Shapers of the Dream

© Marie Henderson rsm

Catherine McAuley once said that God can form and reform any of his creation to meet his purposes. The charism of Mercy has been formed and reformed over the ages and continues thus right to this very moment and all of us here are intimately involved in that process.

A Charism: Gift given by the Spirit for the renewal and building of the Church
While it often refers to the gift which God gives to an individual or group to inspire the founding of a new religious family within the Church, it can be given given to any member of the Christian faithful This gift is handed down through the centuries and enriched by all who are called to live it. However charism is not a static thing or exclusive thing. : Charism is the meeting of the deep story with the needs of the age. Every charismatic movement reflects the cry of the age and the cry of one age is never identical to the cry of any other age.

The charism of Mercy gifted to Catherine McAuley and to the congregation that founded revealed itself and opened up its richness gradually, through many circumstances and the influence of many people in her life. Pondering her story, not only reveals the richness and uniqueness of the Mercy charism but also the wondrous and mysterious ways of God. The birthing of the charism of Mercy in Catherine was a life long journey of discovery of the Mercy of God, which she so often found in the challenging circumstances of her own life and in the lives and struggles of the suffering and poor. Catherine’s deep faith in God, who is Mercy, and her experience of the pain of poverty, shaped her prayer and, in turn, her prayer and discernment shaped her response to the needs of her day.

Let us just recall briefly the context of Catherine’s time.
By 1800 the population of Dublin had risen to around 180,000. There was a great deal of appalling poverty in the city with many families living in one room. In all European cities at the time there was terrible poverty but it seems to have been particularly bad in Dublin. Because of the widespread poverty, many people lived in destitution.

Poverty in the countryside caused people to migrate to the city, causing further overcrowding and the spread of slums and disease. Crime, often occasioned by poverty, was rampant. A historian of the period described the poverty ridden areas of Dublin as one great scene of wretchedness. To further compound the fortunes of the poor, there was a new spate of unemployment conditioned by the political fortunes of the day. Through visiting the lanes and slums of the city and through meeting some of the unemployed friends of the servants in Coolock, Catherine acquired an intimate knowledge of the poor and thus she developed extraordinary love for them and admiration for their fortitude. Her attitude was so different to other benefactors who, while ‘giving alms’, still considered the poor as belonging to the lowest stratum of society and as menial, dishonest, untruthful.

What distinguished Catherine from other philanthropists of her day was her ability to imagine life differently. Many of her contemporaries were prepared to provide hand outs but could not imagine or even desire a society where those who were oppressed, marginalised or excluded would find a central role and a sense of belonging in that very society. Catherine’s genius was that she could stand as a bridge between the rich and the poor, employing whatever advantage her own background and her connection with people of influence afforded her in the relief and advancement of poor people. She had a particular ability to address immediate need in a practical and loving way while at the same time addressing the systemic issues that underpinned those needs.

Catherine was not a ‘Lady bountiful’ bestowing her favours on the waifs and strays but rather an instigator of professional services that would empower those who were now powerless because of the oppressive structures imposed on them. She saw no virtue in poverty. Anything that advanced human dignity was worthy of her attention and so the scope of her ministry and the span of those to whom she ministered was amazingly wide and varied.

Three extraordinary elements came together in Catherine – her innate love and concern for people, her faith belief and conviction that she encountered Christ in every person in need and her fertile imagination that envisioned an alternative society. As Joanna Regan rsm expresses it: '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'.

Catherine became a reformer of remarkable energy and compassion and her ‘programme of Mercy’ broke through contemporary and, until then, impregnable barriers of indifference and discrimination. Catherine envisioned a society where those who were on the margins would be empowered to take their place within that society, enjoy the rights of citizens and become active participants rather than passive victims of exclusion. Through education and skills training she empowered people, particularly women, to become agents of their own advancement and liberation. Through the Works of Mercy, she aimed to set people free from oppressive structures and to protect their dignity and human rights.

Initially Catherine had not the remotest idea of becoming a religious or founding a Congregation. In 1822, Catherine inherited a substantial fortune of £25,000. (About 3 million in today’s values). Such a fortune made it possible for Catherine to dedicate herself to the passion of her life – ministry among the poor
We are told in that what she wanted to do with this inheritance was 'to make some lasting efforts for the relief of the suffering and the instruction of the ignorant, and she thought of establishing a society of pious secular ladies who would devote themselves to their service, with liberty to return to their worldly life when they no longer felt inclined to discharge such duties'.

