The Eucharistic Testimony of Sister Magdeleine of Jesus. Foundress of the Little Sisters of Jesus



The Eucharistic Testimony of Sister Magdeleine of Jesus Foundress of the Little Sisters of Jesus
François-Marie Léthel ocd

The Servant of God sister Magdeleine of Jesus (1898-1989), foundress of the Little Sisters of Jesus, is on her way to beatification. We can hope that she will soon be declared Venerable with the recognition of the heroicity of her virtues.

She is an important figure of holiness for the Church of our time. With creative fidelity she pulled together the spiritual heritage of Blessed Charles de Foucauld in a magnificent way. She has pointed out an important path for the new evangelization, not by proselytizing but by attraction, radiating the presence of Jesus and the Love of Jesus beyond all frontiers, and especially where He seems to be absent. Two aspects of her testimony deserve to be highlighted, because they are of the greatest relevance today.

The first concerns the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. Sister Magdeleine is part of the great current of Eucharistic spirituality that has been developing since the Middle Ages with daily communion and Eucharistic adoration. Her way of always and everywhere carrying the Presence of the Eucharistic Jesus has a prophetic character, especially at this time when the coronavirus pandemic has provoked in the People of God a deep Eucharistic wound, with the risk of decentering and relativizing the great Sacrament of Jesus' Love in the gift of his Body and Blood.

The second aspect concerns the peaceful and friendly relationship between Christian and Muslim peoples, after more than a millennium of conflict. Following the Second Vatican Council, our Pope Francis has resolutely committed himself to this path, as his recent Encyclical Fratelli tutti testifies. Here again, Sister Magdeleine is a luminous witness of true loving kindness, without any form of relativism. She was able to live a true friendship with Muslims, never ceasing to radiate among them the great Reality that filled her life: the Presence of Jesus, the Truth of Jesus, the Love of Jesus.

In this brief article, we will cite testimonies collected for her beatification, from her foundation in Algeria in 1939 until her death in Rome in 1989.

First of all, there is a brief text written by Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the Taizé Community, which emphasizes the importance of Eucharistic adoration and the presence of the Virgin Mary in the Eucharist:

"Blessed be Brother Charles, this holy witness of Christ. Blessed be little sister Magdeleine and all the little sisters of Jesus, who seek, struggle, contemplate, and stand before the adorable presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Here I understand more than ever that we are of the same family, the family of those who await an event from God for humanity. The Virgin Mary was already part of this family.”

Cardinal Bernard Panafieu, who knew Sister Magdeleine well when he was Archbishop of Aix en Provence, gives a good synthesis of her spirituality in the line of Fr. de Foucauld and Thérèse de Lisieux:

"What was revolutionary at the time was her desire to see the Little Sisters of Jesus sharing the lot of the poorest. And originally, the poorest in her mind were Muslims, in the perspective of Brother Charles. Little by little, she discovered that precariousness and poverty were the spirituality of Nazareth, a time of patience and hiddenness (‘burial’). It was really rooted in a spirituality that was Brother Charles' spirituality, the spirituality of Nazareth.”

And I believe that she drew this strength for herself and her communities from the Eucharist. And it is perhaps the second aspect of Brother Charles' spirituality that she adopted, the spirituality of adoration. Every little community that was created began by installing the Eucharist. That was the first thing that was done which shows the importance of the place of the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration. We must not forget that she took the Eucharist with her on all her journeys in her campervan, the "Shooting Star." She travelled thousands of kilometers in that camper. There was a little box that no police, no customs officers ever managed to discover: it was the Eucharist.

That's very impressive. When lsr Magdeleine talked about this famous Shooting Star, it was always to talk about the Eucharist. It seems a little naive in the expression, but the Eucharist was being brought to a country where the Lord was not present. The Jesus in whom she believed was indeed the Jesus who died and rose again, it's obvious. But the one who had to be imitated was the little child. In a certain way, she was returning to the childhood path of Therese of the Child Jesus. It was the little one of Nazareth and becoming little like the Child Jesus in the poverty and anonymity of Nazareth.”

