View Menu

Challenges for Mercy Today

In this presentation, I would like to focus on 3 areas.

The first is to live lives centered in God. What challenges do we face in our contemporary culture in attempting to do that

The second area is that of responding in Mercy to contemporary need. How do we do that in a world that has become a global village and in a society where the negative aspects of globalization subordinate the common wellbeing of people and communities to the economic needs and interests of powerful corporations?

The third area is the challenge of keeping hope alive in the midst of the realities of our time.

1. Centered in God

At the core of Catherine’s life was a heart centered in God. In one of her letters she said: 'We have one solid comfort amidst this little tripping about: our hearts can always be in the same place, centered in God, for whom alone we go forward or stay back.' 

You might think that Catherine spoke this phrase when speaking of prayer. In actual fact she wrote it in the midst of an exhausting schedule of travel and making new foundations as well as coping with many of the circumstances I have just described. That is what makes it so practical for all of us who cope with busy schedules and unrelenting demands. Catherine shows us that no matter how hectic our life is, our heart can always be at rest, because it never leaves the presence of God. Another image that Catherine shares with us is that of the compass: Our lives must be like the compass, never stirring from its centre. Our centre is God from whom all our actions should spring as from their source. God in this image is the magnetic force, always drawing us to our true center. That is the wellspring, the energy source of all we are and do

How might Catherine’s idea of ‘centered in God’ apply to our lives today?

Rather than answering this at the personal level, let us look at some aspects of the society in which we live that compete for space at the centre of our lives. One of these is the culture of consumerism. Consumerism places a primacy on things by emphasizing having rather than being.

Mary Jo Leddy names it as a culture of ‘perpetual dissatisfaction’ a culture that so manipulates our desires that we incessantly crave for more. The more for which we crave can never satisfy the deeper longings of the human heart. Because we always need ‘more’ of something, we become incapable of being nourished by that which we actually have, do and are.  The call to center our lives in God is a call to be a counter-cultural witness, negating this lifestyle of consumerism. It calls us to detachment and simplicity and to live with what is enough, ultimately recognizing that it is in God we live and move and have our being.

Another aspect of society that competes for space at the center of our hearts is the culture of Busyness. Sheila Carney rsm expresses it well. She says: ‘We have often heard that part of our call to be Christian is to be counter-cultural. 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 to do but to approach each person and each task with focus and reverence. This stance I have come to believe, is a ministry in itself.' Speaking in the same vein, Mary Jo Leddy speaks of the need there is to claim time for contemplative Sabbath, for prayer, for gratitude, for appreciating and consciously receiving the good gifts of God that fall daily into our laps. This can open in us a place for God, for the other and for our continued participation with God in the works of Mercy.

The final element I wish to name is the influence of technology. We live in the Network age where computers are part of life. iPhones, iPods, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other technological devices make us citizens, not just of a global world, but a virtual one as well. While all of this has great potential for enhanced relationships, it also creates a crowded, noisy and sometimes stress filled context to our lives. There is zero tolerance for delays as we move and breathe in a technological whirlwind. This often leaves us harried, fragmented and distracted.

We need the discipline of creating space within this whirlwind where we can hear the whisper of God’s spirit. For Catherine it was the practice of aspirations, frequently repeated as mantras that kept connection with God’s spirit, alive in her, no matter what the exterior noise might be. Today we might call it mindfulness . One thing is sure – without some such spiritual discipline, a life centered on God is impossible.

A few lines from the poem by Mary Oliver captures the struggle it is to stop listening to the multiple voices that clamour around us like a howling storm and listen deeply to the voice within:

Image: Marco Sama. Used with permission

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

- Mary Oliver

2. Contemporary Need

Mercy-ing: Making Mercy a VERB

Impelled to be Mercy is to be passionate about God’s mission to-day, to see and respond to the suffering of people, especially women, of children and to our planet, with eyes and hearts attuned to God and steeped in God’s Word. It’s a two-fold call- to go deep within in prayer and contemplative reflection on the Word of God and to reach out with compassion to immediate need, with prophetic courage to challenge the systemic causes of injustice and with Gospel vision to help create a hope-filled and life-enhancing society. 

