One of the more persistent annoyances in the contemporary Catholic world is the proud declaration that now we finally know that we’re supposed to evangelize and go forth and go out and not sit smugly inside the church walls! Finally!
It’s not all the fault of the Francis Moment. Since the Second Vatican Council, that idea: that the pre-Vatican II Church was closed-off, and we’re all about the openness, energy and evangelization now – exists in the Catholic Atmosphere somewhere between assumption and dogma.
But how odd, then, that when we dig out examples to inspire us in our current efforts to take the Gospel into the world, to be energetic and creative and engaged, we tell each other that we need to be more like…
Francis de Sales!
Catherine of Siena!
Francis of Assisi!
or today’s saint: Blessed Marie-Rose Durocher!
Who all, it seems, managed to understand Jesus’ call pretty well, despite having to live rigidly with access only to the ©TLM.
Just think what they could have accomplished with more freedom and the right to actively participate!
(My take has always been that what Vatican II unleashed, even as it was called in order to enable the Church to offer the Gospel to the world with more vigor and understanding, was mostly decades and decades of self-involved naval-gazing and infighting as the energy to go out was redirected into endless meetings trying to figure out new structures and mission statements and what we’re all about and for, a massive waste of time and misdirection that we’re seeing reach its natural climax in #Synod15.)
Eh, as usual, I’m absorbing that very same distracting energy in composing this blog post, which was intended to be pretty simple. So, pull back, and get back to business.
In the midst of my usual historical rabbit-hole explorations the other day, I happened upon a book at Archive. org called The Blind Sisters of Saint Paul.
It’s an account, written by one Maurice de la Sizerannt, of a religious order founded in the mid-19th century, not only to serve the blind, but as once accepting blind women as members. From another source:
The story of the conversion of St Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (“For three days he was without his sight and took neither food nor drink”, Acts 9,9) is the origin of the charisma of the Blind Sisters of St Paul founded in Paris in 1852 to be, “Light in the Lord” (Eph 5,8).
This Congregation is connected with an intuition of mademoiselle Anne Bergunion, born in Paris in 1804. She had a sewing workshop and had accepted a few blind girls turned away from the National Institute for Young Blind People. The idea of starting a religious community came to her when she read the phrase: “with one of two persons, a week of work and three rooms one could found a congregation”. Mgr Henry Juge, a priest of the diocese of Versailles, immediately supported the endeavour and accompanied it for forty years until his death (1893).
Both founders distinguished themselves for their dedication and their love for the girls. The foundress proposed: “My God I wish to be the slave of the blind for ever”. Her spiritual director said: “If after my death they were to open my heart, in it they would find a blind girl “. To help them work, Canon Juge opened a Braille printing works in 1864.
This was an absolute novelty for the times, both in the social panorama — there was no form of structured assistance — and in the ecclesial field — there had never been a congregation for people with this sort of disability. The foundation was achieved thanks to support from Pius IX, who exclaimed when he heard of the initiative: “There is really a woman who thought of this? This is an admirable undertaking, which was lacking in the Church!”. This phrase still opens the Institute’s Constitution today.
After giving the community rules and constitutions, Anne Bergunion (now Mère Saint Paul) made her first religious vows in the presence of Mgr. de La Bouillerie, on 22 May 1855. Mother Saint Paul had called the blind sisters “choir sisters” and those who could see “lay sisters “, but Canon Juge wished for there to be no difference between the roles. The intuition proved to be fundamental for community life, inspired by absolute equality. In every day life the blind sisters are assisted by the other members of the Institute. The only one of its kind in the world, the Congregation welcomes young blind aspirants who wish to consecrate their life to God and the Church, to serve others, teaching little girls suffering from blindness. On 21 April 1856, the Holy See granted the Institute a Decree of Praise.
The first half of the book is a description of the lives and experiences of the blind in a more general sense, but then the second half is a very detailed look at the lives and work of this congregation. From the article above, and from what I could find online – without having to take an hour to translate – the institute still exists, although I am not sure how large the actual congregation of sisters is, or if, that original mandate to incorporate blind women as sisters is still in evidence.
But it’s all just one more tidbit – one of thousands that could be offered – to correct the current assumption that Catholic life in the past was all about living inside walls, closed to the world. Indeed, as I tried to say in my last post on this matter, I think that the “rules” mentality and the expectation that the serious Christian’s life would be defined by sacrifice – or, in more positive terms, the Catholic’s understandings of his or her obligations to practice the virtues and works of mercy – put this kind of activity in the forefront in a way that made it more difficult for the individual to dismiss.
Yes, there was conflict. That dynamic of conflict and paradox is embedded in Christianity from the beginning: The Gospel and St. Paul are all about the freedom human beings find in gentle yoke of Christ, and when we look at the breadth and depth of Catholic history, we see a continual exploration of what this means and how it is to be lived out, as movements rise, lose their identity to worldly values, are reformed, as creative thinkers butt heads with religious authorities, whose visions are denied one year, then embraced the next.
