Find More Mercy Reflections

Challenges from Our Tradition

March 20, 2012

“Speak the story, whisper to the Earth,
touch the moments, blessings of rebirth.
Taste the wonders, the fragrances, the fears,
See Love’s unfolding echo through the years.” 1

Those words from Miriam Martin came to mind as I prepared for the anniversary celebrations here in Brisbane. Anniversaries are celebrated because they enable us “be drawn into the circles and spirals of storytellers and storytelling.”2 Spoken or unspoken, stories are powerful containers for the energy of our lives. We live out of our stories and we respond over and over to their influence. Martin Buber, the philosopher, believed that telling a story expressively, can contribute powerfully to our insight, healing, and enlivenment. He pointed to this power in a story about a story

......My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how this teacher used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. 3

This morning it is my great privilege to tell the story of Catherine McAuley – a story that contains many stories. This morning it is my great privilege to tell the story of Catherine McAuley – a story that contains many stories. During the next three days stories from 19th century Ireland, the stories of our world today and our dream story for the future will be told. While we may not hop and dance in the telling, I trust that the stories will touch a place deep in our hearts so that the love, the compassion and the spirit of Catherine will continue to dance within us as we remember Vincent Whitty and her companions who crossed the sea from faraway Dublin to Queensland 150 years ago.

There are so many wonderful stories one could tell, so many aspects of Catherine’s life on which one could dwell. Today I am able to focus only on three of these. I wish to highlight the extraordinary way in which Catherine used her gifts and her own experience of life in pursuit of her life’s purpose. I shall then focus on the warm-hearted human woman who had, in her own words, “an ardent desire to be united to God and to serve the poor.”4 Finally I shall look at her relationship with her early companions and how this relationship helped in their growth and development as they continued her mission of showing God’s love and compassion to so many parts of the world.

Catherine McAuley, unlike most Catholics of her time, was born into a comfortably well off family towards the end of the Penal Laws era in Ireland. The object of the Penal Laws was threefold: "To deprive Catholics of all civil life; to reduce them to a condition of extreme, brutal ignorance; and, to disassociate them from the
soil.”5 Catherine’s own parents were not the ordinary poor Catholics of 19th century Dublin – her father availed of the concession in the Penal Laws which allowed Catholics to engage in trade and non-professional activities. At the time of Catherine’s birth, he owned land and several properties in Dublin. He was very committed to his faith and to the church and his love of God was expressed in his great love for the poor. Even though Catherine was only a child of five when he died, she retained vivid memories of his gathering of poor children from the area in their home, to feed them and to instruct them in their faith. She was deeply influenced by him and never forgot his great love for the poor.

Her mother Elinor came from a similar social background. She is described as young, attractive and vain but of little piety. She failed to appreciate the Christian charity which urged her husband to befriend the poor and to instruct their children in the house. She was gentle, fastidious and charming. Her mother’s influence and training contributed to Catherine’s independent mind, her great refinement, her graciousness and personal charm.

Following her father’s death the family moved several times before finally settling in the city where Catherine spent her teenage years. When her mother died she spent time with her relatives - the Conways and the Armstrongs. By the time Catherine was twenty her life was already chequered by transitions from wealth to poverty, to orphan hood, to being homeless, to reliance on other people’s charity and dependency on those who provided for her. She then moved in with the Callaghans who were to change the course of her life. She moved to Coolock with them and spent over twenty years of her adult life there.

Living in the quiet countryside away from the glamour and the sophistication of the city provided the atmosphere for God to speak to her heart. Catherine discovered anew the compassionate Jesus who drew her to him and gave her that heart to share with Dublin’s poorShe discovered anew the compassionate Jesus who drew her to him and gave her that heart to share with Dublin’s poor Here she also learned many skills, particularly in the area of management. The Callaghans held her in high esteem and William Callaghan left her the bulk of his wealth with no conditions attached.