Our responsibility is both at the local and global levels. Joanna Regan, a Mercy Sister challenges us to think beyond our immediate borders: She says: 'If Catherine had lived at the end of the twentieth century, instead of the cries of the poor children of Dublin haunting her dreams, the cries of a suffering world would have troubled her sleep. She would no doubt have turned her energy to global interrelationships In a world of indifference concerning belief, the erosion of faith in God and intranscendent reality has spawned self destructive greed, selfishness and lifestyles of outmanoeuvring one another. Out of the consequent erosion of integrity in word and work, dishonesty, brutality and destructiveness abound'.

Against this background, Regan asks: 'When were spiritual and temporal works of Mercy – performed with tender courage – more needed?'

All of us are invited to see, with the clear vision of Catherine, the situation in our world, in our society, our own community. Where are the needs that cry out for our attention? 
I would like to reflect on 3 areas that I believe cry for our attention

  •  Ecological Devastation
  •  Exploitation of women
  •  Displacement of people


Ecological Devastation

The poor conditions that Catherine encountered were to a large degree caused by choices which people of power and influence made. The penal laws, imposed by an oppressive and sometimes unthinking ruling class, resulted in poor living standards, exclusion from means of advancement and diverse forms of deprivation for the majority and these conditions eventually caused a devastating famine, death and massive displacement of people through immigration. Globally, we mirror that situation today. 

The modern crisis of ecological devastation is a symptom of humanity’s greed in relation to earth’s resources and is a failure to recognize that we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny
Climate change reporters tell us that the planet’s warming is unequivocal, its impact is clearly noticeable, and it is beyond doubt that human activities have been contributing considerably to it. Adverse effects include agriculture and food security, water resources, human health, human settlements, energy, transport and industry, extreme weather events.

In the recently published biography, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Paul Vallely notes that the Pope is planning a major encyclical on environmental matters. Pope Francis has asked Leonardo Boff to send him his writings on eco-theology as part of his preparation. 
In an interview in 2010 Boff noted:
'There are regions in the world that have changed so much that they've become uninhabitable. That is why there are 60 million displaced persons in Africa and Southeast Asia, which are the most affected by climate change and which emit less carbon. If we don't stop it, in the next five to seven years there will be as many as 100 million climate refugees, and that is going to create political problems.
It will not be difficult for the Pope to connect this issue with his own very public concerns on the plight of refugees.'

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez de Maradiaga confirmed during a visit to Australia that Pope Francis is indeed planning a document on the environment. The Cardinal is chair of the group of eight cardinals chosen by Francis to advise him, and is a strong proponent of action on climate change. A strong and clear statement from Francis on climate change will be heard all around the world. 

We now stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society . But this calls for a new mindset. To quote Einstein 'We can’t solve the problems of our time with the same mind-set that created them'. We cannot respond to our wounded earth from our old mechanistic world-view, from the belief that we are the owners and controllers of a planet, there to meet our needs from resources that are inexhaustible.

Our task, for the foreseeable future then is to deepen our awareness of and our understanding of the new universe story, to absorb it and live it out in all its implications, to re-focus our spirituality, our understanding of our mission in light of it. It requires that we re-view the stories in which we have been formed, our Creation story, our Human story, Our Christian story, our Religious Life story, our Congregational Story, in the light of this new consciousness. What we will discover in the process is that all of life, is interconnected, and that whatever happens within that web of interconnectedness will either enhance or diminish the whole of life on our planet.


Exploitation of Women

The second area, I would like to give some consideration to is the exploitation of women. 
Catherine McAuley saw a close link between poverty and the exploitation of women, especially sexual exploitation. It was one of her main reasons for establishing the house of Mercy at Baggot St. She remembered one terrible situation where she could not assist a young woman who was in such a situation and she made it a priority that the house of Mercy, which she later built, would provide a home for such girls. 

