Caring For the Poor: It’s Not a Career. It’s Who We Are.

What if we could both foster religious vocations and strengthen the Church’s presence in the world of health care? February is a great month to do both!

Each year the Church sponsors two special celebrations during the month of February. The World Day for Consecrated Life is celebrated February 2, the feast of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple; and the World Day of the Sick is celebrated February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Both of these events have significance for us Little Sisters of the Poor. Together, they remind us that the care of the elderly and the sick is not merely something we do. Hospitality to the needy elderly is at the heart of who we are as consecrated women in the Church. The care of the elderly is so central to our vocation that it is sealed by a vow of its own – that of hospitality – in addition to the three vows traditionally made by religious women and men, namely chastity, poverty and obedience. This fourth vow of hospitality brings to perfection our gift of self to the Lord and gives it a very concrete expression in the nitty-gritty of daily life.

As Little Sisters of the Poor we are not alone in our health-related mission to the poor. For centuries the Church has counted on consecrated persons, many of them women, to assure a dedicated and prophetic presence in the world of health care. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict wrote about the Church’s vocation to practice love through works of charity, including the care of the sick. “As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community,” he noted.

How practical our Holy Father is! Love needs to be organized if it is to be effective, and who better to organize it than the legions of women religious who have served in hospitals, homes for the elderly and other institutions down through the centuries? I am humbled to be a part of this great tradition of charity, even if I am not always as organized as I could be!

During this Year of Faith, when Catholics around the world are invited to engage in the New Evangelization with renewed enthusiasm, I am increasingly conscious of how much the Church needs consecrated persons in the field of health – not only to continue Christ’s mission of healing and mercy – but to evangelize the world of health care with the light of the Gospel of Life.

Blessed John Paul II once wrote that health care ministries staffed by religious or otherwise associated with the Church must be more than institutions where care is provided; they must be places were suffering, pain and death are understood in their human and specifically Christian meaning. This conviction is even truer today than when he wrote it nearly 20 years ago! Furthering such understanding is one of the goals of the World Days of the Sick.

Speaking to health care workers in Rome last November, Pope Benedict emphasized that caring for others is not a career, but a mission. He underlined society’s need for “Good Samaritans” with generous hearts and open arms. Members of religious congregations working in health care have a fundamental role to play, he said, in going beyond the clinical approach so common today “to allow the glory of the risen crucified Christ to appear in the diversified panorama of health.”

During this month when we celebrate consecrated life and offer special prayers for the sick, please join us Little Sisters of the Poor in praying for an increase of vocations to our congregation and to other health care ministries in the Church, and in praying that Catholic health care may continue to flourish in our country, despite the challenges we currently face.

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Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, LSP, is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.

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