22nd June 2017 - Sixth Retreat Day, Bermondsey, London

The Eighth Corporal Work of Mercy

We are called to be ‘Stewards of Creation’ – to care for the earth, our common home.  
How did Venerable Catherine and how does Pope Frances carry out this work of Mercy?

A talk by Sr. Penny Roker to the Mercy Associate Gathering at Bermondsey 17th June 2017


It was last year that Pope Francis declared September 1st as World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. This was very far from tokenism, for His Holiness had some very challenging things to say. He even recommended how we spend the day: we should begin, he said, by making an examination of conscience. We need to realise that acting selfishly as consumers is not just polluting or depleting the earth but adding to the misery of the world’s poorest people. Then, he suggested, we need to repent… yes, all of us… and make a firm resolve to amend our ways. Strong stuff!

He said more, that we should look at the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in a new way, by adding an eighth work of mercy to the list. This is what he said: “let me propose a complement to the two traditional sets of seven: may the works of mercy also include care for our common home” (Pope Francis, from the Vatican, 1st September 2016)

We can all recite the seven traditional corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the prisoner; bury the dead. So now we have an eighth work of mercy: what does Pope Francis mean by ‘care for our common home’? He tells us in plain terms: care for our common home requires, “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. It “seeks to build a better world”. 

That eighth work of mercy, care for our common home, is also added to the seven spiritual works of mercy. We know what the traditional seven are: instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; admonish sinners; bear wrongs patiently; forgive offences willingly; comfort the afflicted; pray for the living and the dead. Now we have ‘care for our common home’ as well… but how can this be translated into a spiritual work? Pope Francis tells us: “As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a grateful contemplation of God’s world which allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us”. 

And so the theme of our Retreat Day today is to see how Pope Francis and how Catherine McAuley have cared for our common home. Most importantly, it is to work out how we can care for our common home!

Catherine, of course, lived in a very different world to our own. You may think that she was unacquainted with ecological disaster. She wasn’t. The Sisters of Mercy were asked to come to Bermondsey in 1839 because it was such an extreme of poverty. The poverty of its people went hand in hand with the pollution of their natural surroundings. The Sisters found here a maze of slum-dwellings and the overpowering stink of tanneries. In their second winter here three of the Sisters contracted Typhus, a disease spread by lice. Two of them died: they were Novices, and so the future looked bleak for the survival of the Community. They were buried together in a grave beneath the Altar steps of the Church, a spot which is probably more or less where we are now. 

The year before the Sisters arrived here, Charles Dickens had just published his famous book Oliver Twist, set here in Bermondsey on what was then Jacob’s Island. Its houses hung over muddy river channels which were no more than open sewers, with "... windows, broken and patched, with [laundry] poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there... wooden [toilet] chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it - as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations… every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob's Island.“  (Dickins, Oliver Twist)

I suppose that, in our great-great-grand-parents time, people thought they could do what they liked with nature. What was nature but a vast treasure store of coal and iron ore to plunder at will! People were an exploitable resource also: a cheap and expendable workforce. Catherine’s lifetime coincided with the coming of the industrial revolution, and social conditions were getting suddenly worse, not better. Inhuman working hours devastated people’s health. Urban sprawl and factory pollution led to insanitary conditions. Pandemics like cholera were the result. Things were little better in the countryside. Country dwellers had no sentimental attachment to their mud tracks and leaky thatched roofs. 

Catherine was a bit like Pope Francis: when she thought of God’s creation, it was the most vulnerable of her fellow human beings that sprang to mind. She understood only too well that the cry of the earth is the cry of the poor. And she heard that cry loud and clear. Hers was an uncomfortable social position somewhere between rich and poor: she came from a genteel background yet became penniless; she resided in the mansion of Mr and Mrs Callaghan yet as an adopted daughter and never accepted by their wider family. She knew what it was to be privileged; she certainly knew what it was to be hungry. The poor were her brothers and sisters in reality as well as sentimentally. 

