Given at the Mass of thanksgiving for 175 years’ presence in London
of the Sisters of Mercy, at St Edward’s Convent, Harewood Avenue on
14th June 2019
Today we give thanks for the 175 years in which the Sisters of Mercy have worked and ministered in this Diocese of Westminster, based first in Queen Square, in Bloomsbury, and then, since 1851, here at St Edward’s Convent.
Back in 2006, on 11th November, we had another celebration: a Celebration of Mercy in Westminster Cathedral to mark 175 years since Catherine McAuley, together with her companions Mary Ann Doyle and Mary Elizabeth Harley, professed their vows as the first Sisters of Mercy.
It was a great privilege to preach in Westminster Cathedral for that Celebration of Mercy. Even 13 years later, I recall the day well, particularly the wonderful pageant procession, telling the story of Catherine, from her earliest years to her untimely death in 1841.
During the offertory at today’s Mass, we will sing the same music that we did in the cathedral in 2006: Catherine McAuley’s Suscipe. It is a prayer that is loved by members of the Mercy family all over the world, and rightly so.
‘My God, I am yours for time and eternity.’ What trust, what faith those words express! They remind us that a Christian vocation, and a religious vocation, in particular, involves a self-giving of an order that the ‘world’, the regions of life without God, cannot clearly understand. We offer ourselves to God, not as if we were signing a contract for a mobile phone, for a year, or two, or five, after which we can trade it in for a different model. No, we offer ourselves in our totality: all we are, in good times and bad, forever. ‘God, my all’. Three short words to say. Yet deeply understood they give shape to our lives: in the challenge they present, and the reward they offer.
‘It is you who must teach me to trust in your providence’. Providence: perhaps a word not much in fashion today, but a vision that is still so important to us for it expresses our trusting relationship with God and one another. Today’s readings speak to us of the providence, the loving care, of God, who ‘brought you out with his mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery’; who has such concern for our well-being, willing us to be ‘planted in love and built on love’; whose care is for the whole person, body and spirit, to adapt the words of St Paul.
When we recall the Gospel passage then we hear equally important words for we hear Jesus quoting Isaiah and declaring: ‘He sent me to bring the good news to the poor… to set the downtrodden free.’
The first Sisters of Mercy in London sought to bring those words to life in the circumstances of mid-nineteenth-century London. Sometimes those circumstances were very grim. Their care was for the whole person and given whole-heartedly. From the very beginning of their ministry, they focused on visiting those who were sick and poor, and on giving religious instruction and preparation for the Sacraments. That work has continued, through all the social, economic and religious changes of the past 175 years.
Catherine’s Suscipe also prays: ‘let my delight be in hoping to see your face’. So many Sisters of Mercy have worked tirelessly to bring that delight to countless people to whom they have ministered with a spiritual and a practical ministry going hand in hand. The Sisters of Mercy have always brought a reflection of the face of Christ to all to whom they minister. For that, the Church owes them a debt of gratitude indeed.
Famously, Catherine’s dying concern was for her Sisters: ‘Be sure you have a comfortable cup of tea for them when I am gone.’ She was sure, too, that the comfort of their loving care for one another, over a cup of tea, would be matched by the comfort they would receive of God.
Catherine knew what she was doing when she said these words. Very many of us here will have benefited from the tea-making skills of a Sister of Mercy, sometimes when things have not been easy. But, with the greatest respect to Catherine, the quality of the tea bags or the heat of the water doesn’t really matter so very much: the compassionate ear, the sense of community, the conviction that in ministering to one another we glimpse more closely the compassion of Christ – these all have their part to play, even as the tea slips down, and long after.
I think that most, if not all, of us here today were in the cathedral 13 years ago. Perhaps we have all become a bit older and greyer; some who were with us then have gone to God. We pray for them all, and in particular today for Sister Ita, whose death in April this year has affected many of us so deeply. May she, and all those Sisters who have gone before us, rest in peace.
I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the plaque that was put up to mark the centenary of the Sisters of Mercy’s time in London. You can see a picture of it on the inside back cover of the order of service. Its words are from the Te Deum, that great hymn of praise: Te Deum laudamus et fiat misericordia tua Domine super nos. ‘We praise you, O God, and may your mercy be always upon us, O Lord.’ Today we praise God for these past 175 years; and we pray that his mercy, from which the Sisters proudly take their name, may be with us, now and always. Amen.