May 28, 2014

The Vision of Francis and the MIA Vision: The Embrace of God’s Mercy

God’s Gracious and Compassionate Mercy is the wellspring, the source of never failing supply, for all those who cherish and seek to live out this gift of Mercy

Catherine McAuley © Maree Henderson rsm.
Used with permission

Pope Francis ©
Used under CC 2.0

1. The Embrace of God's Mercy

There is a very close link between this statement from the MIA Vision and the motto chosen by Pope Francis: 'By Mercy-ing and by Choosing Him'.

Pope Francis has made no secret of his affinity for the calling of St. Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13). His papal motto is from a homily on the call of Matthew, and it was on the Feast of St. Matthew, sixty years ago, that Francis had a religious experience that led him to the priesthood:

On the Feast of St Matthew in 1953, the young Jorge Bergoglio experienced, at the age of 17, in a very special way, the loving presence of God in his life. Following confession, he felt his heart touched and he sensed the descent of the Mercy of God, who with a gaze of tender love, called him to religious life, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola.
(Vatican announcement of the Coat of Arms and Motto of Pope Francis)

When asked by a journalist, who is Jorge Bergoglio, he replied I am a sinner. 'This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.' And he repeated: 'I am one who is looked upon by the Lord. I always felt my motto, Miserando atque Eligendo [By Having Mercy and by choosing Him], was very true for me.'

The motto is taken from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable, who writes in his comments on the Gospel story of the calling of Matthew: 'Jesus saw a publican, and since he looked at him with feelings of love and chose him, he said to him, "Follow me.’” The pope adds: “I think the Latin gerund miserando is impossible to translate in both Italian and Spanish. I like to translate it with another gerund that does not exist: misericordiando [“mercy-ing”].
I went to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio.

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.”

“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.



                                                     ‘The Calling of St. Matthew’ by Caravaggio

According to many, including Vallely who wrote about Francis’ life in Untying the Knots, Francis does have a huge understanding of his need for the Mercy of God, particularly because of how, as a Provincial, he handled the Dirty War situation in Argentina that led to the arrest of two fellow Jesuit priests, who were subsequently imprisoned and tortured. Vallely accepts that the two Jesuit priests were placed in jeopardy by their then superior's decision to withdraw from them the protection of the Jesuit order as part of a row over the way that the gospels should be taught.

The time Francis spent in Germany, having been sent there by his Superior after his time as Provincial, afforded him a graced moment of insight and the mercy of God in his regard. It came as he pondered the picture of Our Lady ‘Untying the Knots’.1

When asked in the conclave if he accepted the vote to become pope, he replied not with the traditional "Accepto" but the words: "I am a great sinner, trusting in the mercy and patience of God in suffering, I accept.

As we ponder The MIA Vision
God’s Gracious and Compassionate Mercy is the wellspring, the Source of never failing supply, for all those who cherish and seek to live out the gift of Mercy
we might ask

  • What are the events/experiences in our Mercy story where Jesus sees us through the eyes of Mercy and calls us to follow him.

In speaking to Religious Frances said –
Life is complicated: it consists of grace and sin. The person who does not sin is not human. A religious who recognises himself/herself as weak and a sinner does not negate the witness that s/he is called to give, rather s/he reinforces it, and this is good for everyone.

The truth of this is indeed borne out by the story of Matthew.
As he sat at table in the house, behold many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. This conversion of one tax collector gave many people, those from his own profession and other sinners, an example of repentance and pardon. No sooner was he converted than Matthew drew after him a whole crowd of sinners along the same road to salvation.
It is borne out too by France. A pope who is not afraid to announce I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

And what are we seeing.

Alienated people are experiencing a new generosity of spirit that's truly welcoming - a Pope who listens to the stories of victims of sexual abuse, of women who want to be entrusted to lead the church, of gays and lesbians who want to be seen as people, not problems. Long-lapsed Catholics are returning to the practise of their faith.A Boston pastor said he recently heard from a woman who left the church 40 years ago but wanted to learn more about Jesuit spirituality because of Francis and adult initiation class is filled with converts inspired by Francis.

To be compassionate, to bring the mercy of God to a world in need, we must first recognise and experience our need for God’s Mercy.

2. Listen to the Cry of the Poor: Global Action
Catherine McAuley, Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, used her inheritance in the service of the needs of her time. Today Sisters of Mercy through Mercy international Association, use their resources to respond to issues of Global poverty demonstrated in the massive displacement of persons worldwide.

