Women With Down Syndrome Respond to God’s Call

Women With Down Syndrome Respond to God’s Call July 26, 2014

To offer oneself to God, in witness to the Gospel of Life.

This is the mission of the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, a contemplative order in France which opens its doors to women who feel a call to religious life, but who may be turned away from other orders because they have Down Syndrome.  The community depends on other sisters who do not have Down Syndrome, but who have committed to share their lives with these lovely, holy women.

The community was founded in 1985 with the support and encouragement of Jerome Lejeune, the French pediatrician and geneticist whose laboratory research uncovered the link to chromosomal abnormalities including Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome).

In 1990, the group was canonically recognized
as a public association by the Archbishop of Tours. The Sisters now reside in a priory in Blanc, where they model their lives after St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way”.  A leaflet published by the community explains:

We follow every day the “little way” taught by Saint Therese; knowing that “great actions are forbidden to us”, we learn from her to receive everything from God, to “love for the brothers who fight”, to “scatter flowers for Jesus”, and to pray for the intentions entrusted to us.


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  • Allrise3

    Here we see spiritual and intellectual evolution. This is heartwarming. This religious order has truly heard God’s word. Well Done.

  • Robin Johnston

    This is so lovely and right. Thank you for sharing this information.

  • haggis95

    Wow, I’m utterly moved by this… I have a son with Downs.

    • Joel Everett

      I have a daughter with Down Syndrome; this is very cool to know that this order is allowed to do this.

  • Carolyn Plant

    How beautiful!

  • Joyce Moran- Colella

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

  • bamboozledinmars

    Exciting to know that full inclusion with Downs Syndrome means religious as well. God does not exclude. I thank you, France, for my daughter with DS.

  • fr tom

    I’m not sure how exactly this order operates if these are full members or some kind of associates etc…however one of the fundamental aspects of a vocation is that the person chooses the consecrated life freely and knowingly without any outside pressure..only a mature Catholic adult may make such a decision and then the Church reserves the right to discern if the candidate is truly called…I am not sure how a person with Down Syndrome can possibly make such a decision or if they have the mental and emotional capability of an adult..

    • Marie

      Yes, that part’s a bit puzzling to me, too. Surely these women are close to God regardless of whether they are capable of vows, but the whether they are truly capable of making vows is a question. Not only that, but in terms of renunciation that the traditional three vows (poverty, chastity, obedience) speak to, what are these ladies renouncing? Worldly goods, marriage, full independence? These are things that most Downs individuals must live without in any case, due to their condition.

      All that said, I’d far rather see this attempted, where these lovely people embrace their natural “smallness” rather than the push that I’ve seen in other places for individuals with Downs to be pressured to do things that are far beyond their capacity, and even to the extent that they are encouraged to marry (but put on birth control of course, the non-Downs instigators and orchestrators of the escapade hasten to assure us (as though that makes it okay!) all the while talking about the birth control as something done _to_ them “for their own good,” not something the couple chose, as which of course serves only to highlight that the couple really aren’t capable of that level of decision making and thus of marrying at all).

      Living as vowed religious may be a step beyond what in reality individuals with Downs are capable of in terms of reasoned vows, but the life itself is at least in keeping with their natural innocence and unworldliness.

      The descriptions I’ve seen of secular people trying to make Downs adults as worldly as themselves is much more a problem to my mind. At least all these ladies are being encouraged to add to life is prayer. That’s a big contrast to being encouraged to complete one’s life by engaging in contraceptive sex.

      • Br. Brent

        Marie and Fr. Tom, Thanks for your thought provoking comments. As a vowed religious myself, I share your concerns about their ability to give full consent. One thing I think we need to consider, however, is that one doesn’t just enter the convent and make vows – there is an extensive process of formation.

        It is important to remember that this community relies on sisters who do not have Down Syndrome. Although I do not know this for sure, I imagine that the formators of the community are selected from sisters without Down Syndrome as well. This community has over 25 years of experience as a religious community, so I imagine that they have a process for evaluating such things.

        As some of the commenters have noted, there are many who have down syndrome whose cognitive abilities are quite good. So at the end of the day, I think we should rely on the help of God working through their formators – and thank Him that some of these women have been given an opportunity to live out a call as consecrated religious.

