The service of the poor

The apostolic orientation of Mother Catherine’s Prayer life was understood by her as belonging to the particular charism which the Spirit had given her for the Church. Her Prayer life was the stable basis of her world and from it issued her courage to face the demands, the challenges and the opposition she encountered. She taught and embodied in her own self an acceptance of the will of God; an acceptance transcending natural human reactions, emotions and abilities. Thus it was that armed with faith and with the power to communicate almost unlimited compassion and hope, she pursued her Mission of Mercy, daily responding to the words of the Christ whom she carried within her: ‘As long as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:40) From this stemmed Mother Catherine’s unique vow of whole-hearted service of Christ in the poor. Measured against the social mores of her time, her capacity to serve the poor without any trace of condescension (cf. Romans 12:6) is one of her striking spiritual qualities.

If Mother Catherine was aware of her own limitations and the limits of the resources at her disposal, she was alive to the power of God. She experienced this power particularly in the Mass and the Sacraments and in the abiding presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Eucharist and His constant companionship through each day. Even in difficulties, she never felt alone.

Prayer — Catherine’s first priority

Prayer was Catherine McAuley’s first priority, never her last resort, and she liked to remind her Sisters that ‘always before He undertook anything, Jesus Christ prepared Himself for it by Prayer, and by Prayer He also concluded it.’ (Retreat Instructions, p. 104) Following His example, therefore, every decision she took was index-linked with Prayer, each word of her Rule was prayed over before being committed to paper and each of her foundations was a Prayer- event, established in the Thirty Days Prayer. Explaining this Prayer-basis of all her actions, Mother Catherine pointed to — among others — St. Albert the Great who declared that ‘in Divine Knowledge greater advancement was made by Prayer than by study. . . . I desired to have a right knowledge and God gave it to me; I invoked the Lord and He filled me with the Spirit of Wisdom.’ (Wisdom 7:7) (“The Spirit of the Institute”)

Whenever occasion presented itself, Mother Catherine repeated again and again that ‘of all other gifts, Prayer must come from God; hence we must beg it continually, with a profound humility and an untiring patience.’ (Familiar Instructions, p. 52) Then, using one of her favorite garden similes she gave one of her most intimate definitions of prayer:

Prayer is a plant, the seed of which is sown in the heart of every Christian, but its growth depends on the care we take to nourish it.

If neglected, it will die. If nourished by constant practice, it will blossom and produce fruit in abundance. (Retreat Instructions, p. 90)

Meditation on the life of Jesus

On a theological level, Catherine McAuley’s spirituality was based on her fidelity to the Church’s deposit of Faith. Her words to the Sisters were unambiguous on this point: ‘It imports us to be well instructed in the doctrine of the Church in order to teach the same. Let us frequently question the sick and all whom we instruct on the Principal Mysteries.’ (Familiar Instructions, pp. 15, 20) The asceticism of her spirituality may be condensed into three words, Imitation of Christ. Her choice of the Psalter as her favorite Prayer reveals the central place

Christ our Lord occupied in her spirituality. To lead her Sisters to imitate Him in charity, humility, meekness and simplicity was the aim of all her conferences. ‘Even had we lacked this certain evidence of her devotion to the Psalter of Jesus,’ wrote Father Burke-Savage, ‘we could have deduced as much, for Catherine could never have spoken so easily and so beautifully of the changing scenes of Our Lord’s earthly life without constant meditation on them.’ (Burke- Savage, p. 387) Among other counsels, Mother Catherine advised her Sisters that the life and maxims of Jesus Christ should be as a book always open before us, from which we are to learn all that is necessary to know: as a glass in which we will clearly see our defects, and as a seal whose image we are to impress on our hearts. (Retreat Instructions, pp. 87 – 8)

Mercy — Catherine’s charism

Catherine McAuley’s spiritual theme song was MERCY. She saw herself before God as one who received everything from His divine bounty; a beneficiary of His redemptive love, who felt obliged to be a channel of this Mercy towards others. In a very real sense she endeavored to make ‘social and communal’ her own ‘individual and interior’ experience of God’s Mercy (Dives in Misericordia, n.4) as she opened her heart to Him and her hands to her neighbor. It was therefore a special feature of her charism to interpret for those with whom she came in contact the Gospel message of mercy and to spread the good news of God’s unchanging love for His people.

By giving her congregation the title of Sisters of Mercy she guided her spiritual daughters towards the compassionate and redemptive love of God, of Christ, as expounded in Scripture, as the ideal which should motivate their lives: “By our vocation . . . we are engaged to comfort and instruct the sick poor of Christ. This is the principal reason why we are called Sisters of Mercy . . . . Oh! What an ineffable consolation to serve Christ Himself in the person of the poor and to walk in the very same path which He trod.” (Familiar Instructions, p. 16)

The call to the perfection of charity was for Catherine McAuley a call to be merciful as the Heavenly Father is merciful. This made it possible for her to weave the peace, the good- ness, the compassion and the tenderness of Christ into the way she worked out her apostolate; an apostolate which could be described as sustained witness to the ‘loving kindness [tender mercy] of the heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high’ (Luke 1:78). And as she counseled her Sisters along this way of Mercy, she herself performed the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy ‘with great charity and tenderness, with energy and sweet- ness, with great humility and diffidence in self.’ (Retreat Instructions, p. 63)