At the age of 44 Catherine became an heiress. She did not follow her brother’s and friends’ advice, which would have enabled her to walk through the doors of fashionable society. Catherine was one who allowed the experiences of life to teach and to guide her. Sr. Sheila Carney says, “one who I like to say, was a recycler – taking what was given to her, wrapping it in the mercy of God, she had experienced, and then finding a way to pass it on.”6

She built on the experiences of her own childhood, her time in the city and her extended period of time in Coolock. Her experience of teaching poor children in the city convinced her that permanent improvement for Dublin’s slum dwellers could only come through the provision of education for the young people roaming the streets.

Besides her devotion to the sick and the poor she felt a keen sympathy for one class of persons particularly, young servant girls exposed to danger. Catherine had experienced their plight first hand when one such girl appealed to her for help. She could not help her on that occasion, but she was deeply affected by the experience. One day when Mr. Callaghan asked her what she would do after he died, she told him, quite frankly, that she would devote herself first to the protection of young servant girls through teaching them to support themselves and by guiding them in Christian living. The need to care for servant girls is no surprise as there were 18, 274 servant girls in the city of Dublin in 1841 by far the highest occupation at that time.7 The legacy from the Callaghans enabled Catherine to buy a site and to build a house on Baggot Street for various kinds of religious, educational and social services to help poor women and children.

Let us now focus on this warm hearted human woman who, in the words of Teresa White, “was rather tall, five feet five and had a queenly air.” 8 We discover her humanness and warmth above all through her Letters and from descriptions of her by those who knew her well. I would like to begin with the words of your own Vincent Whitty. . “If you had known her, how you would have loved and venerated her, and still be as familiar with her as with an intimate friend... “If you had known her, how you would have loved and venerated her, and still be as familiar with her as with an intimate friend... She was humble, yet dignified, so playful and witty, yet reserved and charitable, so pious and strict yet amiable and kind. But to me at least, the climax of her attractions was that she was always the same, always ready to listen.”9

The greatest gift one can offer another is the gift of true presence. In one of the first biographies of Catherine, Vincent Harnett noted that her eyes had a “penetrating but benign expression” and that her “deportment ….. was most kind and compassionate.”10 People immediately sensed her warmth and love reaching out to them and could relax in her presence. Vincent Harnett also comments: “She was gifted with great observation and she seemed to be intimately acquainted with the workings of the human heart; so that with ease she adapted her conversation either for edification or instruction to the circumstances of the moment and always agreeably and with dignity.”11 Teresa White, one of Catherine’s early companions and a close friend, described this open and welcoming attitude towards others to Sr. Austin Carroll. She says: “There was something about her so kind yet so discerning that you would fancy she read your heart. If you came to speak to her of the most trifling matter, although occupied with the most important affairs, she would instantly lay all aside and give you any satisfaction in her power.”12

Another feature of Catherine’s ability to make people feel ‘at home’ with her was her humility. We are told that she never put on ‘airs and graces’ but interacted with others as an equal. When she visited Carlow the sisters were deeply impressed by her humble manner and the Carlow annalist noted: “...the most amiable trait in her character which we believed we discerned was a total absence of everything in her manner telling, ‘I am the Foundress’.” 13

She humbly acknowledges her struggles and weaknesses. She touches our hearts when we discover she was unable to attend the reception on the day the chapel in Baggot Street was blessed. This was because of the way some of the clergy had treated her. The experience was more than she could bear. Later, during the chaplaincy dispute, she wrote to Frances Warde asking her to pray that she would let go of all resentment in her heart. “Pray fervently to God to take all bitterness from me.”14 She openly acknowledges to Frances her difficulty in dealing with the artistic nature of Clare Augustine Moore, “Sr. Mary Clare (Augustine) Moore is a character not suited to my taste or my ability to govern – though possessing many very estimable points....”15

Sr. Marianne Hieb has written of how the struggles and pressure that Catherine faced, at times brought her to a point where she felt “unable” to cope with the pain. She refers to this as the grace of unable and finds solace and encouragement in the humanness and vulnerability of Catherine.16 I recently attended a Conference in Dublin, dealing with the fallout from the Clerical Child Sex Abuse Scandal. The focus throughout the Conference was on the journey that is required if we are to move forward into a more wholesome future. The speakers emphasised, among other things, the urgent need to find a way to be truly human and sexual in our world today. I believe that call to be truly human would be very close to the heart of Catherine were she alive today.

