St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
An awful lot has changed since 9th June 1868 when the first permanent Convent of Mercy was opened in Strabane. That was just 37 years after Catherine McAuley had founded the congregation to minister to the poor and destitute in Dublin immediately after Catholic Emancipation. The Sisters had grown in numbers right across the island even during the terrible years of the Great Famine. And their outreach continued to go out to, and then from Strabane as part of the great Irish missionary tradition. Great women went to from the community here to South Africa in the 1890s and in the mid 20th century the Mercy Sisters expanded their mission to the USA, Nigeria and Kenya. Today we celebrate, not just a building in Strabane but the whole mission of mercy that the sisters have developed down through the decades.
Today the Church worldwide celebrates the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. And the links with the ministries of the Sisters of Mercy are many.
Firstly, the language that Jesus used about eating his flesh and drinking his blood was described by some of his followers as 'intolerable language'. The work of Catherine McAuley in Dublin – like that of so many great pioneers in the Church – must have made many people feel uncomfortable. There has always been a struggle between those who see Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters and those who are more inclined to blame the poor for their poverty. And there are those who will give money for the poor or even to the poor – but prefer to keep their distance from those in need. Those who take seriously the word made flesh and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist cannot but have the smell of the sheep even when some others feel uncomfortable at that. The Sisters of Mercy began, not by doing things for the poor and needy – but by doing things with them. They took seriously what St Paul wrote, "Christ was rich but he became poor for your sake to make you rich out of his poverty." (2 Cor 8:7-9) Pope Francis talks about going out to the peripheries. That is where we take the bodies and hearts of Christ's poor seriously. As Pope Francis wrote 'When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication (of where we should go first) : not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, "those who cannot repay you" (Lk 14:14). That is where the Sisters of Mercy have always been at their best – in education, nursing and taking on challenges. Adoration of Christ in the Eucharist is not an escape from ministry. It is an essential part of ministry in the name of him who spent nights in prayer. There is no separation between the acknowledging Jesus on the altar and Jesus on the street.
Secondly, out teaching on the Eucharist also takes on board the idea that we together are the Body of Christ. Our sharing in the Eucharistic body of Christ unites us to and under Christ, the head of the Body. That is why community is not just the context in which faith can be handed on. It is the content of that faith. Religious life has always had the building of community as part of its charism and witness. Living together is not easy. But in a world that doubts the feasibility of long-term committed relations and where we are suffering from what a recent report called 'an epidemic of loneliness', the witness of community is essential. Human beings are fed the lie that as long as they have things, they will be happier. But the Gospel tells us that it is in relationships that we understand who we are and discover the beauty of our own lives in all their ordinariness. The Eucharistic Christ is in solidarity with each of us in the messiness of our lives, in the frailty of our bodies and in the imperfections of our communities. Community building is not easy – as Jesus discovered when the Apostles began arguing with each other as to who was more important. The writings of St Paul make it clear that the young churches fought over many issues – theology, their patron and social status. All of these St Paul condemns as scandalous for people who are united in the one Body of Christ which they share in the breaking of bread each week. There will be no renewal of the Church in this country without the presence of vibrant, prophetic communities of men and of women, incarnate witnesses to the unity that we share in the Body of Christ. Community is a sign of hope in a lonely world.
Thirdly, our three scripture readings highlight the word 'covenant'. The story that we tell about God is of One who is faithful to people down through the centuries. The bible tells the story of a God who is committed to people, even when they mess up. For a number of centuries we told the story of a heroic Irish people, faithful to their faith, despite 'dungeon, fire and sword'. In recent decades we have been made to recognise that such a story failed to see a dark side that also existed in Church life and practice. But the current ideology prefers to present a picture of Catholic Ireland as full of nothing but gloom and oppression, betrayal and abuse. Freedom to do what you want is the new source of salvation! Our task in the Church is not to argue over the past but to bear witness in the present. And we can exercise the same prophetic role as Catherine McAuley had - inspiring young women to love those who are the victims of the new allegedly whiter-than-white ideology of individualism. It is not our defence of the past that will bear witness to Jesus but our ministry in the present. Never be ashamed of the phenomenal work that wonderful strong women did through the Sisters of Mercy, here in Strabane and elsewhere. And bear with patience the attacks that we all bear because of the sins of some. The only story that we boast of is the faithful God of the covenant, not a story of our perfection. The world is to be saved by Christ's Cross and not by us. In every generation the Church, the Body of Christ, has to rediscover that when we are weak, we are strong. (Cf 2 Cor 12:10).
In this celebration we give thanks for the sisters and their huge energy that built schools here to educate an impoverished and often oppressed people. We acknowledge the great women leaders who had to fight against the odds and often struggle with both bishops and clergy. They knew that Jesus was the face of the Father's mercy and that divine mercy alone could heal the broken hearts of the world. Your presence has sought to bear witness to the real presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist and in the poor. And your faithfulness to this town speaks of the faithful God of the covenant.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. For his love endures forever.
Sunday 3rd June 2018