April 09, 2015

Catherine McAuley: Venerable for Mercy. 25th Anniversary: 9 April 2015.

I first met Catherine McAuley when I was thirty-five years old and entertaining the idea of putting my life and ministry in the context of religious life, as I expressed it at the time.

On my first visit with Sister Virginia Farnan, then president of the Brooklyn Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, she gave me three booklets: “Affectionately yours,” which introduced me to Catherine; Joanne Lappetito’s monograph Apostolic Spirituality, which introduced me to the sisters’ 4th vow in the context of Catherine’s life; and a book by Moline, The Struggle of Jacob, which you might say introduced me to myself or at least to the way I was wrestling with God.

Before that day now 35 years ago I had never heard of Catherine McAuley, but once I met her I saw myself in relationship to her as sister, mentor and friend. Our lives had followed similar paths and at about the same age she had been I was also being drawn to religious. She gave me courage then and has ever since.
Catherine’s Letters have been especially meaningful to me and I have re-read them in their entirety at several key points in my journey with the Sisters of Mercy. Catherine never ceases to inspire me with her courage, wit and wisdom, and while I certainly have my favorite letters and passages, like scripture they always seem to contain something new when I read them, wise advice at the perfect time.

Although I was thrilled when Catherine was named Venerable 25 years ago, I was actually more thrilled when her image was put on the Irish 5 pound note in 1994, which put her in the pockets of the poor one and made the mission of Mercy better known throughout Ireland. Mercy is God’s gift to the world and Catherine’s life and work embodied it. When she is canonized more of the world will be awakened and see how one can live a merciful life.

In 2012 when I was visiting Australia a cousin invited me to speak at the Mercy Day celebration at St. Kevin’s Primary School where she taught. A marble mercy cross had been commissioned for the school office and was being blessed that day. They thought it would be wonderful to have a Sister of Mercy speak to the children about the cross and its meaning. The school had been established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1925, and although the sisters left the school in the late 1970s the charism of mercy never left the school. The Mercy values have been claimed by the school and listed in every classroom.

At Mass 18 children selected by their teachers and classmates were presented as inaugural members of the Mercy Action Group. They are responsible for seeing that the Mercy values permeate the school. At the conclusion of the liturgy as the church swelled with the sound of the children’s sweet voices singing “The Circle of Mercy,” I found myself bathed in tears but confident that the mission of mercy--God’s, not ours or Catherine’s—surely IS timeless.
Julia Upton rsm, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, is Provost Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Theology of St. John’s University (NY).

Messages to: Julia Upton rsm


As we mark the 25th anniversary of Catherine McAuley being pronounced Venerable, I am filled with hope regarding the progress of her eventual Canonisation, because I sense a renewed focus within the church to proclaiming the Gospel mission that she heroically lived!

Pope Francis’ vision of a ‘church of mercy’, ‘living with the smell of the sheep’, was clearly witnessed to by Catherine. She was a dealer in hope, and those who knew her, or were ministered to by her, would no doubt have experienced the joy of the gospel that Pope Francis describes in Evangelii Gaudium’. Francis has clearly challenged the church and his words and actions have caught the attention of many in society. In this contemporary context, Catherine’s story is a gift to us, as a living example of the Gospel call to ‘go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.’ (EG 39)

I have always found Catherine’s mercy story easy to share because it really is one of good news. Inspired by her father’s lived faith, she had a deep desire to reach out to the poor and to leave this earth better than she found it. (EG 183) But, to be sure, to be sure (doesn’t that sound Irish?), Catherine was not just a ‘do-gooder’ – the kind that people judge and roll their eyes at, because her good deeds were couched in relationships and genuine care. She believed how you did things, was as important as what you did, and as a consequence her contemporaries described her as humble, kind, cheerful, approachable, unpretentious and with a genuine love and care for others. Indeed she sounds like someone who it would have been a joy to be around!

Catherine recognized ‘the sacred ground of the other’ (EG 169) and she was a generous giver of the ‘Sacrament of Presence’ that Pope Francis describes. In our busy and demanding lives, we would do well to foster the art of accompaniment and listening, that such presence calls us to. To offer others the gift of our ‘real presence’ we need to go beyond simply being ‘nice’ – we need real and authentic relationships. Buoyed by her genuine love for others and her appreciation of their deepest dignity, Catherine was able to build communion, even amid disagreement. (EG 228) She believed that the daily happenings of community life, and the ordinary tensions and weaknesses, were opportunities for developing compassion and tolerance and for practising forgiveness, mercy and reconciling love. Such wisdom and lived faith, has obvious implications for our relationships and communities today!

In our culture where reaching your potential, having more and being more, are presented as life’s ultimate goals, we seem to have ‘succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet find it very difficult to engender joy’ (EG 7). Pope Francis reminds us that the joy of the gospel is not the result of ethical choice (good behaviour), stoicism, or self-denial, but rather, is born of an encounter with the living God. (EG 7 & 39) Similarly, Catherine’s joy, so evident in letters written to and by, her, was a consequence of her encounter with God and her subsequent desire to be the face of mercy. The recent announcement by Pope Francis, for the church to celebrate a Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, will call each of us to a deeper encounter with God and then outwards to touch the lives of others.

So as we pray for the progress of Catherine’s canonisation, may we use the time of waiting to revisit and deepen our knowledge of her story, and the gospel. May Pope Francis and Catherine become bookends that support God’s story of mercy, and may we continue to give flesh to mercy in our places!

Terry Power is married to Anne-Marie and they have four children. He has 27 years of leadership experience in Catholic Education, 24 in Mercy schools and ministries. His current role is as Manager for Mercy Formation and Leadership in Far North Queensland.

