Service of the Poor
This reflection expresses the early understanding of the charism of the Sisters of Charity of a woman who is discerning her vocation.
“Service of the Poor” is the fourth vow of the Sisters of Charity.
Our charism is to share the love, tenderness, and concern of Christ with all whom we meet, seeing Christ in everyone.
Both the fourth vow and the charism played a central role in the life of Mary Aikenhead.
Her commitment and total dedication to following Jesus in responding to the call to live a life of service of the poor became one of the hallmarks in the life of the congregation founded by her. It is a legacy of her spirit, of her commitment to the poor, which has inspired generations of Sisters of Charity as well as many lay people.
There are three main characteristics of Service of the Poor as a charism that are particularly inspiring.
First of all, it is a service. Implied in this term is a notion of respect and acceptance. It is not about taking a higher moral ground and looking down on the poor, however noble the motivations are. It is about empathy which is active and two-way, not pity which is passive and one-way. It is bout working with, not working for, the poor.
There are so many faces of poverty in our ever-changing world. Financial poverty is only one type of poverty.
Poverty could be a lack of self-esteem, lack of opportunity, family breakdown, addiction, exclusion… It takes time to be with someone, and to establish relationships built on trust and respect. It is important to be sensitive to the poor’s readiness when we enter into their inner lives. It demands of us a capacity to let go of our desire to control. Every person has a unique life story.
Service of the poor can be about something big but it can also be about simple things such as spending time listening, waiting, or just simply being present.
It can also mean taking the lead from the poor as to whether or not they need our service. It requires respect, humility and at times the ability to accept ‘failure’ and outright rejection from the poor.
Secondly, it is about social justice. Service of the Poor includes advocacy because it challenges structural oppression.
Mary Aikenhead, in her letter written in 1833, in response to a request from a commission of inquiry into the state of the Irish, pointed to the structural problem of society at the time as the cause of poverty and misery. For her, the lack of employment opportunities, a structural problem, caused many of the problems of individuals.
Finally, Service of the Poor is transformative. It is in service that one is transformed. In a sense one may become more like Christ.
In service, one becomes more trusting in God and recognises one’s limits. In working with the poor, our lives are touched and transformed.
It is a mutual relationship with the poor. In serving the poor, one can feel powerless and overwhelmed by being exposed to ongoing human sufferings.
Feeling powerless is not necessarily a bad thing as it can orient one toward God who is the source of all power.
It should be noted that committing oneself to acts of self-care is also important to enable us to be able to continue our care for others.