The first step towards this dream was the building of the house in Baggot Street, financed entirely from her inheritance of the Coolock estate. This dedication of her total inheritance to the realisation of her dream is certainly a powerful witness to Catherine’s reliance on Providence. However the Catholic Church authorities of the day were alarmed by this development, an alarm that was greatly increased by the fact that they dressed very simply, followed a prayer schedule in the house and engaged in ministry to the poor. The Archbishop of Dublin therefore proposed to her that she and her society of pious ladies could behave as ladies of their rank and station in terms of their dress and manner of life, or they could assume the duties and obligations of formal religious life. Catherine made her choice. One of the early Sisters, Mary Clare Augustine Moore notes: 'Now, however, she was convinced that to carry on the Institute she must be a religious.' It was not easy for a woman of 52 years, accustomed to an independent life to undertake the rigours of formation in a novitiate; yet in order to safeguard the continuity and stability of her work for her beloved poor, Catherine stepped out in faith along a path she would not have chosen.

We know the sequel - the birth of a new congregation. Catherine would say later: 'We should never falter in our confidence that God will make all things turn to the best; we ought conform our views to His, and suffer ourselves to be guided unresistingly by Him as our Leader'.

It is amazing to consider that within 20 years of her founding the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, it had spread throughout the length and breath of Ireland, had crossed the Irish Sea to England and the Atlantic to both North and South America – including Nova Scotia, the United States and the Argentine and had made its way ‘down under’ to Australia and New Zealand. In many of these places, Sisters of Mercy were the first religious to set foot in these lands.

What inspired women to make such journeys, to leave behind family and father land and to become pioneers in the development of educational, health and social services? Catherine’s own simple explaination was probably what inspired each of these women too: 'All I wanted was to serve the poor since that seemed to me what God expected of me’. In many cases, the Irish emigrants fleeing from poverty and famine were among the poor to whom they were ministering.

Sociologists tell us that all Congregations follow a similar pattern of growth and decline. From a faith perspective we might say that this is part of the ‘forming and reforming’ that Catherine saw as the hand of God shaping the dre

Here is the cycle of growth and decline that the Sociologists outline:

  • Foundation period, (10/20yrs): In Mercy this would mark the foundation of Mercy in Ireland (1831 ); England (1839); Newfoundland (1842); United States (1843); Australia (1846);  New Zealand (1850); Argentine (1856)
  • Expansion period: In the case of Mercy this continued for at least another 50 years as original foundations in each country set up new foundations in various parts of that country
  • Stabilization period. This period is marked by success as the reputation of schools, hospitals, etc. is valued and acknowledged. In the case of Mercy extended to around the 1970s/80s
  • Breakdown. This marks a time when the stability of the previous period lessens. In the case of Mercy it is marked by a decline in new numbers, an exodus of some current members; a transfer of trusteeship of ministries;etc. This period slowly emerged after Vatican 11

This final period is the one which holds most interest for us as it is the one in which we are now engaged. We are told that in this critical period a congregation, but I would prefer to call this the charism faces 3 possible outcomes: extinction, minimal survival or revitalization.

Just as charism is the meeting of the deep story i.e the Mercy story with the needs of the age, revitalization is a transforming response to the signs of the times.

We cannot talk of this revitalization without referring to Vatican 11. Even though we can now clearly see that the charism of mercy had been gifted to Catherine long before she founded the Mercy Congregation, the official Church did not recognize this. At that time and for more than a century afterwards, the understanding of Religious Life was of a privileged state of perfection, a higher calling, The apostolic works which they carried out were to performed within the structures of the Church. It was unthinkable that lay people would perform those works freely and under self direction.

Vatican 11 not only turned that understanding on its head, but it completely changed the worldview of the entire church. It called the Church to be Church in a new way, a way that was truer to the Gospel and more significant to the world. While respecting the unique vocation of each, the emphasis was on complimentarity and collaboration. It called religious to reinterpret their charism by a return to the core call of the gospel and the vision of their founder in the context of the signs of the time. It called the laity to exercise their vocation and to participate more fully in the mission of the Church. The clarion call of Gaudiam et Spes to both religious and laity is truly a call to exercise the charism of Mercy: The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. (GS 1)
This thinking is more in keeping with the concept of charism as a gift to the church and because of such thinking the responsibility for the continuation of the charism has unpredictably moved outside the parameters of religious institutions themselves.

Vita Consecrata an exortation of John Paul 11 in 1996 on the Consecrated Life and Its Mission in the Church and in the World acknowledges this when it says: A new chapter, rich in hope, has begun in the history of religious between consecrated persons and the laity (VC 54)

In the intervening years, lay people have taken their place in leadership and administrative roles in Mercy ministry. Their call is to bring to mercy mission their experience of life and the richness it offers. In view of this, I believe that even if there were not a decline in the number of vowed members of Mercy, there would be an argument for considering new structures for leadership in Mercy ministries.

There is no solid basis for believing that the charism of Mercy is the preserve of the Sisters. Charism does not exist in the founding person alone, or in the followers, or in the style of life proposed or in the aspirations of the age but in the complicity of all of these together. Gaudium et Spes puts it so clearly: the showing forth of the Compassion of God is the responsibility of all the followers of Christ.