      • Nin

        “Worldly goods, marriage, full independence? These are things that most Downs individuals must live without in any case, due to their condition.”. That statement is full of ignorance and judgment. As others have said, many people with DS are fully capable of making their own life choices, in full awareness of the choice they are making. Many of them have more worldly goods, better marriages and are more independent than many “typical” adults I know. If you think there have not been folks since the beginning of the church who run to it as an escape or out of fear of the world as a whole, making the sacrifice instead of living a “normal” life, then you are mistaken. The problems my son with DS will face in the world are not the making of his disability but are instead of the mindset that you epitomize your comment. He will certainly not be discounting himself but will face judgment and discounting from people who doubt his capabilities because of the shape of his eyes or the sound of his speech. I encourage you to spend time with children and adults with DS, with many of them. It is a huge spectrum of abilities and personalities….just like everyone else and I’m willing to bet they would more than surprise you with their capabilities and intelligence.

    • chris

      some with DS are highly functioning…and even if they are not….if they feel the call to religion and want to commit their lives to God, why exclude them? the article plainly states “The community depends on other sisters who do not have Down Syndrome,
      but who have committed to share their lives with these lovely, holy
      women.” it is a place they can go and mostly, fulfill their wish to have a consecrated life.

      as you yourself said “the Church reserves the right to discern if the candidate is truly called”. obviously, this place accepted them the way they are. i really just don’t think God is stewing about this place accepting his children to do His work…and might even be happy someone gave them a chance to share His word.

    • Barbara Fryman

      I’m so glad you voiced this so that others could express that there are individuals with cognitive disabilities who are still capable if exercising free will and responding to God’s call. Because of devoted parents, therapists and doctors, like Dr. Lejeune, people are getting the aide they need to become more fully themselves. It is utterly thrilling to know the church is still evaluating people as whole individuals and not simply their diagnosis.

    • Gloria Cantalupi

      With all due respect fr tom, I’ve seen many with DS who are completely capable of making life-changing, life long decisions; I know of many who have gone on to get college degrees, good jobs, living on their own… it’s not like in the past when these wonderful people were shoved away in institutions, thank God ! Even those who require more assistance have so very much to offer the world. I’m not sure where your thinking is coming from.

    • My first thought about this community was how we can be sure that this is the sister’s choice vs. doing something based on expectations or pressures from parents. I am sure that the sisters and their superiors are well aware of the possibility of the latter scenario. I think during formation the latest it is found out if they made that decision as mature believers.

    • Margaret

      I can’t find a reference, but Augustine or Aquinas or some other renowned theologian said that spiritual maturity cannot be equated with physical maturity. There are children recognized by the church as having spiritual maturity. Would you discount Catherine of Siena’s vision of Christ at age six? Modern society seems, in my estimation, to overemphasize human accomplishments, such as abstract knowledge–facility in reading, mathematics, science, etc.–but totally ignores other important aspects such as the spirit, including the will.

      Also, what is the difference between a person who thinks he has a vocation but is misunderstanding his motives–the person who seeks to enter religious life because of an inability to relate to members of the opposite six, one who is fearful about being able to succeed in the world. They may enter religious life and their defective reasons not detected by a superior, remain in religious life for a time, then finally leave because they have grown to realize their error.

      Finally, how does God view these children of his? As “associate” children?

  • OMG, that is so wonderful. St. Therese would be so proud of them. May they shine as God’s brightest lights!

  • Francis Choudhury

    Wow! A religious community of pure saints, who, by God’s own benevolent design, are – so fortunately – incapable of sin! Christ must surely delight to reside within the walls of that priory!

  • Helen in Missouri

    I adopted 9 mentally handicapped children, 5 of them DS. Two of the 5, now middle aged, a boy and a girl would have been perfect for this life. How can parents, friends, religious ed teachers, priests and religious who know and love DS children and young adults determine that they might have such a vocation? The same way that parents et al know this of a perfectly normal child, often before the child himself realizes it.
    If there were more such religious communities, DS teenagers and young adults could visit over a period of time. My children were all capable of making it clear when they wanted (or did not want) what was offered them at the age of two.
    I pray there will be such communities in the U.S. also.

    • kathyschiffer

      Helen, you have a wonderful story! I wonder whether you’d mind getting in touch with me about a personal interview? You could email me at the blog, kathy@seasonsofgrace.net.

    • Elizabeth

      Your story sounds amazing. God bless you for your generosity in adopting, in particular special needs.

    • pjm

      The problem Helen, is that our religious sisters in America have been too busy riding Nuns on the Bus, throwing their habits out the window, walking labyrinths, lobbying for liberal causes such as obamacare, campaigning to become priestesses and other malfeasance, instead of doing God’s will and establishing communities such as this.

  • Fr. Matthias, OSB

    Servant of God Dr. Jerome Lejeune is a powerful intercessor for those with Downs. His process for beatification and canonization has begun and recently reached a milestone–the approval, by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, of the initial diocesan investigation.