She also valued all the creatures of God’s world... at least, I expect she did, because she lived for twenty years amongst Quakers. You will remember that Mrs Callaghan was a Quaker. The Quaker John Woolman writing in 1772 said this:
I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved … to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, … it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world… to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.
John Woolman, 1772 (from ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’ Fifth Edition)

Even as far back as the 1770's Quakers like John Woolman were fully aware that the earth’s resources were under threat:
The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator … to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age. (John Woolman, 1772 as above)

We do know from Catherine’s own writings that she saw God’s creation as a source of inspiration: “How quietly the great God does all His mighty works’ she said, ‘darkness is spread over us, and light breaks in again, and there is no noise of drawing curtains or closing shutters.”  However, Catherine only occasionally referred to the natural world. There is one interesting reference in her letters from January 1839 (the same year the Sisters came here to Bermondsey) when there had been a gale in Ireland … the night of the Big Wind! 

‘Last night’s storm has done great injury in Dublin… Sixteen panes of glass broken in the Community Room; the pictures all blown down and even the heavy bookstand quite upset. The cabinet moved from the wall to near the middle of the room. Maps and blinds flying like the sails of a ship.

Such a body of air in the room that we could scarcely stand. You may suppose what an appearance on opening the door this morning. Poor Sister Teresa was afraid to enter and came running for me to Choir. The schoolroom as bad. The windows are still boarded up. It is almost impossible to get a glazier. We are obliged to remain in our broken state… many houses were blown down and a dreadful fire in Dorset Street from the breaking of chimneys’ 
(Letters to Sr. M. Frances Warde 7th January 1839; and to Sr. M. Elizabeth Moore 13th January 1839)

Mostly, Catherine’s view of the natural world was the unsentimental view shared by most of her contemporaries. For centuries the Church taught an unhealthy ‘dualism’, regarding material things, our human nature and physical bodies, as something from which to detach ourselves. The things of the spirit were seen as higher and therefore of infinitely greater importance. It is only in recent years that we have returned to a proper estimation of the value of all that God has gifted us to enjoy- the natural world, its fruits, its creatures, as well as our own bodies. 

How greatly views have changed in our lifetime! I remember as a child trying on my grandmother’s fur coat and thinking how marvellous I looked. It never occurred to me that it looked much better on the animal. Those were the days when it was OK to pick wildflowers - not now. The boys at school used to pull the legs off spiders, and everyone just said, ‘that’s boys for you’! I remember how every classroom had a nature table, mostly dead things, plucked things, pressed things. One boy contributed a dead rat, much to the teacher’s dismay. Our interest in nature amounted to little more than an appetite for the sensational. For me, the Aberfan disaster was a real wake-up call. Last year was the 50th anniversary. For the first time it occurred to me that we interfere with nature at our peril. 

In recent years we have seen a rapidly changing attitude, a real conversion. It began in small ways when we began to collect our newspapers and milk bottle tops. Who would have imagined the huge industry that re-cycling has become! Now we pay money go on whale watching trips instead of making money by harpooning them. We all realise now that we must look after our planet if our children and grandchildren are going to have anything left of it to enjoy. We have begun to understand that, when God made us ‘masters’ of creation he meant that mastery to be a responsible stewardship, not a greedy plundering. 

Pope Francis is saying that we still have a lot to learn because many good people are still of the opinion that human beings are somehow ‘over’ nature. Pope Francis tells us firmly: nature is not dependent upon us; we depend upon nature. Nature is not an object separate from us; human beings are part of it; we are nature, too. The animals and plants and rocks and elements are our brothers and sisters.

Francis of Assisi knew this centuries ago. You remember his Canticle which begins ‘Praise be to you, my Lord… through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us…’  Pope Francis used those words for the title of his wonderful recent encyclical letter ‘Laudato Si’ June 2015.  To think that Francis of Assisi was writing in the 1300's and it has taken us until now to ‘get’ what he was saying, to recall what our own distant ancestors instinctively knew!  

