On March 25, 1642, on the feast of the Annunciation, when Louise de Marillac and her few companions privately took (the confraternity was approved in 1646) the three vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, they added a fourth, specific to the company: to serve the poor.
The company, which had been founded in 1633 by Vincent de Paul and Louise of Marillac, was in fact originally called the Servants of the Poor of Charity, and was the first with women in secular dress and common life dedicated to works of home care established in the Catholic Church.
Today, with 12,400 sisters in 97 countries, the Daughters of Charity are the largest congregation of women religious in the world.
The general house is in the heart of Paris, at the convent in rue du Bac, the old Châtillon building. Inside, at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, which is an important place of prayer and pilgrimage, built following the Marian apparitions of 1830: Our Lady appeared to Catherine Labouré and entrusted her with the task of coining the very popular medal, now an object of devotion throughout the world.
Sister Françoise Petit, who was elected Superior General a year ago, confirms her vocation to the service of the poor and the sick.
The Daughters of Charity are the number one congregation in the world in terms of numbers: how do you explain this?
It is true, there are still many of us, but the numbers are going down. There used to be 40,000 of us! At the moment, there are about 140 sisters in the seminary (novices). In general, the young women who come in are attracted by community life, by a life of prayer. They see that we are truly at the service of people living in precarious conditions today, according to the charism received from our founders, St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac.
You take a vow of poverty and commitment to the service of the poor: how do you experience poverty?
We try to make do with what is necessary. We pool everything and therefore nothing belongs to us. When we have to buy something, we first think about whether it is necessary. Nevertheless, the vow of poverty is experienced not so much as obedience to a discipline made up of rules, but as a freely chosen conduct, which leads us to detach ourselves little by little from material things. When I entered the congregation of the Daughters of Charity I had my own idea of how things should be, but then that idea evolved when I realised that the vow of poverty was an answer given repeatedly. There is a path to follow Christ, which is to be chaste, poor, and obedient.
Which is the most difficult vow? There are many consecrated women who say it is that of obedience!
In reality, it often depends on moments in life and events. To obey can be difficult, for example, when one changes community, particularly if we are attached to that mission and especially to the people of the one we are leaving. It can be an uprooting, experienced most profoundly. Sometimes it is the vow of poverty because one is surprised to be tempted to buy. Instead, there are times that it is chastity, because it can make us feel a lack of affection and a sense of loneliness. However, in reality, the vows are all interlinked and we gradually experience their capacity to free us. I often say not to stiffen up but to entrust to the Lord all the desires we have to respond to his call through the vows. The vows are a commitment but they are also a road to travel along. Inner peace and spiritual maturity are achieved over the years. In the beginning, the desire to experience everything radically is strong, and then one becomes a little stiff, compares oneself to others or despairs of oneself. In addition, not all this makes us grow. We must begin by recognising our gifts and accepting one's limitations. Meditation on the Word of God and time for community sharing help with this. In addition, discussing the Word of God permits us to get to know the sisters in one's own community better and to help each other.
What is the sinner’s poverty as we recognise it, for example, in the Hail Mary, when we implore it by saying, “pray for us sinners”?
The sinner’s poverty is to be sometimes far from God, deaf to his requests, or blind to oneself, to others, or to the miseries that surround them. Sometimes without even realising it, we are no longer in conformity with the will of the Lord, but He forgives us, fortunately. In addition, even this we sometimes forget. Perhaps it is one of the greatest poverties, and it is the one that leads us to despair of ourselves, forgetting that the Lord trusts in us, and if we return to Him, He always welcomes us.
In what does evangelical poverty consist? Is there a poverty to be sought and one to be fought?
Evangelical poverty is that which we are asked to live in following Christ, who did not even have a place where to lay His head. It is also poverty of spirit and simplicity of heart that does not hinder the gifts of God. The poverty to be fought is not of this kind. It is violence, injustice, and misery. As Daughters of Charity, one of our challenges is the defence of human rights. Many sisters are engaged in this area, either by participating in projects and actions of associations, at the UN - where two Daughters of Charity are present - or in daily life at the local level. In France, for example, the dignity of elderly people is sometimes among the human rights violated, and some Daughters of Charity, themselves elderly, are present where this type of injustice or misery exists.
How do you experience seniority in your communities?
There are big differences from one country to another. In Kenya or Albania, for example, there are no elderly sisters. On the other hand, in Europe - in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands - communities are ageing. Some provinces can afford to keep elderly sisters in active communities because there are enough sisters to look after them. In France, elderly nuns are often placed in an Ehpad [EN: reception centre for non-self-sufficient elderly people] where, with their limitations, they continue their mission among other elderly people. They are a sign of the Church through fraternal life, paying special attention to others.
Is there any poverty that you find more unbearable than others, on a personal level?
When I was a social worker, what upset me most was meeting parents, mothers in particular, who had lost a child. At the end of August, I went to Ukraine to visit our sisters, who are taking in many displaced people, especially women and children. On that occasion, too, I was very shocked to hear, for example, a woman tell that her two sons were at the front. Her pain affected me deeply. There is indeed poverty that leaves its mark.
You have been elected Superior General of the Daughters of Charity: do those in positions of authority also have to deal with poverty?
I experience it every day. Poverty of skills, of character, spiritual dryness, tiredness. I am confronted with my limitations constantly. I am not only flawed, but I have them, like everyone else. Fortunately, I do not have them all on the same day! (laughter). Nevertheless, I am not alone; eight sisters from the General Council surround me. I trust them, we complement each other. When you have authority, the problem is that it is harder for others to tell you that something is wrong. When they applaud you it is nice, but you have to learn not to take it personally and never lose sight of the fact that it is the Lord who is being applauded. Sometimes, when I see the sisters praying, I say to myself: maybe I am the one who prays the least! Then I reassure myself, because in reality there is no first or last. The important thing is to know how to be accepted by the Lord, whatever our limitations. It is he who does the essential; we do what we can with what we are.
By MARIE-LUCILE KUBACKI
Journalist, Rome correspondent for La Vie
And Paul VI invited them to take off the cornette
At the beginning, the Daughters of Charity wore everyday clothes. However, it was not long after that the costume of the Ile-de-France peasant girls became the norm, the coarse grey twill cloth (hence the name soeurs grises, in France), with white collar and cap (toquois). The bonnet was later replaced by the characteristic wide-brimmed headdress, the cornette, already in use among the peasant women of Paris, Picardy and Poitou, whose “wings” became wider and starched during the 18th century. After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI personally invited the Superior General of the Daughters of Charity to simplify the habit, which became dark blue and without cornette on September 20, 1964.