St. John of God and the Charism of Hospitality

Brother Tom Osorio, O.H., a member of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, has known Saint Jeanne Jugan and the Little Sisters of the Poor since his childhood in the Bronx. He reflects on the charism of hospitality in the lives of his founder and ours.

As the Church and the people of God celebrate the Canonization of Jeanne Jugan, we pause to reflect on the deeper reality of this woman of God. We also look at our own lives and rediscover the impact that Jeanne continues to have in our lives.

I can speak with great confidence that Jeanne Jugan never realized the act of faith she carried out by assisting the first elderly woman—the impact that it would have so many years later. This moment of grace affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women. Nor would Jeanne have realized how many women would follow her example of Hospitality and consecrate their lives to the service of the elderly poor.

I can remember as a young boy walking into the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Bronx, NY. I was immediately impressed at how happy everyone was. I remember asking if I could volunteer and one Sister said, “Certainly, follow me.”  It was at that point that I thought I would have work to do with one of the Residents.  However, my excitement turned into disappointment when I was shown several boxes that needed unpacking. I remember Sister saying, “Whatever we do for the elderly poor we do because of the love of God.”

That one day changed my life forever. What was it that impressed me so much that I would find every free hour being spent at this house of God? Could it be that this place was indeed “holy ground?” Could it be that the simplicity that existed there was what attracted me? Or was it simply the way the Little Sisters of the Poor lived their lives with those they serve?

As I reflect today on those early years, I can say that it is all of these things and more. It was, and continues to be, the true work and sacrifice that Jeanne Jugan had experienced so many years ago. For when we reflect on the life of those women—we see simplicity, we see total faith in Divine Providence, we see hospitality lived so well.

The Charism of Hospitality

The unique spirit of the Little Sisters of the Poor is a direct value inherent in the life of Jeanne Jugan. The history of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God and Jeanne Jugan goes back to a period in the early ministry of the Foundress and the Little Sisters of the Poor.

We know from our reflections on her life that she was attracted to the charism of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God; particularly the Brothers entrusted to seek alms and goods to adequately provide for the sick. The Brothers were very happy to share with Jeanne the history and the tradition of St. John of God himself.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jeanne was able to accept this unique gift of Hospitality and define it in such a way that everything done in the name of Jesus Christ through Hospitality was indeed holy. Jeanne reminds us so eloquently, “Never forget that the Poor are our Lord.”

Hospitality then must be seen as creating an open space so that the poor and the sick encounter the real presence of Christ our Lord. We see that so clearly in Jeanne’s simplicity. We see that so clearly in the life of John of God. We, who have been called to dedicate our lives to the poor and sick, must constantly pray to our Founders for the strength and the courage to be true custodians of the gift of Hospitality.

The Consequence of Hospitality

Today more than ever, the people of God—especially the sick and the vulnerable—hunger for the love of God, hunger for the gift of the human touch. To say as religious men and women we follow and believe that Jeanne Jugan embodied the Spirit of Christ, we must first admit our frailty before God.

To authentically be at one with those we serve, we must seek and define our intimacy with God. Failure to do this results in merely providing a service to those in our care. In order for Hospitality to be authentic, we must bring our oneness with God to those we serve. This is how we alleviate suffering in the manner of Jeanne Jugan.

The reality we see clearly in Jeanne Jugan and John of God is their fidelity to the Gospel. Our obstacles today are very different from the time of Jeanne Jugan. Nonetheless, they are still present.  Today Hospitality forces us to be creative in how we serve those in our care. During these economic difficulties all over the world, we must never lose hope in Divine Providence. Jeanne believed so deeply that if God gave the house, he would provide.

I suppose the question we must ask ourselves each day is, “Do we believe that it is the Lord’s work? And do we truly implore the intercession of our Foundress, Jeanne Jugan?”

To Alleviate Suffering

I would be remiss in not reflecting somewhat on the poor and those who suffer. I imagine we need to really define who the poor are today around and among us. Here we must remember that justice and mercy must be at the heart of Hospitality. If Jeanne Jugan were alive today, physically she would be encountering a very different poverty than in her earlier ministry. As followers of a dynamic person such as Jeanne Jugan, we must clearly be about alleviating suffering.  Today, we also encounter spiritual hunger, spiritual suffering. Many times, it is not recognized. But the reality is we are living with and serving men and women who are lacking spiritual fulfillment. That is even more dangerous than financial poverty, for there are people who do not yet know the reality of the love of God. I know with all my heart, this would disturb Jeanne Jugan. With this reality, we can therefore say Hospitality calls us to be in the chaos.

What does that mean for us today? It means that when we become comfortable in our service to the people we serve and in the communities in which we live, we must stand up, seek and reach out to our brothers and sisters, who are not comfortable, and for whom  life causes great suffering. This is what motivated Jeanne Jugan. I have no doubt that Jeanne Jugan had many sleepless nights at the thought of many men and women who suffered alone, or who had unmet needs.

The Church truly rejoices, as do we Hospitaller Religious, as we, in a very public way, lift up this woman of God, who dared to be different, who dared to challenge, who surrendered herself to become poor and powerless at the foot of the cross.

Through her surrender, we have in our world today the great flower of Hospitality which embraces suffering humanity, which transforms Calvary into the New Jerusalem, truly the City of God. In great joy we proclaim “Blessed Be God!”