Catherine McAuley: Woman of Mercy

September 23, 2016

By Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, professor and chair of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

A statue of Catherine McAuley, holding beautiful Mercy Day flowers, at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

A statue of Catherine McAuley, holding beautiful Mercy Day flowers, at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

During this Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, it is good to reflect upon how Venerable Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, experienced and embodied mercy in her life.

Catherine knew herself to be the recipient of God’s abundant mercy; furthermore, she knew the same to be the case in the lives of her companions in Mercy and those to whom she and her sisters ministered. Catherine understood that God’s mercy received is to be given to others through acts of merciful love. Catherine’s insistence on union and charity in her Institute was her way of stressing the absolute importance of merciful healing of one another and of responding mercifully to the brokenness of relationships. She encouraged union with God, union among her sisters, union with all persons in God, and union with the whole of creation under God.  

Catherine’s posture toward herself in the face of her limitations was one of humble acceptance of God’s mercifulness. That she struggled with her own weaknesses is evident; otherwise, it would not have been possible for her to advise her sisters:

“Do not be peevish or uneasy no matter how numerous your defects may be. Resolve quietly to struggle against them in the future and be convinced that our weakness is such that we will always have something to deplore. This conviction should keep us humble but ever sweet and calm.” (M.C. McAuley, Retreat Instructions, 89)

Throughout her life, Catherine sought to enflesh in her life the merciful love that characterized Jesus’ ministry. For Catherine, Jesus embodied Mercy in his teachings and healing and exorcising activities. This is the Jesus Catherine followed. And she followed Him to the cross, his consummate expression of mercy in the face of the misunderstanding and sinfulness of humans. Catherine repeatedly meditated on Jesus’ crucifixion; she asserted: “The humbled, agonizing, abandoned Christ – this is my Christ; Him, I have and seek; outside of Him, nothing” (M.C. McAuley, Retreat Instructions 117). In Jesus’ spirit of overflowing Mercy, Catherine embraced many crosses during her years of shepherding her fledgling religious community.

Living out Mercy works, that is, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, was the lodestone of Catherine’s vision of her religious community. She and her sisters labored to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and attend to their needs, shelter the homeless, counsel the doubtful, instruct the uneducated, forgive others’ offenses, etc. And, today, this vision lives on in the Mercy works in which Mercy sisters, associates and companions engage in the name of Jesus, the incarnation of the Mercy of God.

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  1. Jackie Moreau

    Good article and lovely photo! Thanks

  2. Sr. Carole Temming

    Thanks Marilyn for a great article.