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A pilgrimage to Rome: Understanding Youville's Catholic identity

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Over 150 leaders ... spent a week touring ancient sites and focusing on mission, charism, and the legacy handed down by the different orders of women religious that preceded Covenant.


The Youville Assisted Living communities are among many diverse properties that make up Covenant Health, a not-for-profit, New England-based healthcare organization. These organizations share a unique sense of mission that remains rooted in the values-rich tradition of Catholic healthcare.

"Mission plays a central role in the culture of Catholic care," says Nicole Breslin, president and CEO of Youville. "No matter what their religion, people who work in Catholic healthcare are drawn to the deeper significance of what they do, not just the paycheck they get at the end of the week."

This mission-oriented culture is palpable at Youville, where residents' physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being are valued equally. Maria Benoit, director of Mission and Spiritual Care, provides programs and services that engage a diverse population. "We certainly provide Catholic Mass and Rosary, but we also reach out to other faiths," she says. Benoit has celebrated Passover Seders with Jewish residents, organized meditation groups with a Buddhist monk, and spoken on the histories and beliefs of Islam as part of an ongoing lecture series. At Youville House in Cambridge, she has enlisted interns from Harvard's Divinity School to lead programs and provide additional pastoral presence for residents. She has reached out to a seminarian from Pope St. John XXIII Seminary to provide similar pastoral services for residents at Youville Place, in Lexington. This emphasis on spiritual engagement is unique to Youville, and it is made possible through our connection to historical Catholic values.

In what sense is Youville "Catholic"?

This past October, all of Covenant Health's senior leaders and board members made a pilgrimage to Rome. Over 150 leaders, from the many organizations that make up Covenant, spent a week touring ancient sites and focusing on mission, charism, and the legacy handed down by the different orders of women religious that preceded Covenant.

"It was very powerful to be with so many people who have found their vocation in Catholic healthcare," said Breslin. "There was a deep sense of mutual respect and reverence for the sisters that established all of this."

The pilgrimage culminated with an in-person report presented to a dicastery, a department of the Roman Curia. Covenant board members presented verbal reports to bishops from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life inside the Vatican. Covenant board members reported on Covenant's accomplishments over the past year. In turn, the bishops were able to ask questions relating to how Covenant was carrying out the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Church, particularly with regard to care for the poor.

"They were very impressed with the report," says Sister June Ketterer, SGM, who currently resides at Youville Place. "I was impressed, too."

Why does Covenant, a lay organization, report directly to the Vatican? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Sister June is a big reason. A leading figure in the Grey Nuns administration, Sister June became the founder and president of Covenant Health almost 30 years ago and remains on the board. Faced with an aging population of sisters and a decline in new membership, Sister June founded Covenant with the vision of eventually shifting the Grey Nuns' healthcare organizations to a lay model of sponsorship. In doing so, she wanted to ensure that these organizations retained their Catholic identity. In 1996, the Grey Nuns and Covenant found the solution in a unique form of sponsorship, called the "public juridic person." This designation made Covenant Health an official Catholic entity in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

"It is a complicated-sounding term," said Sister June. "'Public juridic person' is a canonical word. You could understand it as the Church's version of a civil corporation."

By transferring to a lay model of sponsorship, the Grey Nuns ensured that their hospitals and assisted living residences would continue to serve communities in the spirit of St. Marguerite d'Youville and the Church. "The Church's willingness to endow a lay organization with 'public juridic person' standing shows how much confidence they had in Covenant," says Maria Benoit.

This is why, every five years, Covenant reports directly to Rome, taking leaders from across their many health care institutions with them. The Covenant Pilgrimage is an important reminder for all lay leaders of their responsibility in carrying on the important mission begun by the Grey Nuns and other religious orders.

This trip marked the final pilgrimage for Sister June. Some 30 years after founding Covenant, she feels grateful that she was able to be with the board for one final report to Rome. "After the report, I felt that I could go back to Youville in peace. I knew that our hospitals and assisted living communities were in good hands."

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

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