Imagine being told by the government: reject your beliefs or pay $70 million in fines. It is a staggering amount for nearly everyone, but an impossible sum for a service organization that relies on begging to feed the needy. This is the predicament faced by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
A small order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor have cared for America’s sick and indigent elderly for nearly 150 years. Their work is now threatened by a government mandate forcing them to provide contraception through their health insurers against their beliefs. The Little Sisters are suing the government to keep their doors open. Their case made it to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments Wednesday.
The Little Sisters did not wish to be at the center of a public debate on contraception. Yet the faith that prevents them from taking action to facilitate the provision of contraception is the same faith that compels them to serve the poor with extraordinary compassion.
Women Speak for Themselves, where I work as communications director, began a thank-you note campaign where residents’ relatives and former employees, among others, could express their support for the Little Sisters during their trial.
More than 1,000 notes and comments were received. Here’s a sample:
My mother’s oldest sister was in your Holy Family home in Scranton, PA and she received the most wonderful care imaginable. She died at 100 years and 6 months, but she would not have lasted that long without the love and support the Little Sisters gave her.
I worked in a nursing home where the nurses stayed in their break room and, whenever possible, ignored the patients. At the Little Sisters’ Home in New York, they sat with even the most difficult of patients — the ones who made senseless noise, day and night — and gave them the gift of their patient and loving presence.
I saw Jesus in each of you and how much love you put into everything you do for the elderly … there was warmth in the Home and the residents were happy and peaceful. You treated each resident with love and respect.
It is no secret that the Little Sisters have a unique style of caregiving. The Sisters actually live in the homes where they serve. They are available to residents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When they are dying, residents are surrounded by Sisters who will comfort them and pray with them. No member of their “family” dies alone.
With every interaction, they strive to enter into what Pope Francis calls the “encounter”: meeting their elderly charges as they would meet God. In fact, every Sister takes a vow of obedience to God and of hospitality “to care for the aged as if they were Christ himself.”
The selfless attention that the Sisters provide is evident in a series of videos by the Becket Fund. In one, a “begging Sister” explains that she knows each resident’s favorite ice cream flavor.
Another shares that she has learned through her life with the Sisters that “love is not an abstract thing … to love means to use your whole being, body, mind, soul, and spirit, to transmit love.”
If the federal government has its way, these women will no longer be able to afford to feed, dress, bathe, and nurture the elderly poor in their homes.
As Americans, do we want to live in a country where the Little Sisters do not exist? Where the poor are denied this love and mercy at the end of their lives? Where their only option is whatever indifferent, institutionalized care the state can afford that year?
Most of us agree that we would never want to deny anyone the tender mercies of the Sisters. But our society cannot have it both ways. It is impossible to divorce the Sisters’ beautiful care of the poor from their acceptance of their faith tradition, and I hope the Supreme Court can recognize that. The Little Sisters’ faith animates the love-given service that “goes the second mile” for the neediest among us — and inspires all of us.
Kat Talalas serves as the communications director for Women Speak for Themselves, a grassroots organization made up of more than 41,000 women dedicated to religious liberty.