INSIGHT - Little Sisters’ theology of closeness - Martin Kennedy

It seems to me that the spirit they have absorbed into their bones from the decades of engagement is prophetic for now

I think it is true that the content of our theology is shaped by the context in which we do it. And here I don’t mean just the general context in terms of culture or country, but also and especially the immediate context – where we live, who we meet on a daily basis, whose homes we visit, whom we eat with, whom we listen to. For me the significance of context in the LSA tradition is closeness to people, and more specifically closeness in the people’s own space, not in LSA space. The Little Sisters didn’t institutionalise, didn’t create structures to receive people. Instead they went out to the homes of the most marginal families and immersed themselves in their issues, their practical tasks. Taking the metaphor of Pope Francis, as shepherds they absorbed into their bodies and souls the smell, the reality of the flocks they tended. And this wasn’t always just metaphor. I remember a sister telling me how she would shake the lice from her clothing on returning from some home visits. That level of closeness, of vulnerability to the struggles and pain of others, shapes and expresses theology and spirituality. At heart here is the sharing in deed of the good news that God is close.
Francis is very clear on how foundational closeness is for sharing the joy of the gospel in our own time. So too are ordinary people on the ground. I was involved recently in a listening exercise across Cavan and Leitrim targeting people who typically would not be very involved in their parishes. They were asked two questions – What is life like for you now? and What are your hopes for the church? They spoke about the stresses and strains of family life, the different ways these impact - on the young, the old, and the parents. And in their hopes for the church their main point was that it needs to draw closer to the lives of people. They criticised a church that focusses on issues not central to their lives while ignoring the issues that are central. 
The parish priest of Moyross also speaks about this. He names the theological and spiritual depths of closeness in a challenge offered to the renewal process in the Limerick diocese. “Without allowing the concerns and realities of the poor to seep into its veins and consciousness, Church attempts at renewal are but organisational changes, not an enlivening by the Spirit arising from encountering the crucified one now risen and living in the poorest of our brothers and sisters. ” 
I mention him in particular, because my experience of the LSAs started in his parish back in the late 1980s. At that point in Ireland, with developments in social services, the LSAs had moved on from their traditional, corporate mission of working in the homes of the sick that dates back to when they first came to Ireland 124 years ago. In Moyross the sisters were living another form of closeness. Resident in the estate, the LSA community was deeply and daily immersed in the lives and struggles of one of the most marginalised communities in the country. This immersion was characterised by a focus on the issues of the people, and sensitivity to their dignity and capacity to address their own issues. In that regard there was a strong emphasis on bringing people together and developing their leadership capacity. 
I was part of a team brought in to deliver the Training for Transformation programme that ran over the course of a year. The participants were residents of Moyross, both men and women. I remember the men in particular. Some of them were tough, radical activists who were not remotely ‘churchy’. Early in the programme these shared with me their unease about participating in a programme that was connected with a church. But they said that the reason they went ahead was that the sisters had sat in their homes, listened to their issues and engaged with them on those issues. They trusted entirely that the LSAs were with them. The training programme was like the tip of an iceberg – beneath that there was enormous time and energy put into simply being with the people and building their trust.
Time has moved on again, and because of ageing and lack of vocations the capacity of the LSAs in Ireland to work in places like Moyross is diminishing. I know at present there is a real consciousness that many of the women who have given their lives to caring for the vulnerable are now in need of that care themselves. I know too that while the Little Sisters have a rich articulation of their theology and spirituality among themselves the normal public way they express this is in deed rather than word. The vision of founders Stephen Pernet and Antoinette Fage was succinctly expressed on this matter to the first LSAs when they started their work 150 years ago - "Let your actions speak Jesus Christ". So the LSAs in Ireland quietly went about that business for decades. Now as there is less that they can ‘do’ there may be a feeling that their time has passed, that they are no longer relevant. 
But it seems to me that the spirit they have absorbed into their bones from the decades of engagement is prophetic for now. This spirit is summarised in the rule of life of the LSAs where it says "Bear witness to God’s love among the poor, the workers and their families by means of an attentive presence and simple acts of service". It seems to me that this expresses a much wider desire for how the whole church could be, a desire that stretches from Rome to Moyross, to Cavan and Leitrim and further afield. I hope a sense of confidence in their prophetic legacy can energise and delight the Little Sisters for the work that they can still do. This may also be a time for ‘harvesting’ their rich experience for the church in Ireland now, and doing something that another Francis said is occasionally appropriate for communicating the gospel – putting it into words. 
Martin Kennedy
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