Given at the Mass celebrating the bicentenary of Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity at St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney, on 10 March 2016.
‘Seeing and feeling how very hard it was to send away the poor, dismissed by the doctors as beyond hope of recovery, some having very poor homes and other no friends willing to receive them, they bethought themselves of having a hospice or home where these poor sufferers might be received.’
This was the passionate desire of Mother Charles Hynes and Mother Philip Neri Russell. A desire their Mother General shared with equal passion. That Mother General was the Venerable Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Today it’s my great pleasure to join you in giving thanks to God for the Congregation’s bicentenary, for the countless graces embraced within its history, the remarkable achievements of an extraordinary woman and the Congregation she founded.
You know Mary’s story well. A story that never ceases to impress with each telling: a story of immense strength despite physical fragility; of complete trust in Jesus; of sharing generously with others the rich fruits of her intimate relationship with him.
Born in Cork in 1787 to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Mary was baptised in the Church of Ireland. However, as a teenager she often attended Catholic liturgies with an aunt. At one such liturgy, a homily on the parable of Dives and Lazarus (the parable we’ve just heard) touched her heart to the core. (It is reassuring to know homilies occasionally have such an effect). It moved her to become a Catholic. At the age of 15 Mary was received into the Church, little over a year after her father had also become a Catholic on his death bed.
This parable of Dives and Lazarus remained an inspirational force in the life of Mary. Indeed, her life is a far more eloquent homily on the parable than I can give. As Mary matured into a young woman, and having moved to Dublin, she became ever more sensitive to the misery experienced by so many because of their poverty. With her friend Anne O’Brien she visited the poor and sick in their homes. Eventually, with the encouragement of Archbishop Murray, Coadjutor of Dublin, she discerned the call to found the Religious Sisters of Charity. Rather than remain within the convent, the members of this new Congregation went out ‘to walk with the Lazaruses of [their] world’. In this way the Sisters, then and now, put into action their fourth vow: to devote their lives to the poor, be it by providing education, social services, or healthcare; and of course, by seeking to address the causes of poverty, including challenging the powerful.
As well as going out to anyone in need, you, dear Sisters, also welcome them in. You keep alive the universal welcome given by St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, founded by Mary in 1835. The first hospital in Ireland staffed and run by women, it would from the outset (and I quote) ‘present to individuals of every sect, and every creed equal advantages and equal attention’.
But Mary was concerned not only for those who could recover. She recognised the urgent need to welcome those whom others refused because it was thought pointless to admit them if they couldn’t be cured. Despite her genuine longing to offer a home to the dying, the hospice at Our Lady’s Mount, Harold’s Cross, Dublin, was not opened until three years after Mary's’ death in 1858. Nevertheless, Mary is rightly lauded as a pioneer of the modern hospice movement. Providentially, more hospices followed, and beyond Ireland’s borders. In 1905, this hospice was opened, appropriately dedicated to St Joseph, patron saint of the dying and to whom we pray for the grace of a happy death.
You know, what really strikes me about Mary Aikenhead and the Congregation she founded is just how marvellously you show what the Year of Mercy is about. You follow faithfully Mary’s dedication to corporal and spiritual works of mercy, not least by your abiding commitment to hospice care, care needed just as much today, if not more. To care for the sick and the dying, to console those who are suffering and to comfort those who are spiritually distressed are all at the heart of the works of mercy.
Caring for people who are terminally ill was a must for Mary. Pope Francis, who last year declared Mary Venerable, reminds us that it is a must for us too. Time after time, he has condemned forcefully the culture of waste, the industry of destruction which discards human life when it is deemed no longer useful, as can be the case of the sick, the terminally ill, the elderly, who are abandoned and uncared for. In Laudato Si’, the Holy Father calls on us to promote an authentic human ecology so that every human life is respected as a precious resource. For everyone has gifts, including those written off as useless by many. Today St Paul teaches us in the Second Reading, that there’s a delightfully rich variety of gifts, but the same God working in all of them.
Does not Venerable Mary herself show us this? Aged 44, Mary contracted an illness that severely battered her health. For the last eleven years of her life she was confined to a bed or wheelchair. Yet how much she still had to offer! She continued to guide the Congregation in service of the poor and sick. Then there was her great ministry of letter writing: encouraging and admonishing as she saw fit. From where did she get the strength? ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’, Mary’s motto, chosen at her profession. Putting her complete trust in Jesus, she gave herself completely over to him, and let the love of Christ empower her, urge her on. She wholeheartedly lived by her Congregation’s motto: Caritas Christi Urget Nos. And so must we.
The love of Christ, which is both human and divine, commissions and enables us to love others with that very same love. How awesome! We are to be the presence of Christ, pure love in our flesh, for others. This demands that first we are utterly open to receiving Jesus’ love, letting him shape us constantly. That’s why this chapel, including the regular celebration of Mass within it, is essential to the hospice’s mission.
As we near the end of our earthly pilgrimage, what more effective prayer is there for us than the Mass? In Holy Communion, as with the other sacraments, especially Penance and Anointing of the Sick, we receive such consolation: Jesus himself assuring us he is right there beside us on our journey. And, of course, our bonds of love do not unravel with death; rather persist through prayers for the souls of the faithful departed and offering for them the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Moreover, celebrating Mass and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament are so important because in a unique way they tutor us in the art of recognising the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters approaching death. We carry Christ to you, but in you we also meet Christ, his love empowering us through you. Thank you for so beautiful a gift.
In these thanks, please permit me, if I may, to include any of you who are not Catholic, residents and staff alike. Having a Catholic heart, St Joseph’s readily welcomes people of all religions or none. The presence in this chapel of the Risen Jesus, radiating God’s merciful love, surely touches all of you too and so comes to be bestowed upon us through you. You are highly valued. No-one is excluded from the deepest truth of this sacred place.
Mary Aikenhead was a marvellous missionary of mercy. The Religious Sisters of Charity remain true to her witness. As did she, you faithfully proclaim Gospel joy. Thank you. Thank you especially for this hospice. May it continue to realise that burning desire of Mothers Charles, Philip and Mary: for those judged ‘beyond hope’, may it ever be a haven of sure and certain hope.
St Joseph: Pray for us.