Mercy and justice

Mother Catherine’s insistence on and provision of good education for girls, middle-class as well as poor children, was a direct challenge to the injustices of her time. Her practical programmes were hitherto unheard-of social services which broke the barriers of indifference, making them give way to social caring and compassion. Her sense of justice allied to mercy made her as convinced of the quality of presence as of performance; hence she stressed the how of things rather than the why . . . . Her congregation was the canonical expression of her vision of promoting social justice, of providing the poor with the services she believed they needed and had a right to, and of doing this on as comprehensive and as flexible a scale as possible. . . . Her ministry of Mercy/Justice was non-judgmental: ‘It is better to relieve a hundred impostors, if there be any such, than to suffer one really distressed person to be sent away empty.’ (Familiar Instructions, p. 136.) Justice combined with mercy prompted her to immediacy: ‘The poor need help today, not next week,’ and to a determination to soldier on in spite of the importunities of some of her Sisters, to whom she put the question: ‘What could excuse us before God for casting off any charge which we had freely undertaken, except compelled by necessity to do so?’ (Letter to S.M. Angela Dunne, December 20, 1837)

Priorities for mercy

Catherine McAuley has been described as a ‘woman who allowed the experiences of her life to speak to her; and she listened for ministry out of this discernment . . . . She was quick to be flexible and quick to respond to need: all with a deep faith in the providence of God working in her and forming and re-forming her according to the changing needs of the people whom she saw around her.’ (Mary Ann Scofield, RSM, “Toward a Spirituality of Mercy”) From her discernment, her READING of the signs of the times, she was aware of a great hunger for God among the spiritually malnourished Irish poor. For this reason, her mediation of Mercy was as much a praying as a doing apostolate. Prayer was the basis of her work in the school, on the visitation and in the House of Mercy. Because of this, she was most specific on what she looked for in those wishing to join her. As a priority, a candidate must have an ardent desire to be united with God and serve the poor . . . . She must feel a particular interest in the sick and dying . . . must show a mild countenance expressive of sympathy and patience, reserve and recollection. (Letter to Rev. Gerald Doyle, September 5, 1836)

Thus did Catherine McAuley enumerate the spiritual and human qualities required of those who would live their religious lives among people, . . . serving the poor for love of God.

And she was careful to point out — quoting Saint John Chrysostom and other Church Fathers — that the “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which draw religious from a life of contemplation, so far from separating them from the love of God, unite them more closely to Him and render them more valuable in His holy service.” (“The Spirit of the Institute”)

Apostolic spirituality

The faith-vision of Catherine McAuley’s apostolic spirituality was that Christ would consider as done to Himself whatever should be done to others. (Matthew 25:40) This, in turn, convinced her that she should be herself a sign of His presence among His people, just as she expected to encounter Him in the many areas encompassed by her ministry of Mercy. In a very real sense her Apostolic Spirituality was part of her search for personal union with God, for the ability to converse with Him at any time and place, for a contemplative consciousness. . . .

Mother Catherine’s apostolic spirituality was marked by her ability to create and maintain inner spiritual space, to be constantly aware of the mystery of God and to be able to find His touch everywhere in the world of people, of their occupations and of their miseries, as she strove to live the life and holiness of the Church according to the radicalness of the Gospel.

Jesus’ criterion of concern and compassion was the standard of her apostolic spirituality which taught her how to encounter God in her world and to make that encounter efficacious through her ministry to Him in others. . . . Her apostolic spirituality may be said to have effectively translated the Gospel into the idiom of her time and to have conveyed this ideal to others.

Prayer and contemplation as the heart of the apostolate

From her earliest years Catherine McAuley’s life was seamed with Prayer and was centered on Christ, outside of whom she declared she sought nothing. (Thoughts from the Spiritual Conferences of Catherine McAuley, p. 36) As she understood it, putting on Christ meant that she should be ‘gentle, patient, hard-working, humble, obedient, charitable and, above all, simple and joyous.’ (Familiar Instructions, passim.) Her own life-style and subsequent structure of religious life were based on a deep level of Prayer as the very heart of the apostolate, while her guiding principles were faith in a triune God (Thoughts from the Spiritual Conferences of Catherine McAuley, p. 21.), confidence in

His promises, an all-embracing love and a joyful heart that was constantly open to the Spirit. She incorporated in her own life and in her recommended way of life for her Sisters the most basic and universal of Christ’s teachings, His Gospel of Love. The main pillars supporting her Prayer life were solitude, contemplation of the mysteries of salvation and her understanding of her apostolate as Prayer.

She was uncompromising in upholding Prayer and contemplation as the very heart of the apostolate. She was acutely aware that the deepest human need is the need for God and she was convinced that the primary apostolate of the Sister of Mercy was to portray Christ. Her idealism led her to try and alleviate human need of every kind; her realism convinced her that the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are a means of closer union with God. Hence Prayer and service were to flow together reciprocally in the life of the Sister of Mercy. By conscientiously following this life-style in all its details, Catherine McAuley became a Lumen Christi, lighting up the darkness of ignorance and squalor which circumscribed the lives of the poor in her day.

Catherine’s sanctity

“Catherine McAuley’s was a sanctity both great and attractive, for she met the great challenges of her day with an unflagging faith that found its expression in an immense peace and a playful lightheartedness. In all the travel and turmoil of her life as a Foundress, she was at home within herself with the indwelling Lord. She radiated the tranquility of that inner intimacy, while the unseen realities to which her faith gave her access allowed her to treat lightly and good-humouredly the surface happenings that would have daunted another. . . . she showed how every experience and event can be shot through with grace and be shaped so as to shine bright with the gladness of Redemption.” (Martin Nolan, OSA)

“Sweet Mercy”

Sweet Mercy! Soothing, patient, kind: softens the high and rears the fallen mind; knows with just rein and even hand to guide between false fear and arbitrary pride. Not easily provoked, she soon forgives: feels love for all, and by a look relieves. Soft peace she brings wherever she arrives, removes our anguish and reforms our lives; makes the rough paths of peevish nature even, and opens in each heart a little Heaven.

- Catherine McAuley