This is a challenge for both Lay and Religious. For the Lay Mercy Minister, it is a call to recognise the vocation aspect of the ministry in which they are involved, to nurture the charism in their own spirituality ,to proclaim it in their mission and value statements and most especially and to embody it in their service of people to whom they minister. Pope Francis has invented the wonderful word mercying to express this. I believe this is the challenge of this time.

We could concentrate on vowed membership demographics – 20 years ago Sisters of numbered 22,000, today there are less than 8000 and 20 years from now they will probably number less than 1,000. Diarmuid O'Murchu has pointed out that the great temptation for those in Religious Life to-day is to turn inward, to focus on their self- preservation and to put all their energies into maintenance rather than on the mission of God which continues to call as urgently now as it did at the time when our Congregation was founded. We could substitute Mercy for Religious Life in a statement he made: 'The future of Mercy is not for us to invent - that is a divine prerogative- but one we can anticipate co-creatively. We do so by embracing with deeper wisdom the new world order struggling to unfold all around us.' Surely the extraordinary growth in the number of lay people who now lead and serve in our ministries is part of the new world order and surely fidelity to God’s mission in our time requires us to nurture the seeds of Mercy life emerging in our midst. Our Mercy tent is widening.

I would like now to widen the concept of ‘Shapers of the dream’ by reflecting on what I believe has a major role to play in the development of the Mercy charism now and into the future i.e. The Mercy Global family of which you are a part.

While your attention is on how you live Mercy here in Australia, it is I think, important to recognize that you are part of a bigger whole to which you contribute by what you do and are enriched by what the global family does.

What I am inviting you to do right now is to step outside your own local place. Situate yourself in the Mercy world and from that perspective look at who Mercy is in the world today, what we are about and see if we can discern anything of where we might be headed. Remember you are a member of this Mercy global family and you are shaping and being shaped by all that happens in this family
So lets look at some aspects of this Mercy family.

    • We are present in over 40 countries
    • The composition of our Mercy family is:
      -8,000 Sisters
      -5,000 Associates
      -250,000+ Partners in Ministry

Perhaps we can consider these as just another set of statistics but I would like to think of them also as one of the signs of the times that we are invited to reflect on and to discern. When MIA was formed 20 years ago, there were more than 20,000 Mercy Sisters world wide. Today there are less than 8000.

The third group within our Global Family of Mercy are our Partners in Ministry – these are the people who work in Mercy Ministries today. We estimate that there are as many as 500,000 Partners.
As might be expected we are seeing the changing elements in the composition of the Mercy family reflected in the pattern of those who visit MIC for nourishment in the Mercy charism. Here was the pattern in 2012.
Increasing numbers of lay Partners in Ministry are coming to Baggot Street for immersion in the charism and for inspiration in their ministry.

Here is what one recent pilgrim said and this is typical:
I believe we have been inspired to return to our ministries with renewed vigour and determination to seek opportunities to spread the word and encourage others to walk in the footsteps of these early women of Mercy. We have indeed been challenged with a great responsibility to continue their work.

In addition to Partners in Ministry, the involvement of Students is worth noting – giving hope that young people are attracted to and inspired by the Catherine and Mercy story. The Group tour statistics confirm this also.

The annual Youth Pilgrimage leaves us in no doubt about the openness of young people and their appreciation for the Mercy charism. (play part of Youth Pilgrimage video)
I believe that this reality provides us with great hope for the future of the charism of Mercy and for our responsibility in ensuring that the charism is intentionally shared with those who are ready and willing to be channels of God’s Mercy to those in need of God’s compassion.

However, I would not like to underestimate the influence Mercy Congregations have in our world today. Sometimes, we may be tempted to let diminishment in numbers convince us that our influence has been lessened but from a Gospel perspective this can never hold true.

It reminds me of the Scripture passage that recorded a moment of transformation for the Jewish people. Isaiah was speaking to a rather depressed Jewish people who had lost their lands and positions in Israel and were exiled in Babylon he encouraged them: Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.

This was an invitation to the Jewish people to widen their tent to invite others in to their community. The guiding question that MIA asks is ‘What can we do better together than any of us can do apart’. We could ask this question with several partnerships in mind e.g there is the partnership with Sisters of Mercy around the world and there is the partnership with our local and global Mercy partners as well as all those who share our vision and mission.
In that spirit we can re-echo the challenging words of Joanne Regan, rsm.
'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'.