For Sister Magdeleine as for Thérèse of Lisieux, there was a very deep link between the Eucharist and communing in the Infancy of Jesus. In this regard, we can quote from the last Letter of Thérèse. Next to a picture of the Child Jesus in the consecrated host in the hands of the priest, she wrote these simple words: "I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me. I love him, for he is nothing but Love and Mercy" (LT 266). The Eucharist is the sacrament of the littleness of God in Jesus.

On the development of this spirituality, we can cite the testimony of Fr. René Voillaume who had met Sister Magdeleine in 1938 in Algeria and who later became her spiritual director:

"Lsr Magdeleine's encounter with the fraternity (of little brothers) in El-Abiodh, which represented an integral contemplative life, contributed in the years following our first meeting and without our having consciously sought it, to establishing a form of life that joined the example of Brother Charles with a contemplative life centered on Eucharistic adoration and the imitation of the life of Jesus in Nazareth, resulting in a very simple community life, centered on work and friendship with the poor.

In full collaboration with lsr Magdeleine, I worked with her to develop a spirituality that is rooted in the Church through our belonging to the Carmelite school, represented by St. Teresa of the Child Jesus. Brother Charles himself had been inspired by the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I have already noted the care with which lsr Magdeleine wrote her Constitutions, which define the means to remain faithful to this contemplative life in a religious life inserted in the world of the poor.”<br />
In Sister Magdeleine as in Thérèse of Lisieux, we notice the same dynamic at play in their experience of the love of Jesus whose "main characteristic is to lower oneself" in the Mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption and the Eucharist. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face follows an itinerary of following Jesus from the crib to the cross lived inseparably in the Gospel and the Eucharist. It is the same for Sister Magdeleine, even if the modalities of the experience are different.

In her letters to Fr. Voillaume she recounted her profound mystical experience of the Child Jesus given by Mary and "incorporated" into her (as in Eucharistic communion), and then it was the intense experience of the Passion of Jesus as the greatest Mystery of Love that envelops all humanity.

Sister Jeanne of Jesus, who was very close to Sister Magdeleine ever since the early years, insisted on the centrality of the Eucharist and the Gospel in her life:

"What always struck me about lsr Magdeleine was her constant reference to the Gospel and how much she wanted us to be steeped in it. For lsr Magdeleine, the Eucharist is truly at the heart of the life of our communities. She did not envisage founding a community ('fraternity'), however small it might be, without the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. That is why she had to fight with perseverance to obtain permission to keep the Blessed Sacrament in caravans and tents - and also in the ‘Shooting Star.

In her desire that the little sisters be able to adore the Blessed Sacrament exposed, she took many steps to obtain permission for a tabernacle with an automatic device because at that time neither women nor lay people were allowed to touch the tabernacle and there were no priests available to open and close it for us. Until the end of her life, she begged us to found in each region a ‘community of adoration.’ She felt it was very important for the congregation as a whole to have places of prayer where the Blessed Sacrament would be adored for as long as possible.

In the evenings, whenever it was possible for her to do so, she only had one desire - to go to the chapel to pray near the Blessed Sacrament. In the Rule of Life, lsr Magdeleine tells us, in the light of faith, to find Jesus present in the Gospel, in the Eucharist, in the Church, and also in every human being created in the image of God.”

In the same sense, Sister Carla of Jesus testified to the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of Sister Magdeleine, as a recapitulation of all the Mysteries of Jesus:

"In the prolongation of the crib, she saw Nazareth, the Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection, the whole Mystery of Salvation. Jesus-Eucharist was for little sister Magdeleine the supreme symbol of God's love for humanity. She always wanted that in all our communities, even the smallest, like the caravan among the gypsies, the tent among the nomads, there should be the Eucharistic Presence, adored by the little sisters in the name of all those to whom they dedicated their lives.”

