Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


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June 29, 2005
Saints Peter and Paul


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«We must have our hands at work and our hearts close to God,» affirmed Mother Mary Theresa Scherer. During this Swiss nun's beatification on October 29, 1995, Pope John Paul II remarked, «The more her interior life grew, the more attentive she was to the needs of the world of her time.»

The fourth of seven children, Catherine Scherer was born on October 31, 1825 in Meggen, on the edge of the Lake of the Four Cantons, Switzerland, surrounded by an awe-inspiring vista of mountains. Early on she was taught to attend to small domestic tasks, to help in the garden and in the fields, to live frugally and simply. On February 15, 1833, her father was taken from this world by a sudden bout of pneumonia. Catherine was entrusted to the care of relatives—two bachelor brothers, one of whom was her godfather—and was thus separated from her mother and her brothers and sisters who continued to live in Meggen.

Catherine was not a model little girl. «I was a chatterbox, absent-minded, inattentive,» she would later admit with sincerity... «I was irritable, inclined to fits of anger. I loved beautiful clothes, I took pleasure in being praised. I often talked back to and disobeyed the maid.» However, she was intelligent, conscientious, gifted with an excellent memory, and a natural student. «I loved sermons,» she wrote, «and I frequented the sacraments whenever I could.»

At the age of sixteen, she left for Lucerne. «The parish priest, as well as my mother, my brother and my older sisters,» she wrote, «knowing my vivaciousness, my vanity, and the love I had for music, decided to take me away from my godfather's house and entrust me to the Sisters of Charity of Besançon, in Lucerne, where I reluctantly went.» Her start at the hospital was difficult. Employed as a nurse's aide, she was constantly confronted with suffering and death. Countless questions crowded her mind. The unyielding monotony of the schedule and the severe rule crushed her. Disgust and overwork brought on a crisis. But one day, through the intervention of divine grace, a light went on in her soul: «I began to pray more, and to receive the sacraments more often.» A radical change took place—she overcame her aversion and found joy in the gift of herself in the service of the sick.

Three years at the hospital matured the young woman. In July 1844, she made a pilgrimage to the Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln, reflected seriously there on the choice of her vocation, and shortly thereafter, made the decision to enter an active religious order. A Capuchin from the monastery of Altdorf, Father Theodosius, an apostle with a heart of fire, was in the process of starting a women's community that matched Catherine's desires. «Already before 1839,» he would write, «I had conceived the plan to replace the anti-religious instruction with a Catholic Christian education; and, through religious congregations adapted to the needs of the country, to give aid based on the principles of Christian faith and charity to the poor, to beggars, to prisoners.» Father Theodosius' plan intended to respond to a virulent secularism that had taken hold in Switzerland's leadership and that ruthlessly suppressed Catholic schools and religious communities.

«It is a mistake...»

The Church has always recognized a healthy secularity in civil society, that is, a distinction between temporal power and spiritual power, each exercising its own domain. But a secularism that does not want to take account of God or of religion outside the realm of private life is a grave error, contrary to the truth and to the wellbeing of both man and society. «It is a mistake,» wrote Pope John Paul II, «to think that any public reference to faith will somehow undermine the rightful autonomy of the State and civil institutions, or that it can even encourage attitudes of intolerance» (Mane nobiscum Domine, October 7, 2004, no. 26).

On October 20, 1939, Pope Pius XII already wrote: «Can there be, Venerable Brethren, a greater or more urgent duty than to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8) to the men of our time? ... At the start of the road that leads to the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the present day stand the nefarious efforts of not a few to dethrone Christ; the abandonment of the law of truth which He proclaimed and of the law of love which is the life breath of His Kingdom. The recognition of the royal prerogatives of Christ and the return of individuals and of society to the law of His truth and of His love is the only way to salvation. ...

«Above all, it is certain that the root and final cause of the evils which we deplore in modern society is the denial and rejection of a norm of universal morality, whether within the society or in international relations; that is, the disregard and denial, so common nowadays, of the natural law itself, which has its basis in God, the Almighty Creator and Father of all, the supreme and absolute Lawgiver, all-knowing and just Judge of human actions. When God is renounced, any basis for morality is undermined...

«The Holy Gospel recounts that when Jesus was crucified there was darkness over the whole earth (Mt. 27:45); a terrifying symbol of what happened and what still happens spiritually any time unbelief, blind and proud in itself, succeeds in excluding Christ from modern life, especially from public life, undermining both faith in God and faith in Christ. As a result, the moral values which in other times were used to gauge public and private conduct fall into disuse; and the much vaunted secularization of society, progressing always more rapidly, pulls man, the family and the State ever further from the beneficial and regenerating effects of the idea of God and the teaching of the Church. This has caused to reappear, in regions which for many centuries shone with the splendors of Christian civilization, ever more clearly, distinctly, and distressingly, the signs of a corrupt and corrupting paganism» (Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, no. 30). It was this pagan spirit, already at work in the nineteenth century, that Father Theodosius intended to fight.

A determination that carried her away

On October 5, 1844, Catherine met Father Theodosius and decided to join his new congregation the following spring. Her family considered her decision imprudent, but in the face of her determination, they allowed her to go. On June 27, 1845, she left with a friend to complete her novitiate in Menzingen, where Father Theodosius had opened a school with three young women who were the start of his religious family, the Holy Cross Sisters, in the spirit of the Third Order of Saint Francis, under the direction of a superior, Mother Mary Bernard. Catherine took the name of Sister Mary Theresa. Her time in novitiate allowed her to become more aware of her faults: «At the time,» she confessed, «my main faults were sensitivity, pride, and vanity.» She learned to know God more deeply and to live in His presence. At the end of October 1845, the five religious took their first vows. Immediately afterwards, Sister Mary Theresa was sent to start a school in Galgenen, along with another Sister. A born teacher, Sister Mary Theresa happily and successfully took to her job as a teacher. However, between teaching her classes, cleaning, and using any free time to study, her physical strength was quickly exhausted. «I became scrupulous,» she said, «I was overwhelmed with interior sufferings and, believing my soul was lost, I couldn't do enough mortifications.» She fell ill and had to return to Menzingen. There, she found some interior peace again, and passed the state examination to become a teacher. In the following years, she was sent to various houses; everywhere she went she was appreciated for her energy, her conscientious work, and her good spirits.

A memorable handshake

On March 1, 1852, at Father Theodosius' request, Sister Mary Theresa was sent to Chur to take over a small hospital that the Father had founded. The house in which the hospital was set up was not suitable, so it was going to be necessary to build, but both land and funds were lacking. «Father Theodosius declared himself ready, with God's help, to undertake this work if I promised him help, trust, and fidelity,» Mother Mary Theresa later wrote. «I committed myself with a handshake, and he left me a very happy man. Two days later, a piece of land was purchased and construction on the Hospital of the Cross was immediately begun.» This handshake took Sister Mary Theresa, who would be called «Mother» from then on, down a new path of charity, in the service of the sick.

With exceptional energy and a great talent for organization, Mother saw to the construction of the new building, amidst all sorts of obstacles and overwhelming mortifications. For her Sisters called to care for the sick, she wrote a prayer that included the following lines: «Lord, may they see Your brothers in the poor and the sick. May they love them with all their heart, assisting them tirelessly with joy, enduring their faults and their complaints with patience, rendering good for evil, remaining, in spite of all the difficulties, humble, simple, obedient, and pure, and enduring their sufferings out of love for You, my God, and for the salvation of their souls.» The new hospital was extremely poor and the nuns had to put the needs of the sick first, so on some days the Sisters themselves went hungry.

Thanks to a blossoming of vocations, the congregation took on all sorts of social projects. Next to the hospital was opened an orphanage, a home for the elderly, a school for manual labor and a boarding school for girls. Then the foundations in other cities multiplied. To meet the enormous expenses, Mother Mary Theresa sent Sisters to collect money in Switzerland, then in foreign countries.