Pope Francis is reclaiming an age-old wisdom. He calls it ‘Integral Ecology’, meaning that everything is interconnected- we, too, are part of the natural world, fed and sustained and cheered and held by it.  Pope Francis is taking us back to a humbler stance where we begin to see God’s creatures as the family to which we also belong; to understand that, if we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves. We have already moved from an attitude of mastery over nature to stewardship of nature… now the Holy Father is calling us to fraternity with nature. 

Pope Francis’ encyclical letter ‘Laudato Si’ is a pivotal document. He says some quite controversial things. He says, for example, that our thinking is based upon a lie. The world’s rich and powerful foolishly imagine that economies can keep on expanding and growing indefinitely. They can’t. Another piece of self-deception is that whatever environmental problems may arise, new technologies will develop to solve them. In many cases that’s untrue.

Pope Francis talks not just about the lies of powerful business interests; he also raises awareness of the self-deceptions of ordinary folk like ourselves. He warns us as individuals: don’t imagine that the results of environmental pollution are all ‘out there’ for someone else to deal with. They come very close to you and me… internet overuse, for example, affects our mental health and relationships. He says, don’t be fooled into thinking that the accumulation of data is the same thing as an increase in wisdom. The digital world is stopping us from learning to think deeply. True wisdom is the fruit of self-examination and of dialogue with other people and of what he calls ‘generous encounter’. Facts, facts, facts… he calls it mental pollution. 

Working as a counsellor in a secondary school, I know he is right. I meet with teenagers who get little sleep, constantly vigilant for messages, living life at one remove, pursuing relationships electronically, engineering dramas, feeling bullied, harassed, pressurised, devalued… emptied. Social media, says Pope Francis, allows us to choose and end relationships at whim; it shields us from direct contact with the pain as well as the joy of direct personal experience. Often the emotions of internet relating are contrived. Relating of this kind leaves people with a deep and melancholic sense of dissatisfaction with life. It is the Holy Father who says that, not me, but I have seen it for myself.

That empty void he speaks about, people seek to fill… but how? Mostly by buying more and eating more. We are, says Pope Francis, obsessed with consumption. He calls it ‘a whirlwind’ of needless buying and spending, a constant flood of new things which, he says, ‘baffles the heart’ and stops us cherishing each thing and each moment because there is just too much. Like children ripping open Christmas presents, scarcely pausing to appreciate each gift, we too are always thinking ‘what’s next?’ Whatever is new, we must have. Whatever becomes available, we must get hold of it. We seem to have developed a sense of entitlement to everything that everyone else has, without pausing to consider… do we actually need it?

You may be thinking, what can I do to halt this tsunami of innovation? There is much we can do. Take this encouragement from the Holy Father: little individual acts, he says, call forth a goodness which spreads to become a cultural tide. This is how he does it: eating in the canteen and living in just two rooms in the Vatican guest house. At the very least, he says, little acts improve our self-esteem and make life seem worth living. Boycotting certain products and buying less will put pressure on powerful industries. Purchasing is always a moral as well as an economic act. 

What we need, says Pope Francis, is ‘a bold cultural revolution’, and that revolution must come from below, from the likes of you and me. No-one is suggesting that we abandon our technological advances- many of them have improved the quality of life- but we must slow down.  Change is happening faster than society can cope with. We need time to assimilate technical advances into the existing fabric of our way of living and to recover those values that have been carelessly jettisoned along the way.

Pause for a few moments… what are you feeling, hearing this? How does it resonate with you?

So, a ‘bold cultural revolution’ … Where do we start? The place to start, he says, is this: we must get it into our heads that the universe does not revolve around you or me. If, deep down, that is what we believe, then the only things that will seem important are those that serve our immediate interest. Things… and people… then become no more than objects that you grab or discard or abuse.

I notice this attitude creeping into areas like the NHS… for example, ‘grab a doc’. People aren’t just objects to grab or discard. The attitude even infects our own church. There is a wonderful Jesuit website called ‘Pray as you go’… I just wish it was called something different. God is not an app. Prayer is not for multi-tasking. When I was a child it was neither possible nor desirable even to drink coffee ‘as you go’, never mind pray as you go. Those were the days when people hushed when they entered church … and were able to sit still with a natural sense of awe in the presence of what was other than themselves.

