The announcement of a Jubilee year of Mercy caused a wave of excitement around the Catholic world and none so more than among members of the Sisters of Mercy and their collaborators, associates and partners in ministry. Pope Francis’ initiative meant that the God of Mercy and the mercy of God would be the focus of the faith of Catholics for the year to come and it was something with which the Mercy family could easily resonate.
The first impetus for some initiative on the part of the postulation in relation to Catherine’s cause and the Jubilee of Mercy came from the associates of Great Britain. In response to their request that something be organised, it was agreed to invite people from around the world, who are associated in any way with the Sisters of Mercy to take part in a “write a letter to Pope Francis” campaign.
The content of the letter was intended to thank Pope Francis for the initiative of the jubilee year of Mercy, to introduce him to Venerable Catherine McAuley as a model par excellence of what it means to live the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and to indicate how appropriate it would be if she were to be beatified in this year of Mercy.
The initial step in the “campaign” was to invite each interested individual to write a letter directly to Pope Francis. Then if the person so wished, a copy of that letter could be sent into the Postulator who hoped to collate the collected letters and put them in book form with the intention of presenting the volume in person to the Holy Father. The final date for sending in the letters to both the Holy father and the Postulator was set for Mercy Day 2015. At that stage it was hoped that the Pope could be presented with the book of the letters by the 12th of December 2015.
The invitation to write a letter was received very enthusiastically and as the time went on a tsunami of letters flowed into the Postulator’s office which meant that they also flowed into the Vatican as well. Three thousand one hundred and twenty seven letters arrived and this did not include lists of signatures that came in from classes in schools especially in Australia and the United States.
The letters came in from around the world and were written by children, young people and adults; by women and men, married and single; by bishops, priests and religious men and women. Even after the 24th of September the letters continued to stream in. The last letter was received in July 2016. The high number of letters meant that logistically not all the letters could be included in the “book of letters” that was to be prepared for the Pope. So a random sample of the letters was chosen, about two hundred and eighty in all.
They were left in their original form, unedited and organised according to geographical areas. For each geographical area, the letters from children were inserted first of all, then came those from young people and college students, followed by letters from associates, collaborators and partners in ministry and finally letters sent in by Sisters of Mercy themselves.
All the letters received were scanned onto a disc, once again according to geographical area and this disc will be held in a reserved archive in the MIA archive in Dublin. The purpose of the retention of the letters is that they are a living proof of the fame for holiness of Catherine McAuley one hundred and seventy five years after her death. They will be a strong argument in favour of beatification when the time comes.
While the letters were being collected, Mary Sullivan rsm (Rochester) sent on a copy of the letters of Catherine McAuley translated into Spanish by the late Sheila Heduan rsm (Argentina). This was included with the book of letters written for the Jubilee of Mercy for presentation to the Holy Father.
The next step was to seek attendance at the Pope’s private morning mass in Domus Sancta Martha in the hope of being able to present the books to him personally.
I was advised to write directly to the Pope’s personal secretary Mons. Fabian Pedacchio, to see if a place at the mass could be granted. After some time his response came back to say that it would not be possible to attend the Pope’s private mass for the reason which I gave – the presentation of the books of letters on the occasion of the Jubilee of Mercy. He told me that the Pope gives audience at his private mass only to various members and groups from parishes in the diocese of Rome and also to some people who are celebrating jubilees of weddings, profession or ordination. He advised that I try and get to a general audience and see if I could give the books of letters to the Pope in that setting. However, at a general audience there is no guarantee that the Pope will see the books again.
At that stage a change of direction seemed called for. After conversation with Sr. Mary Reynolds (Director MIC), it was decided to approach the Papal Nuncio of Ireland Archbishop Charles Brown to see if he could facilitate the presentation of the books to the Pope through the diplomatic bag of mail from the Irish Nunciature to the Holy See. The letter sent by the leaders of MIA on the occasion of the Jubilee year had also been facilitated in this way.
On May 17th, 2016, a letter arrived from Archbishop Charles Brown to say that the books had been forwarded to the Holy Father. It is our dearest hope that Pope Francis will get a chance to read some of Catherine’s letters in his own language. Even more so, we hope that he will get a chance to read some of the letters sent in at this time by people of mercy worldwide.
These letters were written from the heart and are a wonderful testimony to the ever fresh, ever new eruption of the Mercy of God at work in our world as incarnated by the people who wrote them and by the works of mercy accomplished in such abundance by so many people of all ages in so many places miles away from where and when the charism originated.
The following is just a sample of some of the thoughts and feelings expressed in the letters: One young writer said: “Dear Holy Father, I love Catherine McAuley because she helps people, she was nice and she was a Sister of Mercy.” Another young writer said, “You are a very merciful Pope and thank you for listening to our common concerns”. Another young person tells the Holy Father that “Catherine McAuley has greatly affected my life. She has done incredible things and I wouldn’t be here (in this school) without her”.
From another part of the world, a young lady writes: “I want to talk to you about the beatification of Catherine McAuley. I know that you know about her but I will give you some reasons. First she created the Sisters of Mercy in 1851 (sic). Second, she wasn’t a regular nun she was a walking nun who went out and helped the poor. Third if she did not send the Sisters over to this country I would not be sending this letter and I would not have the great education I have today”.
The examples could stretch into many pages. The above by no means does justice to the wealth and outpouring of love and concern that these letters contain. I would like at this stage to thank everybody who in any way helped to bring forward this “letter campaign”, especially leaders of communities, associate groups, heads of departments, teachers and religion co-ordinators in schools and universities who worked so hard to gather so many letters from a very large number of students.
Thank you to all who took the time to write a letter and to speak so directly and openly to the Holy Father. The letters contain personal details, personal anecdotes of healing and favours received, stories of conversions and turning one’s life around, stories of great healing, love and regeneration. In their own way these letters are a type of present day annals which bring to life and encapsulate the charism as lived and understood in the twenty first century.
We do not know what the official outcome of all this effort will be but we do know that in the meantime God and Catherine continue to work and inspire and set afire the hearts of so many who wish in their turn to share the wonderful gift of the Spirit in the Church that is the charism of mercy as understood and lived by Venerable Catherine McAuley.
Brenda Dolphin rsm