The longing of woman to rediscover her dignity and her true place in society is closely connected to the groaning of the Earth for recognition as the sacred home of all. There is a very real connection between the oppression of the feminine and the destruction of the earth. The primary victims of a society that misuses the environment for gain are women and children As more of the world is more polluted, food is less plentiful, and the lines between the haves and have-nots is more deeply drawn, those who suffer most are women and children. 

Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty in our world are women. Unfortunately extreme poverty continues to make women victims of exploitation and leaves them extremely vulnerable socially and morally, and potential victims of the form of slavery we call human trafficking. The United States Department of State reports on its website that 800,000 to 900,000 persons, principally women and children, are trafficked annually within or across international borders. Mercy International Asssociation has made the issue of Human Trafficking a focus for its International lobbying. Bodies such as the U.N. and the E.U. have the potential to be influenced in relation to immigration laws and procedures. Australia is a destination country for a significant number of foreign women from Malaysia, Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China, and other countries in Asia, who are illegally in the commercial sex trade. The law of the country prohibits both sex and labor trafficking but this does not necessarily stop indiscriminate human smuggling and trafficking of people for gain by unscrupulous criminals. 

While we should celebrate all that has been achieved for the transformation of women’s lives over the past 100 years, we should not delude ourselves that the battle is won. We do well to let Catherine’s tireless work for the empowerment of women inspire us to continue our efforts.


Displacement of People

The third area to which I will briefly refer is the displacement of peoples. Catherine in her day had a particular care for people displaced –girls migrating from the country to the city in search of a better life; people who had lost their employment in the big houses because of the change in social and political fortunes of the day; people forced into the workhouses because of destitution.

To-day there is a continuous movement of peoples across countries, with millions of people are attempting to travel, many fleeing from poverty and violence and searching for a better life. Never in history have so many people lived in refugee camps who are, quite literally, homeless. The response to this at official level in all our countries has been to tighten security, close borders, subject the one who is different from us to close scrutiny and wipe out those who pose a threat because of that difference. As avenues for legal migration have become less, would-be migrants increasingly resort to illegal entry and unauthorized stay. This has led to indiscriminate human smuggling and trafficking of people for gain by unscrupulous criminals. Unknown numbers have died in transit to their new destinations and those who do reach their destination often find themselves caught in a cycle of abuse. They are part of a growing population of undocumented immigrants who are vulnerable to exploitation in employment, to racist crime, and to security measures in the context of the ongoing ‘war on terrorism’.

I am very aware that here in Australia, Sisters of Mercy have called for an end to ‘inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, rejecting the Australian government’s decision to transport new arrivals to PNG.

'Our Sisters continue to vehemently condemn such actions which increase the suffering and anguish of asylum seekers and, simultaneously diminish our common humanity. Together with all people of good-will we seek an end to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers'

Our concern and ministry on behalf the asylum seeker , refugee and other displaced people is surely a modern expression of a work of mercy that was at the heart of what Catherine did in her day.

3. Keeping Hope Alive

Catherine was a woman of hope. All her life, she, because of her reliance on the providence of God, continued to ‘confide in the generous bounty and never ceasing kindness of our beloved Saviour’

As we referred to earlier, in looking at the context of Catherine’s life, we know that Catherine brought hope to the dark and despairing realities of people around her – so in truth she was a woman of hope and she brought hope to those whose lives she touched.

I think she would resonate with what Michelle Obama said recently: 'You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once but don't ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own'.

Looking at our global realities today could overwhelm us and at times erode our hope but it is at these very times that hope is needed most. Pope Francis speaking about hope referred to Mary's attitude after her son's death, up until His resurrection on Sunday.

'Hope' – he said – 'is what Mary, Mother of God, sheltered in her heart during the darkest time of her life: from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. That is hope: she had it. And that hope has renewed everything. May God grant us that grace'.