Part of what MIA facilitates the Global Mercy family in doing is to listen and respond to a suffering world – at least in a few focussed areas
In the last few months we have witnessed the disaster in the Philippines and the way Mercy has responded. MIA was able firstly to co-ordinate the response of both groups of Mercy Sisters in the Philippines – the group who were founded from Cork and who were gravely affected by the typhoon and the group founded from US who were less affected. It was a first in terms of close co-ordination of the ministries of the 2 groups. Secondly it was able to facilitate a united Mercy response. To date nearly €600,000 has been donated to the Fund.
The prayer space on the Mercy World web has had continuous traffic over the past months as the Mercy world unites in prayer for the peoples of the Philippines.

In the past year alone, we have had firsthand experience of Governments wanting to evade responsibility for making water a human right for all peoples. All of us are familiar with how denial of this fundamental right underpins many of the problems of the people with whom Mercy ministers, health issues, fall off from education, destruction of livelihood and food supply due to failure of crops through lack of irrigation and water supply. The Mercy influence on having this right upheld by t RIO+20 was an indication of the global influence we can exert. Sisters of Mercy (including Sisters from Australia) were involved in lobbying throughout the Rio + 20 process. Due to the lobbying efforts of many, including Sisters of Mercy worldwide, basic human rights to development, food, water and sanitation; the right to an adequate standard of living; the right to health; and the right to access to information, etc., were not deleted or bracketed in the final outcome document at the Rio Conference.

Sustainable Development - Fracking
We have seen the way in which multinational companies have abused the rights of people and the environment in the interest of profit at any cost and we know that governments are often complicit in this and collude with it. We saw, for example, the violence perpetrated on the people of Cajamarca in Peru who opposed the actions of mining companies whom they saw were a threat to their environment and their water supply. Mercy Sisters supported their partners in Peru to protest, take legal action and report to the United Nations on the situation of communities in this situation.l

Sisters of Mercy in Australia were involved in a letter writing campaign in preparation for the Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. Letters were sent to the Head of State, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for the Environment, and the UN Permanent Mission Representative from Australia. These leaders were encouraged to take an ethical stance and to claim their global responsibility in securing an ambitious, equitable and just outcome at the UN Conference.

Mary Tinney rsm from Australia developed a theological process on the extractive industries in Australia which were used as the basis of analysis for all Sisters of Mercy working on mining through the world.

We are involved in this issue because of the ways people and in particular poorer people are affected in areas such as
• Health
• Displacement of peoples
• Exploitation of their resources
• Fracturing of community
Notice how Pope Francis is prepared to highlight his opposition to fracking
Sisters of Mercy throughout the world (including Australia) were involved in activities for Global Frackdown Day (October 2013). They were involved in protests, education sessions, prayer reflection and cultural activities to demonstrate their concerns to this process and its effects on communities.

Opposing Trafficking
The welfare of women and children has always been at the heart of Mercy ministry. Today, one of the greatest global crimes is the trafficking of Women and children . It is estimated that global annual profits are US$ 31.6 billion and that 2.5 million people are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking. The majority of trafficking victims are between 18 and 24 years of age and an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year .43% of victims are used for forced commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 98% t are women and girls.

MIA has been very active in promoting response to this worldwide and in sharing good practise as well as advocating at the UN. The USA Institute and Irish Congregation have taken a very active part in this and are pioneering great work on opposing the trafficking and exploitation of children in the hospitality industry. Sisters of Mercy in Australia have been active in lobbying and strengthening legislation in their own country working with other Congregations through ACRATH. They are also investigating how they could take up the Campaign against trafficking in the hospitality campaign through ACRATH.

I believe all of this points us to the possibility that we are at a significant time in the ongoing story of Mercy in particular in regard to collaboration with members of the global family of Mercy and in supporting our lay partners as they increasingly undertake responsibility for the continuation and growth of Mercy ministries.

Fidelity to God’s mission in our time requires us to move beyond the past, to stop trying to fix what cannot be fixed, to let die what needs to die, to search out and nurture the seeds of Mercy life emerging in our midst.. 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 bring to birth and nurture that future into full flowering. We, like Catherine, must let the question rise in our hearts: What must we do in order to ensure that the charism of Mercy is carried into the future?

One initiative of Mercy International Association is the establishment of an Endowment Fund to finance the work of Mercy International Association into the future. We see this as a major step in ensuring a future for the Mercy charism and it is both encouraging and enlightening that this initiative is being strongly supported by our lay Mercy friends who have enthusiastically and with great passion taken up the work on the Fundraising committees that have so far being established.  But your support is vital for this work.

In thinking about Fundraising, I would like to quote Henry Nouwen who says 'Fundraising is, first and foremost, a ministry. It's a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission.' And he advises that we approach it from a position of strength rather than weakness, seeing it as spiritual work.

Mercy has always been shaped by need and by the courageous response of those willing to allow God to bend and change them, to form and reform them to fit the purpose he designs. Our challenge is to creatively assist that shaping.

Messages to: Mary Reynolds rsm