Roots of the Sisters of St. Joseph
By Sister Marie Schwan, SSJ of Medaille
Contrary to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in founding the Society of Jesus, never provided for the foundation of a sister community of women. What has happened, historically, is that a number of women's communities have been inspired by the spirituality and writings, especially the Spiritual Exercises, of St. Ignatius.
Among those communities is the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, founded by the French Jesuit, Jean Pierre Medaille at Le Puy, France in 1650, just a hundred years after the Jesuits had their beginnings.
For those whose image of Ignatius is of a medieval soldier leading his troops in defense of Holy Mother Church against the Protestant revolution, the thought that CSJ roots are deeply embedded in Ignatian spirituality may well be not only unattractive but even distasteful. Even to this day there are those who think of his spirituality as rigid and demanding.
Ignatian spirituality may be demanding, but it is the single and wholehearted demand of the Gospel. The renewal work of the Jesuits in response to the call of Vatican II to return to the original charism of their community has revealed anything but rigidity in the man and his spirituality. Ignatius was a passionate but tender man, who not only challenged his disciples to "the more" in the service of God and neighbor, but also to a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In the later years of his life he often invited the younger Jesuits to sing and even to dance during recreation periods, and he was known for the tears he shed during Eucharist.
At a time when the Church was much in need of reform, and religious practice was monastic in style, he proposed a spirituality that was lived in the world, a spirituality that formed men and women into "contemplatives in action". At the heart of the renewal thrust which included the establishment of universities, schools and missionary efforts, was the giving of the Spiritual Exercises, a christocentric dynamic of conversion based on the life of Jesus. The grace of the Exercises was what St. Paul prayed for: a putting on of the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. (Phil 2:5) Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality that continues to be an authentic response to the spiritual hunger of men and women in our own day.
From the beginning as a community, the Sisters of St. Joseph were nourished by the substance of Ignatian spirituality as it was embodied by Fr. Medaille in the primitive constitutions1 and other early writings, and through annual retreats preached by Jesuits. Woven through his writings are instructions, practices, recommendations, and spiritual teachings that resonate with the writings of his own spiritual father and the life that Jean Pierre lived as a Jesuit in community and as a missionary.
One of the surprising things is that in the primitive constitutions, Fr. Medaille never suggests that the Sisters of St. Joseph make the Spiritual Exercises, nor does he tell them how to pray. He assumes that they will be women of prayer.
S. Agnes Bernice Hennessey, CSJ2 suggests that the women who formed the first community of Sisters had already made the Exercises, and so would have been formed in a solid and lifegiving prayer.
What is of special interest is that Fr. Medaille spoke of the community of the Sisters of St. Joseph as the Congregation of the Great Love of God. Surely, it would seem pretentious to take on such a title!
Again, S. Hennessey suggests that even this title is rooted deeply in Ignatian spirituality. At the end of the Exercises, Ignatius proposes an exercise that has come to be known as the "Contemplation to Attain Love". In the introduction to the exercise Ignatius reminds the retreatant that love is proven not in words but in actions, and then invites the retreatant successively to contemplate various gifts of God. After each p period of contemplation, Ignatius invites the retreatant to respond to God's gift by praying the Suscipe, that is, by making an offering of oneself in return.
Over the years this exercise became part of the 30 day retreat. Several years ago, a Jesuit pointed out that, not originally a formal part of the Exercises, this was an exercise that Ignatius gave to the young men who, having come sometimes hundreds of miles as pilgrims to make the Exercises in Rome, had to make the same trip, on foot, back to their homeland at the end of the long retreat. He recognized that these young men would now be fired up with the love of God and would see with new eyes the presence of God in all things. So Ignatius invited them to enjoy the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the freshness of the flowers, etc., and receive them as God's gift, and then to make their own the response of the Suscipe3, "Take Lord and receive all my liberty… ." He told them that they would recognize not only creation as a gift, but how the majesty of God is in the majesty of the mountains, how the beauty of God was in the beauty of the trees, etc. He invited them to contemplate the people in the fields. If it was spring they would see them plowing, planting; in the fall, they would observe them as they harvested. They were to be reminded that God labored for them. And finally people would invite them into the intimacy of their homes, offering them food, a place to rest, etc., and in the hospitality they would better know about the intimacy of God inviting them into communion.
The prayer of the journey back to their homelands was to shape the rest of their lives. To live like this was to enter into and ever deepen the great love of God revealed in Jesus: God's love for them and their love for God.
S. Hennessey suggests that everything Ignatius wrote after the Exercises, and all the documentation produced by the Society of Jesus since that time as guidance for their lives is an extension and development of the dream that Ignatius had for his men. They would see God in everything, and seeing God would love and embody Him in the spirit of Jesus.
No doubt this was the dream of Fr. Medaille for the first women who gathered at Le Puy, France to begin the "Little Institute" of Sisters of St. Joseph.
It is clear from his writings that he wanted us to live our spirituality in the world, to be contemplatives in action - to see God in everything, in all of creation, and especially in the face of our dear neighbor who we are called to love, i.e., to serve in the spirit of Jesus.
Indeed, the spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph is deeply rooted in Ignatian spirituality, called as we are to "the more", i.e., to ever and ever deepening love of God spelled out in compassionate service to those in need.