Quaker respect for women

Particularly important in the shaping of Catherine McAuley was the Quaker respect and appreciation for the talents of women. Their pioneering acknowledgement of the spiritual equality of men and women liberated Quaker women to share both religious and secular responsibilities. It seems probable that awareness that the Quaker “Women’s Meetings” were charged with particular concern for the poor of their own sex planted seeds deep in Catherine’s soul, seeds which would blossom in her oft-quoted maxim: “Nothing is more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”

Catherine’s services for the Callaghans allowed her to feel her own sense of dignity and worth, and led her to make a valiant effort to develop that same sense in others. She seemed to understand the assault it is on the human personality to be totally at the mercy of another’s good nature, and utilized the funds available to her not only to relieve needs but also to foster the dignity of the poor receiver.


Ministry of courteous presence

The courtesy imbedded in Catherine shone in the specific environment of the Irish poor. She could enter scenes of abject misery with a cultivated courtesy that saw only the person. In scenes of wretched poverty and noisome illness, it was not in her to draw back involuntarily, avert her eyes, nor stiffen so as not to faint, her psyche long since won to the task of loving service. Her courtesy sustained through the perfect control she had of her body, her very presence expressed her compassion. . . .

With impeccable manners, Catherine McAuley could take the highest rungs of the social stage with poise and confidence. She bent this control to the ministry of courteous presence, a presence that revealed the divine spirit alive in her services of charity and mercy. With disciplined skill, she allayed the fears of the poor, the sick, and the ignorant in scenes of misery and suffering. Her self possession held tight rein on natural inclinations to turn away, show revulsion, or grow faint. This woman who possessed herself could freely share the gifts of her life with others. She could do more. She could inspire others to act in the same generous and compassionate way.


Mercy at work in Catherine’s life

Drawing upon years spent learning to respond to gospel imperatives through Prayer and reflection as well as developing spiritual strength through self-forgetfulness and self-discipline, Catherine had acquired the conviction that the life of Christ was to be imitated. She not only entered the Gospels; she internalized them. For her Jesus was [a] model, a way to be, a way to live.

The gift of the Spirit to Catherine, her charism, accentuated in her an awareness of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus: salvation in the giving — the gift that was needed, neither earned nor deserved. Her years of private study to substantiate the faith that was in her led her to understand that God, responding to the broken- ness or imbalance of humankind, sent his Son to teach us how to be human, to show us the way. The Scriptures drew the blueprint in Jesus’ response to the brokenness of the human condition: “Offer the wicked no resistance . . .

Turn the other cheek . . . Go a second mile . . . Love your enemies . . . Pray for those who persecute you . . . Heal the sick, the lame, the blind. What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.”

For a long time Catherine McAuley would not have been able to put the word on what she was about as “mercy.” She discovered mercy at work in her life, experiencing within her concrete situation, her own need. Reflecting on these experiences, she found a sense of God’s abiding presence.


Translating pain into compassion

Her absorption in the Word of God, written and incarnate, called her to imitate the example of Jesus in translating the love of God to others. In her experience of her own limitations, Catherine found a God of love, a hidden God whose healing grace helped her transcend her frustrations, bitterness, and weaknesses and enabled her to translate her own pain into a deep compassion for others. In this compassion, she experienced the alleviating effect created by her willing entry into the pain of others.

Catherine somehow grasped intuitively that mercy is gift given in response to need, neither earned nor deserved. She did not shrink from the demands mercy places on whoever would extend it. She knew that rendering the merciful service was not an act of beneficence, but one of gratitude to God for mercy received.


The charism of mercy

Catherine McAuley could have been insulated and isolated against the miserable poverty of Dublin. Instead she recognized the call of the Spirit, and accepted it with a grateful love and a willingness to put it at the service of others. As recipient of God’s mercy, she saw herself as steward. Gifts given were gifts for others. Direct and practical in her response, she went out into gutter and garret to teach, to soothe and to shelter. She had discovered that her charism, her gift for others, was mercy, a charism to the cutting edge of brokenness or imbalance.