We know that the issues with which MIA engages, particularly the issues of human trafficking and eco justice are themes very close to the heart of Francis. He has called human trafficking a crime against humanity that must be stopped and he continued ‘We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime that’s become ever more aggressive, that threatens not just individuals, but the foundational values of society, international security and laws, the economy, families and communities'. Speaking to the group of diplomats, he dedicated his entire talk to human trafficking because, he said, it is 'an issue that worries me very much and today is threatening people’s dignity.'

In relation to environmental issues, we know that Frances has voiced many of his concerns. Recently, he met delegates from Argentina to discuss the oil and gas drilling plans proposed by corporations in the region. He even posed with the delegates holding an anti-frocking T shirt and another which bore the slogan 'Water is more precious than gold.' He told the delegates that he was preparing an encyclical — a letter for Catholic guidance – about nature, humans and environmental issues.

After the meeting, Solanas, the leader of the delegates told the Italian press, 'The pope is very sensitive. He told me he is working on an encyclical about these issues and he has created a group of experts to help him.
He is particularly concerned about water. He told me that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the next war would start because of it and he recalled the disastrous situation in Africa. He was very worried because if you put profits first, everything else is razed.'

There is no doubt that the issues MIA have chosen to focus are ones totally in sync with the concerns of Francis. I think he would likely applaud our efforts at awareness raising, lobbying and advocating. In addressing religious he said ‘Religious life is not a bottle of distilled water’. What does that mean? It means that we do not need a religious life that is crystal clear, tasteless, insipid and safe. Religious life must make noise, uproar and even a mess. Religious life is not one of conformity. It is like yeast which even when you are not aware is always causing ferment ‘

But the ‘how of’ doing this is a real challenge. I have been intrigued by a book, publishes a few months ago, that is taking even the corporate and commercial world by storm. It is called David and Goliath, written by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell tells the biblical story we all know, but he attributes David’s success to the fact that Goliath was not prepared for the form of combat used by David – the stone slinger. From this he deducts two ideas:

  • The act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty
  • Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of greatest weakness. And the fact of being an underdog in the face of giants can change people in a ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what otherwise have seemed unthinkable.

I think Frances echoed this same thinking when he said to religious 'Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world'.

I would like to highlight 3 elements that I believe are ‘different’, yet very much part of our Mercy tradition but which we may need to reclaim with intent and deep commitment.

I present the first by way of a story about Frances, told by one of his community while he was still in Argentina. This is what he says:

'Bergoglio was always clear about the order of activities: first Eucharistic Adoration, then go out to meet Christ who is in the poor. On one occasion we wanted to enlarge the parish radius of the “Night of Charity,” to reach more people. But Cardinal Bergoglio said to us: “Don’t be hasty. This isn’t fast food, but the order is Christ first, then Christ, and finally Christ.' (That is, Christ in Eucharistic Adoration, Christ in the poor, and taking Christ to the poor

Isn’t this exactly what Catherine instilled in the early Sisters? This makes me convinced that the MIA approach of grounding our work in Theological Reflection is the very thing that will give special energy to our work and will respond to the challenge of Frances to be witnesses to a different way of doing things

The second ‘different way’ is summed up in a challenge of Frances to the way we minister. He says: 'Today God asks us to leave the nest which encloses us in order to be sent and he advises ‘Spend time walking on the periphery in order really be acquainted with the reality and life experiences of people. If this does not happen, we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists’.

Surely again this is at the heart of our Mercy tradition and commitment to the poor, sick and neglected.

The greatest tools we have for advocacy are the real life stories of those among whom Mercy ministers, whether it be the people with whom our sisters walked in Cajamarca when their lands were seized violently to meet the needs of a big drilling company or the people of the Philippines devastated by typhoon Yolanda because of climate change or the trafficked women and children who have found support in Mercy places of refuge.

The temptation for us is to think that our changing demographics may excuse us from ‘walking on the periphery’ but Frances warns ‘a religious must never tire of prophesising. You are called to live religious life authentically in whatever circumstances you find yourself; smaller numbers and increased age should never distract from the fact that religious life is a never-ending challenge'.

The third and final ‘different way’, I believe is in our interconnectedness. What can we do better together than any of us can do apart? Frances says: 'Without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society. The ever-increasing number of interconnections and communications in today’s world makes us powerfully aware of the unity and common destiny of the nations. In the dynamics of history, and in the diversity of ethnic groups, societies and cultures, we see the seeds of a vocation to form a community composed of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another. But this vocation is still frequently denied and ignored in a world marked by a “globalization of indifference” which makes us slowly inured to the suffering of others and closed in on ourselves'.

Our response to the globalisation of indifference must be the globalisation of compassion and this surely is at the heart of our Vision Statement: Today Sisters of Mercy use their resources to respond to issues of global poverty. Our greatest resources are our charism and the global Mercy family of at least half a million sisters, associates and partners that ministers in 40+ countries of the world.