From the book:
When first the community was founded, blind
and normal nuns used to be assembled in separate
groups, so as to exhort the former to resignation
and the latter to gratitude; now all goes smoothly,
there is no longer juxtaposition, but fusion, of the
two elements. Both classes of nuns consider them-
selves Sisters of St Paul — ^that says everything; and
if preferences or special friendships were allowed
in convents, they would most often be between a
blind and a normal nun. On January 25 and Octo-
ber 24, there are general rejoicings; on the day of
St Paul’s Conversion the nuns with eyesight have a
festival for the blind, and on St Raphael’s Day the
blind sisters return the compliment.
It would be a great mistake to imagine the seeing
nuns as ^* Marthas,” entirely taken up with exte-
rior works; and the blind nuns as ”Maries,” per-
petually kneeling before the tabernacle and choos-
ing ”the better part.” A purely physical difference
cannot make such a line of demarcation; some nuns
who can see have more contemplative souls than
some of their blind sisters. It is the interior appeal
of our Lord that makes “Maries,” and not the lack
or possession of any one physical sense. Tasks are
dual’s aptitudes; some very important ones fall to
the blind, such as music, some branches of scholas-
tic teaching, and training to the brush-work and
In searching the annals of the community we see
still more intricate tasks confided to blind nuns; a
certain Sister Mary Amelia, whilst the congrega-
tion was unavoidably divided between Bourg-la-
Reine and Paris, took the direction of the former
group; Sister Mary Dosithea, treasurer, becoming
totally blind, continued her avocation most success-
fully, being only assisted in the mechanical work of
book-keeping by a young novice; the real manage-
ment falling entirely on the Sister.
On great feast days in summer the
blind delight in the flowers which dress the altar
and sanctuary and perfume their chapel; and when
clouds of incense fill the air while triumphal hymns
are sung by the whole congregation, they feel them-
selves plunged into an atmosphere of happiness and
mystic joy. They love their dear chapel too, when
coming back at the close of a feast-day to look for
a book or make a short adoration, they find it
warm from the flame of tapers, impregnated with
incense, and as if still thrilling with the diants
that have just ended. If we have the patience or
devotion to spend a little time in a comer of St
Paul’s chapel, we shall see many interesting types
of blind women: sometimes a sister enters by the
nuns’ door; she walks quickly and unhesitatingly to
her little stall: sometimes an old woman dressed as a
*Mady ” comes in very slowly and almost on tip-toe,
with much hesitation and faltering, keeping close to
the wall so as not to lose her way, and touching
each row of chairs to count them and discover when
she reaches her own seat. Thiswill bealady-boarder,
who has recently lost her sight; inher own home she
would not have ventured out of her room or down-
stairs without a guide. Here, example has embold-
ened her, she knows that she is surrounded by other
blind people who make every allowance for her
and are kind instead of critiod; she does not feel
set apart, she has taken confidence and tried her
best (‘^essay6 de pouvoir”) and has succeeded;
each day she has made a little progress and has
gradually recovered more and more independence.
The next moment another blind woman enters,
also dressed with a certain amount of care; she
walks quite steadily if slowly, and finds her place
without feeling for it; she is an organist and teacher
of music who, brought up in a blind school, has re-
tired to St Paul’s after forty years of work; she pays
for her board out of the little income which her
savings produce and the few hundreds of francs
left her by her parents. Later a group of young
girls come in together to pay their visit to the
Blessed Sacrament; these also are quite unembar-
rassed and walk with great precision; they are
Children of Mary, and have been for some time in
the house. Finally, an old blind nun quietly enters,
leading a very young blind child, almost a baby, to
pray to the Infant Jesus, and she teaches her how
to make the sign of the Cross. On Feast days, when
the Church exultantly invites the faithful to form
out-of-door processions as a manifestation of their
faith in the Blessed Sacrament or their devotion
to our Lady, and leads them through city streets
and village roads decorated for the occasion, the
family of St Paul’s refuses to be behindhand. Pro-
cessions in honour of Corpus Christi, the Assump-
tion and the Rosary are specially dear to the
Community. They take place in the garden, under
the avenues of lime trees, and on Corpus Christi
a humble Altar of Repose is erected at the far end
of the garden. Little children, students, work-girls.
Children of Mary, lady-boarders, blind and normal
nuns march along singing:
This is day which the Lord hath made; let us be glad and
O Lord, save me, O Lord, give good success.
Blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord. We
have blessed you out of the house of the Lord. The Lord is
God, and He hath shone upon us. — Psalm cxvii.
What does this mean? That the past was “better?” Nope. It means, more than anything else, that the notion of “progress” has no place in Catholic self-understanding. There is no earthly ecclesial progression towards a “more true” apprehension and expression of the Gospel over time. That arrogant presentist bias is contradictory to the Gospel, in which we all, since the Resurrection, live in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ together, across time and space.