cold, real need.
As a child, Jugan worked in the fields caring for sheep, doing hard, rough work to help support her family. Eventually she became a maid. She worked for a kind noblewoman who made sure that she had enough to eat, and a place to live. The noblewoman also made sure that Jeanne Jugan did not forget about poverty: part of her duties were to visit the sick, the poor, and the elderly, and to bring them food and money on behalf of her employer.
Jeanne Jugan’s whole life became service to the poor. She worked hard, serving families and widows with very little. She served them because, as she would say, she was a sister to the poor. She served the poor, she said, in order to serve Jesus Christ.
Eventually, Jeanne Jugan began living with and caring for poor widows. Soon other women joined her. They worked as nurses and cooks, and they lived with the poor as Christian companions. Soon, they started a new religious community, and Jugan became the foundress of The Little Sisters of the Poor.
For almost 200 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have carried on the work of St. Jeanne Jugan. But today, federal law threatens their work. The dictates of the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act require the Sisters to either support the use of contraception or pay insurmountable fines. Their goal is only to serve the poor. But today our government is undermining that goal.
Last week, the Little Sisters of the Poor won a small victory in the fight to protect religious liberty. The Sisters have filed suit against the federal government, alleging that any participation in the contraceptive mandate violates their conscience and thus their religious freedom. Of course, they’re right. And last week, a Justice of the United States Supreme Court granted the Sisters a reprieve from the mandate while their case is decided.
In the meantime, the Justice Department has opposed the Sisters’ petition on the grounds that colluding in the provision of contraception and abortion is not a violation of the Sisters’ religious convictions.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are not political activists. They’ve not filed suit to make a statement, or to establish legal precedent. They’re working to protect the integrity of their ministry. They’re working to ensure that federal law treats them justly and fairly.
“For law to be good,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “it should make us good… The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue.”
Law is meant to form character, and integrity, and holiness. Law is meant to protect charity. We can measure a law by this standard. Good law leads us to choose what is good, and bad law tolerates, endorses, or celebrates evil.
A law that requires Catholics to violate their religious conviction is not a good law. A law that requires support and endorsement for the use of contraception and abortion is an unjust law. And the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose only mission is to support elderly people living in poverty, are refusing to be led into evil by unjust laws.
This week the Church celebrates the feast of St. Raymond of Peñafort—one of the Church’s great legal minds. In a time of legal ambiguity and confusion, St. Raymond worked to ensure that the Church’s laws, and those of Europe’s nations, were just and fair. Today we face legal ambiguity and confusion. Today we need more men and women like St. Raymond of Peñafort, who work to ensure that law leads us all to virtue.
Next week, on January 13th, I’ll celebrate the Diocese of Lincoln’s annual Red Mass: a Mass for all lawyers, public servants, and law students. Bishop Robert Vasa, a former Lincoln priest and now Bishop of Santa Rosa, California, will be the homilist. After the Mass, we’ll hear from author and scholar Mary Eberstadt on the importance of working for good and just laws. If you are a lawyer, a law student, or if you are interested in the importance of justice in public life, please join us.
We need to join together in prayer and sacrifice for truth. We need to stand together for justice. Like St. Jeanne Jugan, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, and like St. Raymond, we need to stand together for what is good, and beautiful, and true.
Red Mass Monday, Jan. 13
All who are involved with the courts, legislature or legal system
are invited to attend the Red Mass, along with their families.
7 a.m. at Saint Mary Church, 14th and K streets, Lincoln.
Bishop James D. Conley will be the main celebrant and Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa (Calif.) will be the homilist.
Immediately following, attendees will cross the street to the State Capitol, where a complimentary breakfast featuring author and TIME magazine contributor Mary Eberstadt will be hosted in room 1023 by the Catholic Lawyers Guild of the Diocese of Lincoln.