  • Tom P.

    God bless those lovely women. God may have denied them some things, but He blessed them with huge hearts.

  • anneeasthartford

    God Bless this very wonderful order!

  • Dora

    Great choice! Just wonderfull. My brother with Down Sindrome is always wanting to go to mass. I wish I could find something like this for him.

  • Don

    “Every child with Down syndrome, every adult with special needs—in fact, every unwanted unborn child, every person who is poor, weak, abandoned, or homeless—is an icon of God’s face and a vessel of his love. How we treat these persons—whether we revere them and welcome them or throw them away in distaste—shows what we really believe about human dignity, both as individuals and as a nation.” Abp. Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

    • pjm

      Well considering 9 out of 10 Down syndrome babies are now aborted in the US., I think you have your answer. If I was God, for that fact alone, I’d be smiting this nation by giving us a community agitator out to destroy our country…..oh wait.

  • james heapes

    This is a step in the right direction, because there is a kind of church elitism that prevents especially people diagnosed with mental illness from religious life. A diagnosis comes from the secular world, from psychiatry which is an atheist “art” and not a science, but that is not my point. My point is that the church will not allow perfectly normal people to enter religious life if the world has given them a label. Now in this day and age where to conform is to be “sane”, how can true Catholics avoid being labeled as “mentally ill”.? You will find that many great saints would have been locked up in mental hospital and drugged. This is something that no one who is not personally affected by this wants to talk about. It is not the Christian thing to do by ignoring the massive injustice done to people like myself who are perfectly fine, but who have a label. The label should mean nothing. The church should not base its judgements on what the secular world has to say about an individual. In fact, I think a new religious order should be founded especially for people diagnosed with mental ilness.

    • Carolyn

      Just so it’s clear, Down syndrome is not a mental illness. It is a cognitive disability with some physical problems sometimes associated, but mental illnesses are different. (Not to say someone with DS cannot also have a mental illness.)

      I’m not Catholic (ELCA Lutheran) but I’m happy to see this. My son (10) has been an acolyte (lights candles, helps with communion) for 2 years now, and also played his cello for the first time as part of the worship service (with the rest of the family, all strings, accompanying) a few weeks back. Our congregation is very accepting of and loving toward him…everyone just adores him! He is included as much as he is able to be. He loves to go to worship, to sing the hymns, he knows the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, he loves to be involved as an acolyte. But in the end, for us, we feel that Jesus gathers all of his children, including those with disabilities, to Him. For most things, it really depends on the level of cognitive (and/or physical) abilities of the individual. Blanket statements about them being able or not able to do something are usually not warranted.

  • Susan Suddjian

    How blessed we all would be to have more sisters like them!

  • Jean

    One of the difficulties here is that even those who see themselves as ‘defending’ the rights of persons with Down Syndrome are perpetuating their own unsupported generalizations. ‘I have a son with DS who does x…’ or ‘I know of a woman with DS who does y…’ does not translate to any conclusion at all regarding the competence of ‘people with Down Syndrome’ to do anything. There is a range of capabilities, across the board.

    My son with Down Syndrome, in his twenties, is incapable of caring for a child. That ‘most males with DS are sterile’ does not address the problem, as he would be entering a state which is itself ordered to the procreation and raising of children, something which he could not in principle do. I hear wonderful stories from parents with children with DS who praise God for the gift of a son or daughter capable of also being a mom or dad, as they should. But do not assume that because some are capable, all are. Fr. Tom’s question is not unfeeling, or an attempt to defend an outdated conservatism, but a prudent and reasonable one. It may be that some women with Down Syndrome would be incompetent to make the decision to enter into this religious life. Please, let’s not then say ‘it doesn’t matter’, as that denigrates the holy state to which they aspire. Yet there are alternatives to fully-fledged religious life, even so.

    The same goes for the comment about people with Down Syndrome being ‘incapable of sin’. I know my son prays, and fervently, but I also know he sins, and knows his sin. He goes to confession for his sins. Please, let’s not generalize to a population which is every bit as diverse as those without their condition.

    So, for those capable of this life, what a blessing! Maybe their success will inspire other orders to accept people with disabilities of various sorts at various levels of religious life. On the other hand, let’s not assume this is possible for everyone with DS. That would be to make the same mistake as as those who say it is for none.

  • Georgeanna Modlin

    People with Downs are the perfect ones, not hating or violent. They love everyone they meet and have pure souls. We should learn from them not the other way around.