His predecessor Benedict also linked hope to Holy Saturday. He has pointed out that humanity, at the beginning of this 21 century has become especially sensitive to the mystery of Holy Saturday. The apparent absence of God, is part of modern person’s spirituality, like a vacuum in the heart which has been ever increasing, The period we live in has become more and more a Holy Saturday: the darkness of this day questions all those who wonder about the meaning of life, and it especially questions us believers. But he goes on to speak of the hope born on Holy Saturday and points out that what Holy Saturday commemorates is that Jesus descended into a place called Hell, a place untouched by any ray of hope, where total neglect reigned and where no words of comfort could be heard, Jesus Christ, by staying in death, crossed the threshold into the ultimate solitude in order to lead us into transcending it with him.

However even for his disciples the victory of life over death, the triumph of hope was not an instant conviction. For them there were only glimpses of this - moments of illumination and insight that gave way again to doubt and disillusionment The journey vacillated between: Hope in the context of uncertainty to grief in the face of loss: Mary Magdalen wept for the loss of the body of Jesus - 'they have taken Him away and I do not know where they have put Him'; The two disciples shared their shattered dreams with the stranger: 'We had hoped but.....' Peter and James had given up the quest and returned to their old secure occupation of fishing. Thomas had grown cynical: 'I will not believe unless I can put my fingers in the holes the nails have made', all of them, in fear, had locked themselves in behind closed doors. Think how relevant their experiences are to our world today:

  • The familiar replaced with uncertainty; the fear of risking the emptiness of the new; not wanting to live with uncertainty
  • Unfulfilled expectations and a loss of reference points,
  • Lost faith certainties replaced with secular substitutes,
  • Hope silenced by people who are sceptical towards it and consequently a crisis of faith and a growing malaise,
  • Spiritual people intimidated in the face of a world that is losing its’ Religious legacy – ‘the Godless Society’ and staying silent and hidden in such a context

What restored hope and kept it alive for the disciples. What changed them to people filled with fire, enthusiasm, belief………..

What we can intuit from the Scriptures is that in each one’s journey they encountered the Risen Christ and the power of the Resurrection, which impelled them to proclaim the Good news.

We need this good news today. Hope must be given a voice in societies which are losing their way, in which meaning and transcendence, have been lost sight of .In time of profound change, society needs someone to tell it new stories that are bearers of meaning. 

How can we, even as we find ourselves in a Holy Saturday situation of darkness, relate alternative stories that have the power to make people dream, the power to point out the way to life. We want to give Hope its voice, and let it speak through us. The question we now ask ourselves is: What might be the stories of hope we could employ to reply to those who would wish to silence hope and what stories would we propose to those who desire hope? At the present time there are stories which predispose us to welcome the gift of hope: I just name three: the story of interconnectedness; the story of plurality; the story of God’s power at work in our darkness.


The story of interconnectedness

Catherine would not have understood interconnectedness as we do today but she certainly understood and valued connection. In a sense this was the core of her charism
She connected the rich with the poor, the skilled with the unskilled, 
Central to evey rthing she was and everything she did was relationship.

If she lived today, I think she would deeply appreciate the growing awareness of our planet earth as one community of life. Both astronomers and quantum physicists now tell us that everything in nature, from the smallest particle to the entire universe, is interconnected. In this organic, inseparable web of interconnectedness that is the universe, relationship is the new focus.

We are being called to discover God in our relationship with the universe, our world, its people, and its species, and to grow in an awareness of and respect for the interconnectedness of all life. This new consciousness requires us to see with different eyes, to ponder new questions and to live differently

Catherine’s spirituality, shot through with contemplation and action, led her to a deep reverence for Christ present in every person. When we live from a place of contemplative reverence towards the beauty, fragility and unity of a world created by God and 'charged with the grandeur of God' we will be moved to 'take off our shoes'; the shoes of indifference, greed and exploitation and with new vision, we will move to courageous, prophetic action on behalf of justice for all of God’s creation. We will take personal and communal responsibility for our life-styles. We will consider the implication for the environment of the choices we make around such things as the buildings we construct, the types of cars we drive, where we live, the food we eat and where we obtain it. We will simplify our living, use our resources wisely, educate ourselves on the critical issues affecting our planet and address them with urgency. Our involvement in efforts on energy consumption, carbon footprint, climate change, will contribute in effecting changes within political systems. 

