This Sunday marks the 190th anniversary of a small act with great consequences. On June 22, 1824, an Irish woman named Catherine McAuley used her recently received inheritance to lease a plot of land in Dublin. With this land, Catherine and her co-workers constructed a house where they would care for poor servant girls and homeless women. After three years of construction, Catherine opened what she called a “House of Mercy” on September 24, 1827, the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy. In 1831, Catherine and two co-workers professed religious vows and founded the Sisters of Mercy. During her lifetime, Catherine worked tirelessly to expand the Sisters of Mercy, and within a few decades, the Sisters spread worldwide, serving the world’s poor and destitute.
Catherine’s lease of the Dublin plot recalls a parable in Matthew’s Gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Mt 13:44) Like this joyful man, Catherine gave all of her inheritance to purchase a plot of land. But what was the treasure that she found there in the streets of Dublin? She found the same treasure that St. Lawrence had once revealed to the Roman prefect: the poor—these are the treasures of the Church.
Catherine’s first House of Mercy also recalls another parable from Matthew’s Gospel: the mustard seed. The Sisters of Mercy’s work took root in Dublin but blossomed throughout the world. The birds of the air, that is, the hungry and destitute, have found a home in the branches that grew from that seed (Mt 13:31-32).
But Catherine’s care for the poor was more than just a humanitarian effort. Her love for the poor was inseparable from her love for God. Her life wove these two loves so perfectly that they were knit as one love. For just as she spent her inheritance for the poor, she consecrated her whole self to God. Catherine could truly say, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”
Catherine’s love of God is evident in her writings and prayers, especially her daily prayer, the Suscipe. It reads:
My God, I am Thine for time and eternity.
Teach me to cast myself entirely into the arms of Thy loving Providence
with the most lively, unlimited confidence in Thy compassionate, tender pity.
Grant me, O most Merciful Redeemer,
that whatever Thou dost ordain or permit may be acceptable to me.
Take from my heart all painful anxiety,
suffer nothing to sadden me but sin,
nothing to delight me but the hope of coming to the possession of Thee,
my God and my all, in Thine everlasting Kingdom. Amen.
In this brief prayer, we witness Catherine’s daily surrender to God and her abounding faith in His loving mercy. It is the intimate prayer of a child in the arms of her Father.
Catherine is not alone in uniting love for the poor with love of God. Mother Teresa served the poorest of the poor while loving God through her dark night. Martin de Porres likewise spent his days caring for Lima’s poor and his nights adoring the Lord in the Eucharist. Even St. Dominic sold his precious books to relieve the hunger of his neighbors. There are countless more saints we could mention.
Today, Pope Francis is eagerly renewing the Church’s love of the poor. In union with his predecessors, Francis urges the faithful to adopt God’s preferential love of the poor. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:
God shows the poor “his first mercy.” This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.” This option—as Benedict XVI has taught—“is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty.” This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (EG, 198)
Earlier in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis quotes the Apostle John saying, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn 3:17). May Mother Catherine and all the saints inspire us to serve Christ in the least of His brethren. May our hearts become homes of mercy, where the poor Christ may slake His thirst, sate His hunger, and rest His head.
Image: Michael Burke at Mercy International Centre, Dublin, Statue of Ven. Catherine McAuley