Concerning Sister Magdeleine's great love for Jesus in the Eucharist, the testimony of Sister Mary Catherine of Jesus is particularly significant. It takes place at the time of lsr Magdeleine's first trip to the communist countries. Before leaving, she met Bishop de Provenchères, Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, who was her ecclesiastical superior. Sister Mary Catherine writes:

"We were living on Rue de la Pélisserie in a building listed as a historical monument that had a challenging and tiring spiral staircase. We lived on the 2nd floor. It was evening and we were watching for the arrival of the "Shooting Star" from Aix-en-Provence. Before her departure for the Eastern Bloc countries, Lsr Magdeleine went to visit Bishop de Provenchères, thinking this might be the last time she would ever see him. I quickly went down to meet her on the famous spiral staircase. I can still see her face as she struggled to climb the stairs.

Her smile was both radiant and mysterious. In her hand she held what she called 'the mother house,' a large red scarf from Japan, tied at the four corners, containing her inexhaustible mail. As she pointed to it, she said to me in a whisper, "He's here! Look for a discreet place to put Him!" I understood. Bishop de Provenchères had given her a reserve of consecrated hosts, her viaticum for the road. In our day and age, this seems very natural. But at that time, with difficult borders to cross and the probable searches, it was proof of Bishop de Provenchères’ immense confidence in the Holy Spirit who was guiding lsr Magdeleine.

I still remember with what respect and love she deposited 'her treasure' in a small piece of furniture that I had quickly covered with a pretty fabric and on which I put a few flowers every day. Many times, during a conversation, when she was receiving a visit or when she was writing her mail, I caught her eyes fixed on this place. She was living with and under the gaze of her beloved brother and Lord Jesus. She was very modest and expressed herself very little on this subject, but her whole being let us guess her exceptional intimacy.”

This loving familiarity with Jesus in the Eucharist is a constant in Sister Magdeleine's life. She would always carry him with her in "The Shooting Star" during her travels in Eastern Europe. She would obtain permission for his Presence in the caravan among the gypsies, as witnessed by Sister Marie Josèphe of Jesus:

"At the time of the foundation among the gypsies, in principle we were not supposed to have the Blessed Sacrament in the caravan, but lsr Magdeleine nevertheless asked us to prepare a tabernacle to receive the Holy Reserve. When Bishop de Provenchères came to celebrate the first Mass, he had just met Pope Pius XII a short time before and he had given permission for us to keep the Blessed Sacrament."

Finally, in the last months of her life, she had the Presence of Jesus-Eucharist in her room, according to the testimony of Sister Annette of Jesus:

"In this last stage of her life, having the Eucharistic Presence in her room from October 1988 on was a great joy and comfort to her. When she wanted to adore the Blessed Sacrament every day, she had a sign put on her door with this inscription: ‘Do not knock except for a phone call from outside or an emergency.’”

Finally, for Sister Magdeleine as for Charles de Foucauld, Muslims occupied a privileged place in her life, these "brothers and sisters of Islam" among whom she began in Algeria. Testimonies show how much she loved them and was loved by them in return. Three Muslims accepted to testify for her beatification, two of them anonymously for security reasons.

One of them was one of Sister Magdeleine's very first friends in Algeria, a friendship that lasted a lifetime. He is a pious Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and is able to bear witness to Sister Magdeleine's faith and holiness:

"Lsr Magdeleine was a woman of faith, of course. She believed in God. Yes, lsr Magdeleine lived thinking that life is only a passage and that we must really love one another while we live. She was never discouraged. Of course, lsr Magdeleine sought to do the Will of God. And she wanted to offer her life to God out of love. Yes, she spoke of Jesus, Aïssa. Christmas was a great feast for her, and also Easter. For Christmas, she would have a festive celebration in Sidi-Boujnan. (...) Of course, she prayed to Lalla Meriem [Mary] and her son Aissa. Lsr Magdeleine was good, very good indeed. She is a saint. We must call her ‘Saint Little Sister Magdeleine.’ She was kind with everyone, and everyone loved her.” François Marie Léthel

François-Marie Léthel, o.c.d., Secretary of the Pontifical Academy of Theology and Professor at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology "Teresianum," preached the Lenten retreat at the Vatican in 2011 on the theme: "The Light of Christ at the Heart of the Church - John Paul II and the Theology of the Saints". Since 2004 he has also been a Consultor of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. "Le témoignage eucharistique de sr Magdeleine de Jésus", par le p. Léthel ocd - ZENIT - Francais