Messages to: Terry Power


Four years ago, Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy changed my life forever. While in a vulnerable place, God graced me with a position within the South Central Community.

Initially, I met Catherine McAuley on paper through stories, quotes and the Suscipe. Getting to know the sisters allowed me to experience Catherine over and over again. It only took a few weeks before realizing that my life had a higher calling to help the people of God. As a lay, married woman, I was confused about what to do with my new found passion. After praying for direction, I was introduced to Mercy Association. My position required me to work directly with justice minded lay associates who were living their call to prayer, ministry and community. In many regards this was answered prayer and a place to belong. For the first time in my life I was able to connect with hundreds of Christian people whose mission was to serve the poor, sick and uneducated.

We are moved by God’s call to compassionately serve as Catherine McAuley did in her day. The Venerable Catherine McAuley teaches us to enrich our spiritual lives as we commit to doing the practical works of mercy in our everyday lives. In celebrating the love, life and legacy of Catherine McAuley, we embrace overlooked populations by standing in solidarity with and for them.

For me, Catherine McAuley is the realization of my ability to be a better person. She modeled the heart of Jesus and represents how we can be promising difference in our world. As we honor, the 25th year of the Venerable Catherine McAuley, let us be reminded of our allegiance to God, to one another and to vulnerable populations. Imagine how different our call to Mercy would be if Catherine had given into the pressures around her. Would it be? As we honor her legacy, consider pushing yourself to the margins and standing in unity with those who have less privilege. Advocate for the person who has lost their voice. Smile and help someone feel valued. Provide a drink for the thirsty. Be compassionate. Offer love. Stand for Jesus. Let’s celebrate and honor Catherine by walking in her footsteps and making a difference today.

Ty (Tylia) Barnes lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has been married for 21 years and has three sons. She became a Mercy Associate on September 24, 2012 and has been Director of South Central Association since December 2013. 

Messages to: Ty Barnes


Over the past few years I have been absorbed by one of the early biographies of Catherine McAuley, written in 1864 by a Member of the Order of Mercy (Sister Mary Vincent Harnett)

In the preface of an 1896 publication (New York) of Harnett’s Life of Catherine McAuley the author says of Fr. Richard Baptist O’Brien who wrote the Introduction to the original “Life” that he does not scruple to speak of Catherine McAuley as possessing ‘heroic sanctity’ and ’as a person whom we may one day expect to see raised on the Altars of the Church’. In that Introduction O’Brien waxes eloquently about the virtue and holiness of his friend Catherine McAuley and of the Sisters of Mercy whom he knew for thirty years or more. If he had the authority O’Brien would have canonized Catherine immediately! Yet, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of her being declared Venerable and nearly 175 years since her death, Catherine is still on the first step in the process!

In this Year of Consecrated Life we are called to reflect on the role and significance of the life of religious in our world today. Pope Francis has called on us and the world to wake up! On the anniversary of the recognition of Catherine as a woman of ‘heroic sanctity’ we could reflect on her story, of how she herself was awake to the world, especially to the world of the poor and suffering of Dublin and how she helped to wake up the world around her. That story has been told over and over and by many.

The question for me today is how does Catherine McAuley continue to wake up the world? How does her example of heroism, courage, trust and daring continue to rouse the world from apathy and hopelessness to enlivening works of love and mercy?

We, the Sisters of Mercy, Associates and colleagues, are the ‘sons and daughters’ of Catherine McAuley who live and walk in a twenty-first century world. We have committed to live in service to the poor, the sick and the ignorant of our day. The poor, sick and ignorant of our times are different than the people of nineteenth century Ireland - but there is no doubt that they are in our midst crying out for help, calling to us to hear them, to provide food, safety, consolation, healing, encouragement and hope. And, the cry of the earth is much louder in our day! These cries are much more desperate and insistent! Thanks to the immediacy of worldwide media of image and sound and instant global connection we cannot avoid them nor discount them.

Painting by Anne Reddington rsm (GB Union)
for MIA 20th Anniversary celebrations

The ‘circle of Mercy’ has grown to include men, women, youth and children, professed sisters, associates, colleagues and partners in all corners of our world. The seed that Catherine McAuley planted has grown into a huge tree. In the strength and shelter of that tree, in the works and activities of the members, the cries are heard and tended to. Catherine’s initial efforts in the 1820s to educate and shelter women, to bring consolation and encouragement to the poor and the sick, to bury the dead and to bring God’s love and mercy to them continue to be done nearly 200 years later. The modern manifestation of Mercy today is global and proactive. Mercy is present and vocal at the United Nations - the heart of international moral and ethical leadership. Mercy works are evident in all parts of the world in programs and activities of education, health care, social and spiritual ministry, advocacy, collaboration and challenge. Mercy is active and vocal in face of poverty, injustice, abuse, trafficking, devastation of earth’s peoples and resources. Mercy is on always on mission!

Mercy is awake to the needs of the world! It is our challenge to wake ourselves and others up from slumber to collaborate and partner with those who have energy and vibrancy to continue with us what Catherine McAuley began! This is our legacy! Her sanctity will thus be proclaimed to the world!

Maybe the first step in the canonization process is an OK place to be! Martin Luther King Jr. is supposed to have said: Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase! Mercy dares to take all steps in the face of human misery! The sanctity and “heroism” of Catherine McAuley is alive and well in her ‘sons and daughters’!

Diane Smyth rsm is a descendant of the Irish who emigrated to Newfoundland in the late 1700s and for whom Bishop Fleming brought there the Mercy and Presentation Sisters and the Irish Christian Brothers. Born in St. John’s and educated by the Sisters of Mercy, she is celebrating 50 years of profession this year. She has worked in education, social services, religious formation and chaplaincy. She is currently a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland.
Messages to: Diane Smyth rsm

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