St. Jeanne Jugan

During the brutally hot summer of 2003, thousands of French vacationers remained on holiday rather than returning home to bury their recently deceased parents, who had died from the extraordinary heat and were being stashed in air-conditioned storage lockers. Those acts of filial impiety cast into sharp relief the October canonization of Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Born during the virulently anti-Catholic French Revolution, Jeanne Jugan learned early in her life that fidelity to Christ and his Church could be costly. A history of the period of her childhood sums things up neatly: “In spite of the persecution, the people of Cancale kept the faith. During dark nights, in an attic or a barn, or even in the middle of the countryside, the faithful gathered together, and there in the silence of the night, the priest would offer the Eucharist and baptize the children. But this happiness was rare. There were so many dangers.”

Jeanne Jugan knew poverty as well as persecution, and developed a marked sensitivity to the humiliation that those who have fallen through the cracks of society’s net of solidarity can feel. She declined an offer of marriage because, as she put it, “God…is keeping me for a work which is not yet known, for a work which is not yet founded.” That work came into clear focus when, at age 47, she met an elderly, blind and sick woman, whom she took into her care; from that seemingly random encounter was born a tremendous work of charity. The congregation of women religious she founded dedicated itself to the care of the poor and elderly—and supported itself by begging, with the foundress, Jeanne Jugan, as chief beggar.  The Little Sisters of the Poor spread rapidly throughout Europe, America and Africa, but the going was never easy for Jeanne Jugan.

In 1843, Jeanne Jugan’s re-election as superior was quashed by the community’s priest-advisor, Father Augustin Marie Le Pailleur. Refusing to contest what others would have deemed an injustice (but which she thought to be the will of God), Jeanne Jugan accepted this curious decision and went on the road, supporting her sisters by begging. For the last 27 years of her life, she lived at the order’s motherhouse in retirement, again according to the orders of Father Le Pailleur; her role as foundress was never acknowledged during her lifetime. Yet the novelist Charles Dickens could write, after meeting Jeanne Jugan, that “there is in this woman something so calm, and so holy, that in seeing her I know myself to be in the presence of a superior being. Her words went straight to my heart, so that my eyes, I know not how, filled with tears.”

To enter a house of the Little Sisters of the Poor today is to recapture what Dickens experienced. Elderly men and women with no one else to care for them are given exquisite attention; the dignity of every patient is honored, no matter how difficult that dignity may be to discern amidst the trials of senility and disease. The Little Sisters of the Poor and their patients are living reminders that there are no disposable human beings; that everyone is a someone for whom the Son of God entered the world, suffered and died; and that we read others out of the human family at our moral and political peril.

Yet that is the temptation facing the United States, and every other affluent society confronting a graying population, longer life expectancies, and spiraling medical costs. Where this temptation can lead is brutally displayed in the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal for years; and as the late Father Richard John Neuhaus said of such travesties as the Dutch “death with dignity” laws, what is permitted will soon become mandatory. That is precisely what has happened in Holland and indeed wherever euthanasia is legally permitted.

St. Jeanne Jugan, Sister Marie of the Cross in her religious life, is thus a powerful—and badly needed—intercessor for all who would defend the gift of life from conception until natural death.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.