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A Homily for the Feast of St. Philippine

The Scriptures designated for the Feast of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne (John 12:24) could not be more perfectly suited to a celebration of this Saint:  “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears a rich harvest.” We are, each one of us, some tiny part of the harvest that Philippine planted nearly 200 years ago when she arrived on this soil of St. Charles. 

We are a harvest
planted by her extraordinary labors,
watered with her sufferings and her tears,
pruned by her courage and confidence,
and cultivated faithfully and daily by her deep life of prayer and her longing for God.

It was just twenty years ago that the Church declared Philippine a saint. 

Unfortunately sometimes the word “saint” has a way of distancing us from those so named, but, in fact, Philippine was very much like us:

     She loved deeply.

     She drove her family crazy.

     She was given to excesses.

     She longed to make a difference in the world.

     She often doubted her own efforts.

     She experienced loneliness and frustration and failures of every kind.

Basically she stumbled towards holiness,

     loving God,

     and seeking God’s will        

     and persevering despite incredible obstacles from without and lingering self-doubt from within.

Philippine was a woman with a global vision. Often she is pictured with a map of the world on her lap. She longed to be about mission, especially bringing God’s love to the New World. 

She was a woman on the margins who said once “I am always drawn to the most deprived.” And she was drawn

            to the destitute masses after the French revolution

            to the desperately ill on shipboard coming to the States

            and to every social class once she reached these shores

            ... for her boarding schools supported her free schools,  and her work with orphans, and her teaching of slave children, and meanwhile, her desire to work with her  beloved Potawatomi was postponed for years until her strength waned and her health had failed and she could be simply a presence among them – and that, only for a year.                   

She was a woman of deep relationships

            and she perfectly illustrates the importance of friendship in living a holy life,

            whether in marriage, religious life, single life or priesthood,

            whether in professional or ministerial commitments … friendship is critical.

Madeleine Sophie Barat and Rose Philippine Duchesne were separated by an ocean for the last 34 years of Philippine’s life, but the bond between them fueled both their lives. Incidentally it guaranteed we would remain one international congregation and not become an independent American order.

Their friendship demonstrates how deep and loving relationships

                        help us stay honest before God

                        support our dreams and desires

                        challenge us to be our best self, knowing we are loved,

                        and provide presence and words of tenderness and care in crisis…

And crises aplenty Philippine had!

She was a woman of disappointments, broken dreams, incredible suffering and weakness…

            She suffered all the privations of frontier life, perhaps most of all because she could not spare her sisters the same hardships.

            She was never able to master the English or native languages.

            She saw houses and schools close and some of her first companions leave.

            She saw her sisters die in their prime from cholera and other diseases.

            She experienced painful misunderstandings as letters crossed the ocean, or were lost enroute and as her plans had to be cancelled or deferred.

            And perhaps the greatest suffering of all, she considered herself always an incompetent  leader for the community and she begged again and again to be replaced

She was, she thought, a failure, and yet her very weakness made her most like Christ, the perfect disciple, of whom it is said in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

            He was able to minister to others because he himself was beset by weakness!

Living as we do in a world little tolerant of failure, the life of Rose Philippine Duchesne has much to teach us about the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies and thus produces a rich harvest. 

I sometimes wonder if Philippine had these very words in mind when she wrote:

      We cultivate a very small field for Christ

      but we love it,

      knowing that God does not require great achievements,

      but a heart that holds back nothing for itself.

Perhaps we could ask for just such a heart.

Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ (2008)