3. Hospitality and Service. Mercy International Centre
The house built by Catherine to connect those who were rich with those who were poor forms part of Mercy International Centre, a place of rich heritage and hospitality. To integrate the activities of Mercy International Association and in the service of the mission of Mercy today, Mercy International centre is expanded to offer a diversity of programmes, enhanced communication, outreach efforts and appropriate accommodation and conference facilities

The role of Mercy International Centre in the formation of members of the Mercy Global family, especially our lay partners in ministry, is I believe a form of evangelization. The purpose of the encyclical, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, recently written by Pope Francis is 'to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization'. He says ‘that by virtue of our baptism, all people of faith are missionary disciples. We all need to be always evangelized to deepen our faith and commitment'. This is exactly the purpose of the programmes we offer and while we offer our message through the lens of the Mercy and Catherine story, the challenge of it is as the encyclical states to ‘live a commitment to participating in God’s work’.

The main ideas presented in Chapter Five—Spirit-Filled Evangelizers—could be a resume of Catherine’s teaching and of the content of our programmes:

  • We need work rooted in fervour, joy, generosity, courage, and boundless love.
  • Prayer should ground all evangelical work.
  • Personal encounters with the saving love of Jesus opens hearts and fills the Voids in ourselves and our society. People of faith carry on his ministry in pursuit of the joy and meaning it brings.
  • Loving others brings us close to God and reveals God’s reign in the world.
  • Faith requires the confidence that God is working through us and that our work will bear fruit we may not see.

Conclusion: Conveying Hope and Joy

This Vision Keeps Alive the Founding Spirit of Catherine among peoples of the world most in need of God’s compassion and Mercy

There are many similarities in Catherine’s Spirit and that of Francis.
Among these are: An integration of a passion for Christ and a passion for humanity, especially the poor; Joyfulness; and an extraordinary ability to communicate with others.

An integration of a passion for Christ and a passion for the humanity

Frances challenges a “globalization of indifference,” He calls on all people of good will 'to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.' These words seem to echo those of Joanne Regan in relation to Catherine:

'By courageous, contagious concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the poor, the sick and the ignorant, Catherine 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'

Gospel means "good news." A smiling, good-humoured pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner. [CNN] Francis said: ‘If we live in hope, allowing us to be surprised by the new wine that Jesus offers us, we have joy in our hearts and we cannot fail to be witnesses of this joy. Christians are joyful; they are never gloomy. Christians cannot look like someone in constant mourning. If we truly love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our hearts will ‘light up’ with joy that spreads to everyone around us'.

We have a great example of a smiling, good humoured Foundress in the person of Catherine. Listen to how one of her contemporaries described her. . .
Being of a remarkably cheerful disposition, she loved to see all under her charge happy and joyful. She tried to make them so, not only by removing whatever could disturb their peace, but also by contributing to the general cheerfulness of the Community especially at Recreation. Although burdened with many cares, she was at that duty as lively and merry as the youngest Sisters, who used to delight in being near her, listening to her amusing remarks and anecdotes. She had a natural talent for composing verses in a playful style, and would often sing them to some cheerful tune with admirable simplicity. She was a great enemy to that spirit of sadness and discontent which destroys true devotion, nor could she suffer them to take a gloomy view of passing events”.2
We know too that Catherine delighted in fun and liveliness. She recommended that there be a piano in every community room and across the top of one of her letters she wrote in big letters “Dance every evening”.

Warm-hearted Communication
Francis writes letters and phones people personally.
He is famous for unexpectedly calling people up to offer his support, or condolences, or even set up an interview. He has been called the ‘Cold Call Pope’.

As we know Catherine constantly kept in touch with all the leaders of the foundations, calling her letters her “Foundation Circulars” to the “Foreign Powers”. There were constant references in her letters to the individual sisters in the communities – their needs, their health, and their families, the friends of the local community, the parish clergy and the local activities. Her letter tell her sisters about missing them in their absence, grieving with them in their sorrows, rejoicing with them in their successes, or forgiving them in their weaknesses and gently urging them to greater courage in their life of Mercy.


It is said that 'a rising tide raises all boats'. How might the rising tide of the vision of Mercy being promulgated by Francis give new heart to our MIA vision and how might the MIA vision in turn energise our global Mercy world today?

Messages to: Mary Reynolds rsm - Executive Director MIA

1. Mary Untier of Knots or Mary Undoer of Knots is the name of both a Marian devotion and a Baroque painting (German: Wallfahrtsbild or Gnadenbild) which represents that devotion. The painting by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, of around 1700

2. Mary Clare Moore in Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy by Mary C Sullivan  p. 116

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