This new consciousness is something which is trans-cultural, trans-religious, trans-generational;
It opens us up to new hope and it can be used to draw us closer into the mystery of hope.

The story of dialogue

In her book ‘Turning to one another’, the Organisational consultant Margaret Wheatley says: ‘I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard and we each listen well'.

It was said of Catherine: '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.' Moreover we know, Catherine placed great emphasis on dialogue, giving everyone an opportunity to contribute.

Our conversations, however, must be open to inter-relationships and hospitality towards those who are different. The language of plurality is a language of hope. More and more we are being called into relationship with what is diverse, a hospitality towards what is different. From such a stance flows a model of mission which doesn’t so much attempt to infiltrate Christian hope into others as to make it infectious through friendship, through love, in a gradual way, and allow the seed to bear fruit at the proper time.

We can weave a new spirituality of hope through relationships of respect, dialogue, inclusion, trust, co-responsibility and interdependence. We are in a time of tolerance towards plurality. The Spirit is leading humanity towards the time of relationship with what is diverse, of mental and heartfelt hospitality towards what is different.

We find ourselves in many situations where we are with people who have differing viewpoints on the church, faith expressions, theological issues and different understandings of ministry and priorities. How do we learn to live with this kind of diversity? How do we learn to welcome difference rather than aim at uniformity?
We need to learn to be multilingual – not in the sense of speaking another language but rather learning to be conversant with people of diverse viewpoints. 

To truly offer others a hospitable space, where they can be who they are, we have to transcend our ambivalence toward the stranger – and everyone is in some way a stranger – our fear of the other, even our hostility the other

The story of God’s presence in darkness

Change is all around us and this ‘in between time’ in which we find ourselves creates a sense of insecurity, confusion and even hopelessness. Many of the stable institutions of society and church have lost the confidence of people. It demands deep faith to recognise in this time of breakdown the opportunity for breakthrough, to recognise this “in-between” time as holy, holding the seeds of the future and relying on our careful attention to nurture that future into full flowering.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in keeping hope alive is to be courageous enough to face our own darkness and this entails a huge suffering: this is what Jesus experienced on his Good Friday. It is the hope which shouts at God and dares to exclaim: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Job passed through it before Jesus, as did the Jeremiah of the Lamentations, the prophets, the prayers of the psalms. In that night they experienced the apparent lack of God’s presence, and their greatest suffering was precisely that apparent absence of God. For them supplication was the language of their hope. Perhaps one of the greatest stories of hope we can tell is that God can be found in the darkness.

Hope, in the face of adversity. The audacity of hope! That is God’s greatest gift to us”
Hope in the midst of darkness. It is the hope of the beatitudes of Jesus - this is the hope that the Spirit grants when we are poor, when we weep, are persecuted for the cause of justice, have a clean heart, respond to violence with tenderness. It is the hope of those who suffer with others and for others. For 'what you did to one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me'. 

These tumultuous times demands of us courage and depth of imagination. As followers of Catherine, we cannot push problems away. Rather we must look reality in the face and communicate joyful hope and as she did and face the issues with resilience. 

The call to be weavers of hope in that reality is articulated very challenging by the writer Marge Piercy:
We must shine with hope.
Stained glass windows that shape light into icons,
Glow like lanterns borne before a procession.
Who can bear hope back into the world but us...1

And so God’s Mercy continues – Mercy powerfully present in Catherine who founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, Mercy at work in the Sisters who took the Congregation to Australia and in all those who have been involved in the ministry of Mercy since then to the present day and Mercy calling all of us in this age to be people whose lives are centered in God impelled by Mercy and inspired with hope.

1 Marge Piercy, 'Stone, paper, knife', in Stone, Paper, Knife (NY: 1983), 143-144