Religious Sisters with Down syndrome: the joy of shared contemplative life
The Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb live in the centre of France. They are the first contemplative community in the world to welcome into consecrated life people with Down Syndrome, or trisomy 21.
By Cyprien Viet
The community, which has a special devotion to Saint Benedict and Saint Theresa of Lisieux, first got the idea in the 1980’s. It started with a friendship. Line was on a spiritual search of her own and felt a calling to work with children. Véronique is a young woman with Down syndrome who felt a vocation to the consecrated life.
Line is now Mother Line, Superior of the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb (Petites Soeurs Disciples de l’Agneau). She explains: “I visited several communities that welcomed people with disabilities, but I saw they could not find their place in these communities because they were not suitable for them”. “It was the encounter with Véronique, a girl with Down syndrome that gave us the idea for a new beginning. I told myself I had to help her realize her vocation”.
Véronique wanted to respond to her vocation to serve the Lord, but was refused by all the communities she approached because she has Down syndrome. Canon Law and monastic rules do not provide for the admission of people with mental disabilities to religious life. It took Line and Véronique 14 years to get the statutes of this special community, with its own original style, recognized.
Sr Véronique and Mother Line, the first two members of the community.
Gradual recognition by the Church
Line and Véronique began their community of two in 1985 in a small apartment, a council house. Later, another girl with Down syndrome joined them. In 1990, they asked the future Cardinal and Archbishop of Tours, Jean Honoré (1920-2013), to recognize them as a public association of lay faithful. It was the support of Cardinal Honoré, who defended their case in Rome, which allowed this small community to be recognized.
In 1995, the growing number of “associates” obliged the Little Sisters to move. They settled in Le Blanc, a town of 6,500 inhabitants in the Diocese of Bourges. Pierre Plateau (1924-2018), Archbishop of this diocese in central France, welcomed them warmly. His intervention helped make further progress for them in Rome, with a view to obtaining the status of a contemplative religious institute. This they obtained in 1999.
“Plateau was really a father to our community”, says Mother Line, “he was very close to people with Down syndrome”. The sisters gradually developed the priory and the chapel and in 2011 obtained the definitive recognition of their statutes, thanks to the intervention of Archbishop Armand Maillard, who added his support to the community, considering it a source of life and joy in the area.
A community of life
There are currently 10 Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb: eight of them have Down syndrome. The community hopes to welcome more sisters, as those with Down syndrome need assistance and support. Even though, according to Mother Line, they are mostly independent “because the contemplative life allows them to live at their own pace. For people with Down syndrome, changes are difficult, but when life is very regular they manage well,” she says.
That regular lifestyle unfolds in daily functions and tasks. Holy Mass is celebrated every Tuesday in the chapel, and the various activities include weaving and pottery workshops and, most recently, the creation of a garden of medicinal plants. Ultimately, this extraordinary vocation is expressed in the ordinary things of life, in the humility of service, following the “little path” revealed by Saint Teresa of Lisieux, whose spirituality is the source of their inspiration.
“34 years have passed since I heard the call of Jesus”, says Sr Véronique. “I have tried to know Jesus by reading the Bible and the Gospel. I was born with a disability called Down syndrome. I am happy. I love Life. I pray, but I am sad for the children with Down syndrome who will not feel this same joy of living. For those who felt called to live, like Saint Teresa, the vocation to love, the journey was long but her patience and her faith gave their fruits. Jesus made me grow in His love”.
After facing rejection by other communities, Sr Véronique describes experiencing her greatest joy on 20 June 2009 when she made her perpetual vows in the Institute of the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, and became “the bride of Jesus”.
Let love unfold
“At a time when society lacks points of reference, no longer finding meaning in life or giving it value, our community wants to reaffirm the sacred character of life and the human person through the simple witness of our life consecrated to God”, say the Little Sisters.
The Little Sisters extend an open invitation to a period of discernment to all young women who feel “touched by the spirit of poverty and devotion, and who are ready to offer their lives serving Christ in the persons of their little sisters with Down syndrome”.
Young women with Down syndrome, who feel called to consecrated life, go through the same period of discerning their vocation. Mother Line explains how the Lord calls when we come to understand who we are, and what we want. “It is just like for any other vocation”, she says. They understand perfectly well if it is not authentic.
Sister Morgane takes the religious habit
The gift of friendship with Jesus
Mother Line says she has discovered great spiritual strength in her sisters with Down syndrome. “They know the Bible, the lives of the saints, and they have a fabulous memory”, she says. “They are souls of prayer, they are very spiritual, very close to Jesus”.
Mother Line sees in their simplicity a prophetic sign for our time. “Their souls are not disabled! On the contrary, they are closer to the Lord, they communicate with Him more easily. The other sisters of the community admire their ability to forgive, to encourage their sisters by finding the right phrase from the Bible that helps give meaning to the day”.
In 2013, the community was shaken by the premature death of Sr Rose-Claire at the age of 26. Her sisters describe her as having an aura of holiness similar to that of Saint Teresa of Lisieux, whom she loved very much. Mother Line recounts the reaction of the Little Sisters with Down syndrome who embraced their sister’s passing with great serenity, placing everything under the gaze of God. “When I went to their room to talk to them the next morning, one of them told me: ‘It is the desire of Heaven’. Another encouraged me, saying: ‘We must be strong. We have faith’”.
To some, the experience of this community may seem unusual. To others, it responds to an anthropological challenge in a world obsessed with efficiency and productivity. A world in which there appears to be no place for people with Down syndrome. According to Mother Line, however, their capacity to love and to be close to the Lord produces surprising fruits. Theirs is a world to be discovered, she concludes. “They bring joy to society and, above all, they bring love to the world. A world that needs it so much”.
Three Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb: Marie-Ange, Camille and Géraldine
An invitation from the Little Sisters:
Become a consecrated religious and offer your life to Jesus together with the Little Sisters with Down syndrome.
Doing so means listening to a call to dedicate yourself to the smallest and most vulnerable witnesses of the Gospel of life. “Come and see!”. When God calls, He gives His Grace along with the joy of being consecrated together with the Little Sisters with Down syndrome.
For us it means repeating the words of Pope Saint John Paul II: it means daring to say ‘do not be afraid’ to a world in which we fear one another, we fear the frailties inherent in our nature and condition, like disability and illness. It means daring to affirm, more than ever, the beauty and greatness of life in all its suffering mystery.
Do not be afraid to follow Jesus and to share this life offered to our Little Sisters. They may be fragile, but they are strong. Their strength is of the highest order: strength of the heart.
Do not be afraid to witness in the eyes of the world, to a vocation that is generous, one that is oriented towards others, that transcends the labels of disability and marginalization.