‘Many things need to change’, says the Holy Father, ‘but it is we human beings above all who need to change’.  He calls for nothing less than a profound interior conversion. ‘Laudato Si’ is far more than a document about ecology: it is a programme for spiritual renewal.  It’s not a ‘remember-to-turn-the-lights-off-as-you-leave’ kind of programme, but a transformation of our whole outlook on life. 

What makes it particularly interesting for us, is that this programme for renewal is so reminiscent of Catherine McAuley’s own outlook. 
“A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and a concern for our fellow human beings.”  Who said that? Was it Pope Francis or Catherine McAuley? 

It was the Pope, but we could be forgiven for thinking it might have been our Foundress!

I would really encourage those of you who haven’t read ‘Laudato Si’ to do so for yourselves. You can read it online. It’s a long document of 247 paragraphs, and if that’s too daunting, then the last sections are the call to personal renewal. If enough people did it, it would change the world. Even if only you did it, it would certainly change your world! It would give you peace, says the Holy Father. 

He says much about our relationship to things. So did Catherine McAuley.

When her mother died, young Catherine was looked after by her cousins the Conways who didn’t have two pennies to rub together. She would in later life look back very fondly on those days. Clare Moore (who was the first Superior of this Convent in Bermondsey and who knew Catherine McAuley very well) wrote: 
‘Often after an entire day spent without food, they had nothing but a little bread at night… but her cheerfulness never failed, and it has often been said that she took her rest more contentedly on the [floor] boards than when surrounded by luxuries… she used to conclude that… happiness does not depend on the enjoyment of temporal comforts, since many in great poverty are still most joyful.’ (Tradition of Mercy, p.100) 

This exactly what Pope Francis is saying, that we do not need everything that is available to us. Be happy with little; appreciate what you do have; detach your hearts from possessions; don’t allow what you lack to make you sad. Less is more!  Moderation will set you free. “Sobriety,” he says, “is liberating”. It is life lived to the full. 

Go for what is enriching but free of charge … music, art, voluntary service, nature walks, get-togethers. Turn the heating down and wear warmer clothes; cook only what is going to get eaten; share your car, he says. Live a little to live a lot. We don’t have to have what everyone else has! Francis urges what he calls a ‘leap towards the transcendent’, that is, a way of living that goes beyond the ‘me’ mentality, the ‘I want it and I want it now’ mentality. 

There is a lovely anecdote about Catherine’s detachment from material possessions. She used to copy out passages from her spiritual reading so that she had to hand a collection of excerpts to read when she visited the sick. All of it was written laboriously by hand, of course… there were no scanners or photocopiers or smart phones in those days! She ended up with a wonderful book of materials that had taken years to compile. Then one day she was searching for something in her desk while holding the notebook aloft and it touched the candle and went up in flames. “She never expressed the least annoyance at losing what had cost her so much labour,” said Clare Moore (Tradition of Mercy, p.104). That’s detachment for you!

She lived simply as a Sister. She wouldn’t allow stores of things to be laid in; clothes were repaired; she travelled the cheapest way; when she founded Convents she would sleep on the floor rather than delay the opening of a house by waiting for it to be furnished; she trusted in God to provide all that was needed “and she was never disappointed” (Clare Moore). When there were visiting Sisters, she often gave up her own bed and it would later be discovered that she had had nowhere to sleep herself. (Tradition of Mercy, pp.114-5) She never made a fuss. 

“She loved simplicity in others and practised it herself” (Tradition of Mercy, p.111), and that included speaking and writing and praying: she told her Novices to “use simple, easy words”. Living simply did not always make her popular. In the Refectory one day she saw a Sister pour a lot of milk in her tea and said aloud that the Sisters should remember that they had not entered a house of plenty but a state of strict poverty!  (Tradition of Mercy, p.108).  

A moment to reflect on your own… is that me? Do I live simply without fuss or luxury? What would other people say if I changed my lifestyle? Could I cope with their displeasure? 

