Hearts and hands of nuns, laity take Christ’s love to the poor

Little Sisters, Christ in the City missionaries, Regis college students minister to elderly, homeless

Roxanne King

Their Denver ministries are different but they share a common theme: they all serve the poor.

With the help of lay staff, nine Little Sisters of the Poor nuns lovingly care for needy seniors at Mullen Home in West Highlands, while 25 young adult Christ in the City missionaries serve the chronically homeless downtown, and 115 college students from Regis University’s Father Woody Programs serve inner-city youth, the homeless and the elderly.

Members of the three apostolates shared their stories with 150 guests at a second annual jointly sponsored get-acquainted dinner Sept. 22 at Mullen Home.

“This is a friend-raiser, not a fundraiser,” Little Sister Patricia Mary Metzgar, superior of Mullen Home, told attendees. “It’s to make people more aware of what is going on in our city and the beautiful things you might not hear about.

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A big part of the ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor is serving the elderly at Mullen Home for the Aged. Several women from the Little Sisters gathered with Christ in the City missionaries and students from Regis University Sept. 22 for the second annual get-acquainted dinner, where the three ministries coordinate efforts to serve the poor and elderly of Denver. (Photo by Abby Dellasega)

“This year’s dinner is called Hearts and Hands of Hope because if we didn’t have the heart we wouldn’t be doing it,” she said. “If we didn’t have the hands to share—everyone helping us—we couldn’t do it. We have hope because we’re all working for the Lord—and the more we work together the better.”

The Little Sisters were started by St. Jeanne Jugan in 1839 when she took in a blind, infirm elderly woman and began caring for her in her home in Saint-Servan, France. Today, some 2,500 Little Sisters serve 13,000 elderly residents in 195 homes worldwide, 30 of which are in the United States.

Next year, Mullen Home, which has 65 residents who the nuns support in the manner of their foundress by relying on Providence and begging, will mark its 100th anniversary.

“What goes on here is family—it’s a home,” Sister Patricia Mary said. “There’s a lot of love that goes on here.”

Taking Christ’s love to the homeless is the ministry of Christ in the City, which was founded in Denver in 2010 to form lifelong missionaries. Young adults commit to a summer or a year of living in community to serve in exchange for spiritual, intellectual, apostolic and human formation through the program run by the Christian Life Movement. Missionaries search out the chronically homeless, befriend them, help connect them to resources and feed them.

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Christ is the City is a homeless outreach ministry that was formed in 2010. The aim to serve the chronically homeless population of Denver by befriending them, feeding them, and directing them to various resources that can help them. (Photo by Abby Dellasega)

“This last year has been the hardest of my life but the most beautiful and one of the happiest because it has been such an adventure falling in love with God and sharing that love with our (homeless) friends,” missionary Adriana Aguirre, 19, told the crowd. “I see everything is worth it: all the sacrifice and leaving my home in Sonora, Mexico. Being here and suffering with (the homeless) and sharing their life makes me feel so happy.”

Miriam Hernandez, 23, program assistant for Father Woody Programs, spoke about the service Regis college students do during the academic year (a handful also serve during the summer), which ranges from tutoring at Catholic schools, to helping Christ in the City and other entities to feed the homeless, to assisting with the elderly at Mullen Home, to co-sponsoring a huge annual Christmas party replete with dinner and gifts for thousands of homeless and poor.

Named after Msgr. Charles B. Woodrich who died 25 years ago and was co-founder of Samaritan House homeless shelter, Father Woody Programs was started by Regis professor Victoria McCabe after his death.

“We try to continue (Father Woody’s) mission,” Hernandez said. Quoting one of the key values of the Jesuit university, she added, “We are men and women for others.”

All photos courtesy of Abby Dellasega

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA