On November 13, 2022, the RSHM Enlarged International Leadership Council joined in celebration of the Eucharist at Cormaria Retreat House in Sag Harbor, NY, to mark the opening of the Year of Jean Gailhac. Sister Margaret Fielding, Institute Leader, extended a warm welcome to those present and to all who joined online from many parts of the world. The following is her reflection on the legacy of Père Gailhac:
Venerable Jean Gailhac, born 220 years ago on this day, is not just a fascinating figure of the past, but an inspiring and energizing presence for us today. His spirit and charism continue to be a guiding and motivating force in the choices we make for mission. He has left us a rich legacy, in the choices he made, the works he established, and the abundant letters he wrote, in which he communicated his spirit and charism. The celebration of this Year of Jean Gailhac is an opportunity to reflect in more depth on that legacy. Because the charism given through him to the Church and the world is not, in the words of Sister Mary Milligan, “a treasure to be locked away and preserved, but a plant to be watered, pruned, cared for – always drawing its life and strength from the same roots….” (Cf. M. Milligan, That They May Have Life, p. 205-6)
At the heart of our charism and mission and at the core of our history is Father Gailhac’s faith and zeal, his apostolic heart. When he founded our Institute in the mid-19th century, the structures to express apostolic religious life in its fullness did not exist. Female religious life was lived in a semi-cloistered way. Yet he stated specifically that women were called to play an essential role in the work of redemption. He was clear that the Institute he founded was to be apostolic, that the sisters were to be fully at the service of those in need (p. 204). As the logo for the Year of Jean Gailhac states, Father Gailhac was “a man whose heart was without boundaries.” His apostolic heart and spirit inspired, guided and accompanied the sisters in the first 50 years of our Institute’s existence, leading them to go out to several countries and undertake diverse works. The same vision continues to inspire and motivate us today.
Another dynamic force at work in Father Gailhac’s life was his quest to discern God’s will and to carry it out. His willingness to act only when he was clear that it was God’s will profoundly shaped how our Institute evolved. Throughout our history, important decisions were made only after discerning God’s will in the signs of the times. This discerning approach became a characteristic of our history, which, according to Sister Kathleen Connell, could be described as “a constant yes to God.” Mission today requires that we have discerning minds and hearts, and that we always seek to act according to the mind and heart of Christ.
Fidelity to the Church is another precious heritage from our founder. In her history of the Institute, Sister Rosa do Carmo Sampaio speaks of Father Gailhac’s “deep ecclesial communion” (p. 38-9) which was “a basic orientation of his whole life” (p. 166), and a gift he transmitted to the sisters, the gift of always seeking to be in communion with the Church. Today all of us are called to that same “ecclesial communion” with the people of God walking the synodal journey together.
Jean Gailhac’s faith vision has weathered well the changes that have taken place over time. Born of a faith that was tried and tested by suffering, sustained by hours of prayer, scripture reading and reflection, and deepened over a lifetime of ministry among the most marginalized people in his hometown of Béziers, it continues to inspire and guide us.
As we open the Year of Jean Gailhac, we celebrate and give thanks for the legacy we have received and we welcome the graced opportunities this year will bring, to drink anew from the wells of our sources, to renew our commitment to live the Gospel authentically and to continue the mission of Jesus Christ who came that all may have life. May Father Gailhac be our inspiration as we walk together along new paths toward the horizons which open before us.