We don’t need so many things: but we do need each other. Pope Francis says we must regain that as a core belief. 

He says much about our relationship to one another. Love your enemies, he says, smile at people; sow friendship by small daily gestures which break the energy of violence and selfishness and greed. Be fully present to whoever you are with. It’s the little things that make a difference.

Catherine McAuley always insisted on little things like politeness. “Good manners” she used to say, “add to the value of good works.” (Practical sayings, p.27) Sisters should never make unfavourable remarks about one another, she said. ‘Every word ought to edify; at least, no word should escape her which could dis-edify’ (Tradition of Mercy, p.110) Pope Francis says how important it is that families and schools should be places where children learn respect for people and for things, especially learn to say sorry and thank you.

It does catch on. Ryan Air’s chief executive Michael O’Leary has been quoted as saying, “If I’d only learned in college that being nice was good for business, I’d have done it years ago,”  Being nice, said Clare Moore, (they used the phrase ‘being charitable’ in those days) was Catherine’s ‘characteristic virtue’ (Tradition of Mercy, p.101). For Catherine, charity was not just generosity to the needy, but acts of friendliness to those much closer to home. That’s why the word ‘cordial’ was one of Catherine’s favourite words “…‘cordial’” she said, “signifies something that revives, invigorates and warms; such should be the effects of our love for each other”. (Tradition of Mercy, p.117)

There are some lovely anecdotes about Catherine being cordial, especially with her Sisters in the evenings. 

She ‘loved to see all under her charge happy and joyful. She tried to make them so… by contributing to the cheerfulness of the Community especially at Recreation. Although burdened with many cares, she was… as lively and merry as the youngest Sisters, who used to delight in being near her, listening to her amusing remarks and anecdotes’. (Tradition of Mercy, p.116)  

It takes real love to be cheerful for the sake of other people when you are feeling stressed out yourself. This is what Pope Francis means by ‘a leap towards the transcendent’, that is, ‘going beyond ourselves’, instead of giving in to ourselves. We must, says the Holy Father, quietly imitate the generosity of God…

… But we cannot be attentive to others, he says, because we are so distracted. We need to have fewer things, fewer activities, less rushing around, less stimulation, in order to come to a greater awareness of what we already have. We need to be less fragmented in order to feel more at peace within ourselves. Then we can enjoy experiences to the full, engage with other people fully, do things better and enjoy things more. Our capacity for life will expand: instead of our own restless self and our never satisfied hankering for ‘what comes next’, we can settle into a more contented place of belonging and appreciating all that is ‘here and now’. We can find our true place within something greater than ourselves. We can be fully present to everything around us, including our own thoughts and feelings...  then we may find ourselves able to commune with God in a way that we have never been able to do before. 

Prayerfulness is more than words, says the Holy Father, more than bringing our shopping list of needs and anxieties to God. Prayerfulness is a listening stance, a relationship, a ‘communing’, an attitude of heart. It requires a stillness and receptiveness within us. It’s nice when we have a lovely church or chapel to go to, but when we don’t have that exterior stillness, then the stillness of our own hearts must be our oratory. Catherine said the same. To use her words: “We have one solid comfort amidst this little tripping about, our hearts can always be in the same place, centred in God…”

“Prayer was her delight and her refuge- in all trials…” wrote her contemporaries, and not just spoken prayer. Of meditation she wrote, “We must have our hearts ready for it.” (Retreat Instructions, 108-110) She was, of course, talking about the kind of inner stillness necessary to listen.

Catherine ‘frequently and earnestly’ told her Novices ‘how important and necessary it was that they should listen attentively to the Divine voice which silently and constantly whispers to the heart’ (Retreat Instructions, 111)  She taught her Sisters ‘to love the hidden life’ within the activity of busy ministries. This is what Pope Francis is talking about when he calls for “a grateful contemplation of God’s world which allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us”. 

