“I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.” With these simple words, Venerable Henriette Delille lived a life of profound holiness. Eighteen words is all it took to summarize, evangelize and give others a model to follow.
As tempted as I am to just finish my column here, as I’ve undoubtedly gone past 18 words, I’d like to continue. So permit me, just a moment to share, a little bit more about Venerable Henriette Delille and what we can learn from her, more than 150 years after her death.
I first heard the story of this future saint when I began teaching at St. Mary’s Academy, a high school run by the Sisters of the Holy Family, in New Orleans. The school primarily serves African-American girls in middle and high school, but following Hurricane Katrina the school expanded to include an elementary school for both boys and girls.
In 1812, Henriette was born in New Orleans, and grew up in the French Quarter as a free woman of color. She rejected the plaçage system of the time, when wealthy European-American men could take women of color as common-law wives or mistresses. As a young adult, Henriette sought to join a religious order, but because she was a woman of color, she was rejected from religious life.
Undeterred, Henriette and two friends sought the counsel of a local priest, and together, they founded a new religious order, the Sisters of the Holy Family. They provided care to the slaves and the sick, especially those suffering from yellow fever. Mother Henriette helped many of the poor and forgotten of New Orleans become baptized, often serving as godmother; her name was listed so often in the baptismal registry, that the baptistery in St. Louis Cathedral includes a stained glass window of Henriette Delille.
She was named Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Venerable Henriette Delille is the first United States native born African-American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church.
As we dive into the Gospel, we call to mind people like Henriette, like Sister Thea Bowman whose cause for canonization has also been opened, like St. Josephine Bahkita and countless others who have advocated peace and justice, who have lived the Gospel, and who have given us a model to follow.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are weeping, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!” (Luke 6:20-23)
Venerable Henriette Delille lived that Gospel passage. She encountered challenges and overcame them for the salvation of souls. She experienced systemic racism and persevered for the salvation of souls. She cared for those who had no one else, for the salvation of souls.
As our young people live in 2019 and strive for holiness, they encounter similar challenges as Henriette. Racism exists today and is a spiritual problem which requires a spiritual solution – Jesus Christ. Disabilities that are physical, mental, or emotional exist today and are growing in our young population. Families are under attack and young people are often deeply affected by those spiritual attacks.
Yet we have hope. Rejoice and be glad! Our rewards will be great in heaven. We trust in the Lord and are blessed by that. Each one of us has the capacity for sainthood, if it is challenged, cultivated and nurtured. Each of us, young especially, can encounter Christ and grow in love of Him.
With social media and technology, young people are attuned and equipped for short and brief information; whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram, they can process the profound even when it’s concise.
Eighteen words is all it took Venerable Henriette Delille to preach and live the Gospel. Let us pray that we can model and emulate those 18 words in our own lives. “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”
— Adam Ganucheau is the Director of the Office of Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Mobile. He may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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