Catherine’s call in life might best be expressed in her own words in the letter she wrote to Rev. Gerald Doyle describing the entrance requirements for the Sisters of Mercy.  At the heart of those requirements was “an ardent desire to be united to God and to serve the poor." At the heart of those requirements was “an ardent desire to be united to God and to serve the poor. Those two aspects are so closely linked in Catherine’s life that one sees them not as two separate energies but as one life force flowing through her. The unity of prayer and service are embodied in Catherine’s life. Everything she did was blessed by her prayer. Her vision moved her to help others and her helping those in need made her turn to God for God’s help. She insists on the need for a profound spiritual life yet shows that the works of mercy are the business of our lives and are ways of union with God. Catherine quotes from someone to whom she refers as the “devout author” and says “each action is full of God, breathes God, shines with God, is fragrant of God.”17

For Catherine, Mercy was the path by which one follows Jesus. Burke Savage says of her it was this deep personal love of Christ that she wishes to be the heart and soul of her Institute “it was this deep personal love of Christ that she wishes to be the heart and soul of her Institute. Her immense charity to the poor was but an expression of that love, and in the exercise of it, she never lifted her gaze from Christ, whom she found in each poor sufferer.”18 The call of the dynamic between contemplation and action is difficult and calls for a deep integration in one’s life. It calls us to hold in graceful balance our lives of prayer and our lives of service. We see how Catherine managed this balance from another saying, “We have one solid comfort amidst this tripping about: our hearts can always be in the same place, centred in God, for whom alone we go forward - or stay back.”19 Catherine wrote this in a letter to Sr. deSales White in 1840 when she herself was extremely busy with constant travel to her foundations and with unrelenting demands. So while her body is exhausted and weary she is comfortable and at rest in the presence of God. On another occasion she says, “What advantage are our works to God? But our working hearts he longs for, and he pleads for with touching earnestness.” 20

Recently I heard a story that spontaneously brought Catherine to mind. A group of people had gathered in order to share their favourite poems and stories. One man recited the psalm The Lord is my Shepherd. He recited it beautifully and he was highly applauded after it. He was asked to repeat the psalm. The second recitation was equally applauded. The session continued and later in the evening another man slowly approached the microphone. He too chose the psalm The Lord is my shepherd. His voice was rather weak. When he finished there was no applause. There was utter silence and quiet. The whole atmosphere had changed. Eventually, the man who first recited the psalm said. “I knew the psalm The Lord is My Shepherd, and I know that I recited it very well but this man is different. This man knows the Shepherd, and that is the difference.”

Catherine knew the Shepherd. Is it any wonder that Bishop Michael Blake spoke of her “as holy, eminently holy.”21 Fr. Martin Nolan, a former postulator, said of her, “Catherine McAuley ... met the great challenges of her day with an unflagging faith and found its expression in an immense peace and playful light- heartedness. In all the travel and turmoil of her life as a Foundress, she was at home within herself with the indwelling Lord. She radiated the tranquillity of inner intimacy.”22 This aspect of Catherine’s life is one of today’s challenges to all of us. I agree with Sheila Carney who says, “perhaps one way we could be counter cultural in our world today, would be to stand against the frenzy and workaholism we see around us, and sometimes contribute to; to be in our hectic and clamorous world persons and places of deep peace; to bring to our service not the distraction of a hundred other things but to approach each person and each task with focus and reverence.” 23

Joanna Regan writes: “Catherine McAuley brought her heart to misery. By courageous contagious concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the poor, the sick and the ignorant, she broke through the impossibilities of her time. She animated many to walk with her. She animated others at centres of wealth, power and influence to share in her heroic efforts. She connected the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, the educated and skilled to the uninstructed, the influential to those of no consequence, the powerful to the weak to do the work of God on earth.” 24

Keynote Address given by Caitlin Conneelly RSM at the Sesquicentenary Celebrations of Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation in 2011. Published on the Mercyworld.org website with permission