Clare Moore noticed how Catherine had, ‘a remarkable talent for drawing instruction from every occurrence’, (Tradition of Mercy, p100). It is what we might call a reflective capacity. Sister Vincent Harnett said the same of her. She quoted Catherine as noticing, “How silently and brilliantly the lamp in the Sanctuary burns before the Most Holy Sacrament when the oil is pure and good; it is only when it is otherwise that it twinkles and makes noise” (Tradition of Mercy, p174) She was, of course, thinking of the human beings she knew!

Many people would say that at the heart of a contemplative lifestyle is thankfulness. Living in a welfare state can make us complacent. Pope Francis says in ‘Laudato Si’ that he would like us all to return to the old custom of giving thanks before and after meals. It reminds us, he says, of our dependence upon God for our life; it makes us grateful to creation and appreciative of those who farm and fish and process and cook; it makes us mindful of those who are in need.  Gratitude recognises that the world and all it provides us for our life and well-being is God’s loving gift to us. 

That pause before and after consuming is a pause we need before and after every activity if our life is have any meaning or value. Do we get that pause? Do we find time to relax and be quiet and mull over the events of the day and its many encounters? Do we take them to God and ask his help in making sense of them and learning from them and appreciating them? 

Individualism has not brought us happiness. Many of us feel restless and dissatisfied and lost. The Holy Father has a simple recommendation for a place to start. Re-establish, he says, the day of Sunday rest centred on the Eucharist. God rested on the seventh day to appreciate and delight in the work of his hands and to be able to say of all that he had made, ‘It is good’. If there is to be a sense of perspective and meaning in our own lives, we too need that time. 

The life of Catherine McAuley was a good balance of prayer, work and rest. ‘From seven to nine general recreation- and you never saw such a happy and merry party- nor ever will except in a religious community!” she said (Correspondence, p163). But ‘at nine, examen, night prayer, morning meditation and then to rest’. That balance, she said, ‘affords more lively, solid, lasting happiness than all the variety the world could give’. It is just what Pope Francis is trying to tell us. Clare Moore in the Bermondsey Annals quotes Catherine McAuley as saying, “We should labour all day like the poor, and have our rest and recreation after our work is finished” (Practical Sayings, p48).

Let’s take a moment to consider that challenge: do we get enough recreation; do we get enough rest? Do we need to reconsider how we keep our Sundays?

In conclusion, at the heart of Pope Francis’ call for us to care for this planet lies a much deeper call for us to undergo a conversion of our attitudes. There needs to be a climbing down from being controllers and consumers and possessors, from what Francis has called ‘our unrestrained delusions of grandeur’. By thinking ourselves above nature, independent of nature, man has set himself up as God. 

The antidote is, of course, humility. We can read about humility more in the Holy Father’s own lifestyle than in anything he has written. This is the man who takes drives an old car and used to go round Buenos Aires on a bus. Humility is not something cringing or demeaning: humility he says is healthy! 

Catherine McAuley could not have agreed more. Her favourite words of Jesus were these: ‘Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart’ (Tradition of Mercy p111) and she encouraged her Sisters reverence these words, impress them upon the memory and above all practise them in their lives. 

Humility was one of the topics she wrote and talked about most. When her Novices were preparing for Profession in July 1834 she gave them this advice, and I think she is addressing us as well: 

‘The first and most essential virtue to acquire is humility. Begin with this and you begin well, and a good beginning is generally attended by a good end. Humility must consist not in words only nor in the cheerful discharge of humiliating chores [offices] for a great deal of pride might be concealed under this mask; it must emanate from the heart and must arise from a deep conviction of our nothingness and dependence on God, from our knowing well that if He withdraw His supporting hand we will immediately fall… The life of Jesus Christ on which we are to model ours was a life of continual self-denial… ’ 
(Retreat Instructions, p85ff) 

In my view, saving our planet depends on nothing less.

  • Mary C. Sullivan, ‘Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy’ 
  • Ed. Mary C. Sullivan, ‘The Practical Sayings of Catherine McAuley’
  • M. Theresa Purcell, ‘Retreat Instructions of Mother Mary Catherine McAuley’
  • M. Angela Bolster, ‘The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1827-1841’

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