Today is the feast of St. Louise de Marillac, patron saint of Christian social workers. I want to celebrate both St. Louise and social workers with this post.
Many lessons could no doubt be drawn from the life of St. Louise, but I want to point out two. First, her life shows that great saints occur in clusters. Over the course of her life, she was connected especially with St. Vincent de Paul, but also with St. Francis de Sales. And, of course, the lesson for us is that holiness and the desire to give ourselves fully to the Gospel is contagious; of course, so is our moral mediocrity. Are we going to surround ourselves with people of holiness who by their presence inspire us to greater holiness, greater commitment to what God asks of us, and greater gift of ourselves to God and others? Or will we surround ourselves by people who reassure themselves and us that we are “good enough” Christians already? Will we ourselves be people who aspire to greater and greater holiness, greater love of God and neighbor, more radical living of the Gospel, and so inspire others to join us in that journey, or will we be witnesses to complacency in our commitment to Christ, the Church, and the least of these? St. Louise and friends would draw us into deeper love, more radical discipleship, more humble service.
The second lesson I want to draw from Louise is her commitment, which may seem commonplace now, to serve Christ in the poor. Most religious women prior to Louise’s time were cloistered, and showed their devotion to God through worship. Also, most of those women were drawn from wealthy and noble families. Louise’s community drew mostly peasant women to serve Christ in the poor. Our Christianity is much more egalitarian these days, and we can think of plenty of women, and women’s communities, who serve the poor in this way. But I hope the reminder of how odd this once was might serve as a reminder of the connection between these two aspects of Christian life. For Louise, the active care of Christ in the poor was connected to, and a different expression of, the worship of Christ in a life of prayer and contemplation. As St. Vincent de Paul helped moved toward a rule for them he said that they should have “for monastery, the house of the sick, for chapel, the parish church, for cloister, the streets of the city or the wards of the hospitals….” This was a vision for a community not closing itself away from the world for the worship of Christ, but adoring Christ in the midst of the world, by serving Him in “the least of these.” St. Louise’s dying words to her sisters asked them to remain committed to their service to the poor and “to honor them as Christ Himself.”
There are, of course, thousands of people whose full-time jobs are to provide and to coordinate social services for people in need. The needs and their causes can vary greatly. People require social services for hundreds of reasons: housing needs, unemployment, adoption services, foster care, temporary or permanent disability, mental health issues, natural disasters, substance abuse issues, death of a loved one, crisis pregnancy, parenting support, and much, much more. And, of course, most of these social workers work for secular organizations and serve their clients out of basic good will and because it’s their job. And a lot of times, to people in the system, it is easy to feel like just another case, and just another burden on a social worker’s time, though most get their jobs done well, and keep the system running.
Because I have a family member with serious mental health issues who has been in “the system” for years, I have had occasion to deal with quite a few social workers over the years. I’m deeply grateful for hundreds of social workers, case managers, and other professionals who have done their jobs and made sure that my brother received benefits, made it to appointments, got housing and food stamps and other things that he needed along the way. I’m particularly grateful, though, for a few people who, along the way, stepped out of the paperwork and the job description and who really listened to my brother (and, occasionally, to me) and realized that something extraordinary was going on, that there was a particular need that the system wasn’t equipped to handle, that we needed something a little bit different than the system would ordinarily be equipped to handle. In those moments, I felt served and honored, not just handled or managed.
So, as a tribute to Louise de Marillac, and to all the Christian social workers and social workers of good will, I say: thanks for handling and managing all the things that you do for all the people in need of your services. But thanks especially for those moments when you are able to really serve and honor your clients in need as you would serve and honor Christ. For people who are often made to feel that they are a burden, being treated with honor and respect can make a profound difference.
St. Louise de Marillac, pray for us.