If you seek a quintessentially counter-cultural story, then that of Sister Marie-Ange is definitely it. It is told in a recent book, issued in French with the title of Choisie pour l’étérnité! (“Chosen for Eternity”, by Raphaëlle Simon, published by Artège).
Indeed, Catholic nuns and people with Down syndrome are among the most misunderstood categories in today’s world. The life of a Catholic nun, for many, is a “wasted” life: a life without sex, without a career, without children, without money, without makeup, without travel … all the withouts you like.
And the life of a person with Down syndrome is so depreciated that when trisomy is diagnosed before birth the child is frequently aborted – to the point that Iceland famously fashioned itself as the first “Down-syndrome-free” country — and this is not due to the beneficial effects of northern lights, I’m afraid.
The story of a Catholic nun with Down syndrome, therefore, certainly qualifies for one of the most countercultural stories you are likely to read.
Indeed, whilst the Catholic Church has always upheld the full personhood of people with Down syndrome, the opportunity of living a religious life is by no means uncontroversial even within Catholicism. It is not a matter of denying the full dignity of all baptized to people with trisomy: certainly, their capability to live a deep communion with Christ is recognized by the Catholic magisterium in many documents.
Rather, what is at stake is the capacity of people with Down syndrome to engage themselves for life, to take vows, to commit themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Is this a choice which can be freely and consciously made by people with cognitive disabilities?
The story of Marie-Ange represents an eloquent “yes” to the above questions. Marie-Ange was born with Down syndrome in a wealthy and cultivated French family, surrounded by many siblings and by the supportive love of her parents. Still, being born in the 1960s, she and her family had to face the many limitations posed to the education and social acceptance of people with Down syndrome. They found courageous and outspoken support in Professor Jérôme Lejeune, who studied the various facets of Down syndrome for his entire life and tirelessly affirmed their gifts and the importance of their presence in society.
During her teens, Marie-Ange was admitted to a centre where young girls with Down syndrome could develop their talents. There, she met Veronique, another girl who showed clear signs of a religious vocation. Still, existing religious communities were neither equipped nor prepared for accepting a candidate with Down syndrome. But Veronique did not desist, and finally encountered Line, a young woman who had worked with people with disabilities, and who wanted to consecrate her life to God. Line understood Veronique’s vocation and its authenticity, and they began to live together, along with another sister. Soon, Marie-Ange asked to join this small informal community.
This was the first kernel of a monastic sisterhood which later took the name of “Petites Soeurs Disciples de l’Agneau” (Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb).
This book by journalist Raphaëlle Simon recounts the intertwining stories of Marie-Ange’s life and of the community in which she lived for 33 years, from her admission at age 20 until her death. The book details the difficult beginning of the community, which had to gain acceptance both within and without the Church, but also the thrilling manifestation of God’s grace in those years. It tells the nuns’ daily life, with their schedule of prayer, work and communal activities. It eloquently describes the depth of the sisters’ calling: nuns with Down syndrome live together with nuns without trisomy, side by side, united by their love for Jesus.
Marie-Ange was a cheerful woman, who intensely lived her vocation. She felt she had been chosen for eternity by Christ; she responded wholeheartedly, with enthusiasm and with a constant smile, in spite of many sufferings and hardships due to her condition.
Together with her sisters, she lived the itinerary traced by St Therese of Lisieux, discovering the beauty and greatness of the small gestures of kindness, of daily prayer, of a constant offering to God and for the others.
In her simplicity, Sister Marie-Ange was a living testimony not only of the full humanity of people with Down syndrome, but also of their primacy in the kingdom of God. She taught many people the beauty of a life entirely surrendered to God, in the hiddenness of a profound humility. With her determination to live her consecrated life intensely, she demonstrated that the ways of the Lord transcend those we can fathom, and that there is an intuition in spiritual life which vastly surpasses what mere rationality can understand.