Giving outward expression to this inner grace, with a singularly keen eye for the special needs of her time and an astute perception of the methods by which they could be success- fully met, she quickly attracted others drawn by a similar call to respond to the action of God in their lives.


Union and charity

Catherine McAuley was not content that her institute merely attend to the social ills pervading her society. She was impelled to affect the spirit, the inner life, that flashes out like “shining from shook foil.” Her grasp of the presence of God in the most wretched person allowed her to see that the poverty, sickness, and ignorance which prevent the spirit of a person from shining through were enemies to be overcome so that the divine spark would inform all of life ever more brightly.

That this reverence for each one whose life they touched was rooted in the love and respect of the members for one another is clearly evident in Catherine’s shaping of the Rule. To her question at the inception of the Institute of Mercy, “What shall we use as a Rule?”, the archbishop had answered simply, “The Chapter on Union and Charity in the Rule of the Presentation Sisters.”

Interpreted by Catherine, this chapter gave focus to their spirituality, demanding that each respect and reverence another’s gifts, talents, and disposition, as well as accept each individual’s physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual limitations. It created unity with variety by permitting members to retain their own personalities while becoming bonded as Sisters of Mercy.


The vow of service

With a shared vision, Catherine and her first associates had so unequivocally reduced their Rule to practice before submitting it for approval that the bishop of Cork urged at a profession in 1837 that they add a fourth vow — the service of the poor, the sick and the ignorant — as both integral to their dedication and descriptive of it.

Catherine’s conviction that the works of mercy were the very “business of our lives,” had shaped the community from its inception in an apostolic spirituality. She had emphasized this spirituality in retreat conferences to the sisters at Baggot Street: “Prayer, retirement, and recollection are not sufficient for those called to labor for the salvation of souls. [They should be like] the compass that goes round its circle without stirring from its center. Now, our center is God from Whom all our actions should spring as from their source, and no exterior action should separate us from Him.” . . .  With wisdom and balance, she asserted the value of Prayer and contemplation, and the importance of a profound inner life, while insisting at the same time that in service of God’s people, works unite us to God.


Action and contemplation

The habit of reflection that Catherine McAuley achieved was not simply a practice of guarding exterior senses, cultivating the mind to think above and beyond present duties. This view appraised human tasks as necessary but secondary. As such they were understood to interfere with the primary or spiritual obligation or exercises. Catherine had learned how to utilize the activities of each hour to be the matter of her reflection, and never accepted a contemplative/apostolic dichotomy. She insisted that active works must be done without losing awareness of the presence of God, convinced that the Sister of Mercy must make mission the ambience of her recollection, as she makes charity the ambience and quality of her service.


Cross and crown

Catherine’s ability to reflect on her experiences taught her the rhythms of light and darkness, of pain and surcease, of sorrow and joy, of death and resurrection, or of “cross and crown.” She had tremendous confidence that one would follow the other with regularity, and taught that a life of peace and harmony was to be achieved from the constant integration of these paradoxical realities.

Possessing a lived understanding of the Paschal Mystery, she used the language of “cross and crown,” seeing sufferings at work in her life and in the life of the institute as ways of taking up the cross and dying daily to self to resurrect the spirit and to grow in greater union with God.

Catherine’s deepest theology consisted in her belief that the cross was part of life. To embrace it released new and creative powers from suffering, pain, and death. She believed sorrows were to be felt, yet transcended through the free choice to yield — learning through yielding the lesson of the seed’s dying to come to new life. Everything in life had the power to ennoble and transform, for “without the Cross the real Crown cannot come.”


The Paschal Mystery — food for Catherine’s spirit

In the advice or counsel she gave to others, she revealed the Paschal Mystery as the deepest food for her spirit. She had experienced its trans- forming work in the recesses of her soul and taught from that experience, welcoming difficulties that could not be surmounted as a share of the cross of Christ. Receiving these sorrows from the hand of a loving God, Catherine believed that whatever came from this source would ultimately become a blessing in her own life and in the life of the institute. Often burnished as gold in the fire, she seemed to come forth more enthusiastic, more compassionate, more joyful, more possessed by God.