But soon, Father Theodosius became aware that the Sisters who had stayed in Menzingen under the leadership of Mother Mary Bernard had decided to separate from him and from those devoting themselves to other works of charity; they wanted to devote themselves exclusively to teaching. Great agitation spread through the Congregation. At last, it was agreed that the Congregation would split, and each Sister was left absolutely free to choose between the two Institutes. «The separation into two Institutes,» one Sister would write, «never gave rise to any hostility. The Superiors of the two houses and Father Theodosius mutually helped and supported one another when the need arose. We knew well the mind of Father Theodosius, who loved to say, 'Does it matter by whom the good in the Church is done, so long as it is done? Thank God for this.'»

Keep in good spirits

In 1855, Father Theodosius decided to buy the hill that overlooked the village of Ingenbohl, in central Switzerland, in order to build the Sisters' Mother House there. On October 13, 1857, Mother Mary Theresa was elected Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross of Ingenbohl. The years that followed overflowed with activity, with the establishment of one foundation after another. To support the Sisters' apostolate, Father Theodosius introduced at Ingenbohl perpetual adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Mother Mary Theresa drew from the Eucharist a very simple spiritual life. What mattered in her eyes was the love that drove action, faithfulness to the duties of one's station, and fraternal charity. «We must pray fervently,» she said, «and get used to leading an intense interior life in all the circumstances of life, without wearing a Lenten expression because of it.» A Sister asked her for advice on fasting and penitence: «The Sisters must not fast to the point of damaging their health. They need their strength to serve their neighbor. I do not set great store by the hair-shirt. I value much more self-control, charity in one's words and the fight against self-love... Our real mortifications consist in being satisfied with what we are given, going where we are sent, and keeping in good spirits.»

Mother Mary Theresa showed a great kindness of heart. She knew that for a pauper the respect with which he was welcomed was much more important than the material goods that were given to him. In a hospice where she had just arrived, the Sisters were gathered around her when a beggar appeared. The Superior of the house hurried over to him and patiently listened to him. The Sisters, a little embarrassed, apologized, but Mother Mary Theresa told them, «This is how I imagine a Sister of the poor—her love for them must be so great that she will serve them first and will not be afraid to make the Superior General wait. What is more, she will interrupt her prayer, if need be, to come to the aid of a poor person. Not only will she treat him as an equal, but she will behave with him like a mother with her neediest child.»

Heroic faithfulness

Father Theodosius was full of concern for the social and spiritual situation of workers, men, women and children, for whom welcome centers had been created by the Sisters. In 1860, he bought out a textile factory that employed many hundreds of workers in Oberleutensdorf in Bohemia, and that had just gone bankrupt. Mother Mary Theresa thought that this work would not suit the Sisters. Nevertheless, after thinking about it for some time, she sent five Sisters to the factory. Over time, Mother Mary Theresa's fears proved to be well-founded. The Sisters were not fit for this work and their indomitable courage could not prevent disaster. Father Theodosius wore himself out on the roads of Europe seeking help. His health could not withstand the strain, and on February 15, 1865, he rendered his soul to God. It was a tragic time for Mother Mary Theresa. She strengthened herself through prayer and trust in God, then, with amazing self-control, had an exact accounting of debts drawn up, which proved to be enormous. On September 15, after months of inner moral sufferings, she decided, out of fidelity to the Founding Father and to prevent the numerous creditors from suffering the consequences of unpaid debts, to take on the Father's negative inheritance. Until 1870, with the help of a very active assistance committee, Mother exhausted her strength satisfying creditors with a calm that seemed inexplicable. Throughout the Congregation, the Sisters generously agreed to make heroic efforts. «The good Lord,» she told them, «will help us if we remain united amongst ourselves and if we have no other aim than His glory and the good of man. But we must also work very hard.» In the end, Mother's unflagging patience and indomitable faith made it through the debts, and the Congregation, freed from this weight, could grow considerably.

Scarcely had the debts been paid off than another cross came to test the Superior. A nephew of Father Theodosius', blinded by ambition and greed, asserted alleged rights to his uncle's inheritance. Father Theodosius had accorded this nephew, who performed valuable services for him, more trust than he deserved. Costly legal proceedings ensued, which went on for three years and made Mother Mary Theresa suffer cruelly. At the end of 1872, the case was settled in the Sisters' favor. However, in view of the services done for Father Theodosius, Mother made a gift of a respectable sum to the Father's nephew.

One trial followed another. In August 1872, to replace Father Theodosius' successor who had just died, a new Superior, Father Paul, a Capuchin, was named to Ingenbohl. But soon this Father conceived a plan to transform the Congregation to make it more contemplative, and sought to win the bishop, his own Capuchin superiors, the Sisters, and the novices to his side. He visited several of the Sisters' houses and everywhere sowed doubt in souls. The Mother General, often on the road, only gradually became aware of the situation. With a great deal of consideration, she made known to the Father her disagreement with the steps he was taking. As the priest persisted in his views, Mother Mary Theresa wrote a letter to the bishop relinquishing her duties as Superior. The prelate accepted the resignation. «Let us think of Our Lord and of the countless offenses that He receives every day,» the Mother wrote to one of her daughters. «They are not treating me any better, as you must know. It doesn't matter—we can't make everyone happy. As long as God is happy with us!» However, petitions not only from the nuns but from priests and a great number of important individuals were sent to the bishop, demanding that the Mother be retained. In July 1873, an ecclesiastical counselor was appointed to examine the affair. His report concluded with these words: «Father Paul's idea is unfeasible from a canonical perspective, and, from a practical perspective, is quite harmful.» Seeing the light, the bishop reinstated Mother Mary Theresa in her duties as General Superior, and Father Paul was transferred.

The most important

In 1880, another trial of the same sort struck the Mother. A young chaplain was named to the Mother House in Ingenbohl. Knowing religious life only from books, he accused the Mother of violating the Constitutions. This malicious accusation wounded her to the depths of her soul. All the same, she remained silent and did not speak openly about this painful affair except with her assistant. «I am tormented; it is painful to me to return to the Mother House,» she wrote her. «God willing, all this will be for the best. What is most important is that we be united and that we love one another, that together we might bear the cross and suffering.» In January 1884, in compliance with the bishop's formal request, she presented her defense in writing and won her case. In the course of time, the chaplain would acknowledge his faults and would become an understanding and kind priest.

Throughout her life, Mother had to endure health problems: acute rheumatism, varicose veins, liver illnesses... In 1887, a doctor observed a cancerous stomach tumor. On May 1, 1888, she received last rites. Her final days were particularly painful. On the evening of June 16, she entered into the death agony, then peacefully breathed her last, murmuring, «Heaven... Heaven!»

Upon the foundress' death, the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross numbered 1,658 religious in several countries and spread across 434 institutions: schools, orphanages, day nurseries, daycare centers, institutes for deaf-mutes and for the blind, boarding schools for apprentices, homes for young girls, hospitals, visiting nurses, mental hospitals, homes for the elderly...

«Mary Theresa remains an example for us,» Pope John Paul II said, during the Mother's beatification. «Her interior strength came from her spiritual life; she spent many hours before the Blessed Sacrament.» In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Holy Father affirmed, «Every commitment to holiness ... must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery ... In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have His redemptive sacrifice, we have His resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father. ... In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into His body and blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and He enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope» (April 17, 2003, nos. 60, 62).

In this year of the Eucharist, let us set aside time to adore the Most Blessed Sacrament, and let us be set ablaze by this fire that Jesus has come to light on the earth (cf. Lk. 12:49) to draw all men and women to the Kingdom of Heaven!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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