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Signs of the Times: At 175 Years, a Fresh Look at the RSHM Charism

by Catherine Vincie, RSHMCategory: Updates

Sr. Veronica on panel at UN

The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary received a particular spirit or charism from our founder, Father Jean Gailhac, which became embodied in the life and leadership of Mere St. Jean, in the lives and mission of the founding sisters and in those who came after them until this very day. This spirit or charism was expressed in many of the letters of Father Gailhac to the early community. In particular, he called the community to live in a spirit of faith and zeal; ultimately, faith in God as made known in Christ Jesus and zeal for fullness of life, especially for those on the margins of society.

Be Turned Toward God and Imitate Jesus Christ

It is helpful to follow the two threads of faith and zeal in Gailhac’s correspondence to the sisters where he expresses the charism several different ways. I have been particularly moved by his constant admonition that the sisters “Be turned toward God:” it recurs more than 140 times in his letters. Writing to a community in 1877, he exhorts them:

black and white photo of catholic school children in classroom, with nun in habit towards the back

“My children, be turned toward God, toward Him once and for all, toward God entirely, toward God unreservedly, toward God in every detail of life, toward God always.”

Being turned toward God, however, is not enough by itself to shape the character of an apostolic religious’ life. Gailhac insists that this desire for God must be effective; it must be accompanied by our loving attitudes and actions toward others. “It is all very well to say: We wish to be turned toward God. But our conduct almost always contradicts our words. Oh, if once and for all, sincerely, effectively, we would say to God ‘We are yours,’ at the same moment God would be ‘all ours.’ ”

sisters sitting in a circle in a room lined with bookshelves

In stressing the embodied character of our dedication to God, Gailhac often speaks of imitating Jesus Christ. “Your life must be the image, the copy of His life…. So, without delay, after the example of Jesus Christ, hasten to dedicate your whole life to the glory of God, the up-building of the neighbor, to the works of salvation.” And further, “To imitate Jesus Christ then is to love all that He loves and to hate all that He hates.” Finally, Gailhac insists “to contemplate Him, that is not enough; you must imitate Jesus Christ.” In the spirituality and language of his day, Gailhac articulates the aim of the apostolic religious. It is to be holy; it is to imitate Jesus Christ so as to participate in the salvific work of Jesus Christ in saving souls.

From what we have said above, it is fair to conclude that the desire for God is the root of our faith; the imitation of Jesus Christ is the root of our zeal.

Participation in the Work of God

sisters sitting around 6 foot table signing letters to local politicians

Another theme that appears in Gailhac’s writings is continuing the “work of God.” This phrase appears more than 125 times throughout his letters. To do the work of God is to do the work of Jesus Christ who always fulfilled the will of God. To imitate Jesus Christ is to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ which Gailhac articulates as the work of salvation. “I have always wished that all the members be penetrated with this thought – that God has chosen them in this end-time only to be co-workers of Jesus Christin His great work for the salvation of the world.” As Mary Milligan states in her work, That They May Have Life (p. 160), “Because of their participation in the work of redemption, the sisters are associates of the apostles.” On the feast of the Ascension 1883, Gailhac reminds the sisters that they are called to be successors of the apostles and that the “highest objective of the apostles’ work and of your own is to lead others to eternal life.” As Milligan states, “It is participation in the saving, revelatory mission of Jesus Christ…that Gailhac is stressing.” (That They May Have Life, p. 162). This participatory work in Christ’s mission is the mission and ministry of the community even if we understand and articulate what salvation means in slightly different terms than Gailhac used in the 19th century.

From what we have said about the spirit or charism of faith and zeal, it is in the single-hearted dedication to God and in continuing the work of God in Jesus Christ that our mission “To know and love God and to make God known and loved” stands out so clearly as the contribution to the Church and the world.

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