with the Sisters of Mercy
For those who don’t know, the Sisters of Mercy were founded by Venerable Catherine McAuley, a patron for the Year of Mercy here in the Archdiocese of Birmingham and someone who has become a friend of mine in recent months. Yes, I hear you say last year Mary Potter and now Catherine… I confess I have a weakness for strong, holy women of God and Catherine definitely falls into that bracket. I love many saints but I also have a soft spot for local characters, like Catherine, because today we literally walk in their footsteps. I don’t think I realised my fondness for her until giving a talk to young adults last month and I mentioned some aspects of her life. When telling her story, well my version, I realised how embellished it was by the stories of the sisters who currently live there. I felt like I was speaking about a friend and not a Venerable foundress of an international religious order.
What’s the attraction with Catherine? Well anyone who has read my previous blogs knows my love of mission and the lives and example of holy women in the Church and Catherine ticks all these boxes. Inspired by the witness of her father who fed and taught the poor children, from a young age Catherine had a great love of God and a great love for the poor. These two qualities would be key later on when she was looking for women to join her in this mission. After her parents died, she went to live with a Quaker family- the Callaghans. They encouraged her in her desire to serve the poor, here she also became learned in Scripture- reading to Mrs Callaghan as she grew older. You can see God’s Word infused into Catherine’s writings. When the Callaghans died, they left her their wealth, confident she would put it to good use. Building a house and chapel at Baggot Street, she gathered women around her and they began to serve the poor in Dublin. This was completely unheard of at the time and the Church pressured her to turn the house into a religious order, in order to continue the work in a more acceptable way. She really was a revolutionary lay woman and the only way they Church thought they could handle her, was to put her in a habit and call her Sister! This was never her intention, but in obedience to the Church that is what she did and she entered the Novitiate in her 50s. This aspect of her story touches me deeply- there was a sense of complete detachment from this work, she sought only to do the will of God and she believed this was heard through the voice of the Church. A key lesson for budding missionaries today- the importance of cooperating with God in and through the Church. I think that’s where great fruit comes, for when ideas for mission are tested before the Church, we can work confidently knowing that they are no the product of our ego or some other motivation. It would also have taken a great deal of humility to enter the novitiate at that age! As soon as she had finished in the Novitiate she got a carriage straight to Baggot Street not even staying to have breakfast, I hear an echo here of the haste with which Mary set out to see Elizabeth. There was a mission to fulfill, there were people to serve. I often think about our apathy when it comes to mission, our preference for comfort and ease and are not the needs of our times even more pressing.