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The Bishop's Homily: Mass of the Holy Spirit, Opening the 10th Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta, Baulkham Hills

Bishop Anthony Fisher’s Homily for the Mass of the Holy Spirit, Opening the 10th Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta, Baulkham Hills, 30 July 2010

Sr M Carmel RSM with young Anthony
Sr M Carmel Fisher RSM with young Anthony.
My brother Dominicans accuse me of leaving the Dominicans to join the Sisters of Mercy. It is true that I am now a guest in your motherhouse, the Parramatta Convent of Mercy, a site of great historical importance not just for your congregation but for the history of religious life in Australia. But, in fact, I was a part of the Mercy family long before I was a Dominican.

As a child, I used to visit my great aunt, Sr M Carmel Fisher rsm, at the convent of the Mater Hospital in Crows Nest. Aunty Mary, as we called her, was the matriarch of our family and insisted that, as far as possible, we be born, nursed, educated and formed by Mercies. So I came into the world in a Mercy hospital.

I came into the Church at their hands too, with Sr M Eucharia rsm preparing me for First Holy Communion and Sr M Paschal rsm for Confirmation. I played as a little boy around the convent on days we could visit and, when I was a teenager, I was admitted to the sacred parlour for tea from fine china we never saw at home.

It was from the Mercies that I learnt, first hand, about religious hospitality, consecrated service and self-sacrifice for God and His people.

So it is with pietas in my heart, that reverent gratitude towards the sources of our being, including our religious ancestors, that I join you today. I am truly delighted to be with you to celebrate the Eucharist as you open the 10th Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta, a congregation so deeply embedded in our Diocese, the sisters whom Western Sydney knows simply as ‘our nuns’.

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”, we read in today’s Gospel (Jn 7:37-39). Two earthly streams of water are associated with your origins: the Parramatta River pictured on the front of your Congregational Report prepared for this chapter; and the King’s River of Callan County Kilkenny. These streams of water are ever present in your lives: the Kings’ River evoking your historical roots, and those of Parramatta your contemporary context.

Last month I was briefly in Kilkenny, visiting the Black Abbey of the Dominicans, and I had lunch overlooking the King’s River. It owes its name to an Irish king of Viking times, who plunged into the river on horseback to save his servant who was drowning. Both men perished.

This spirit of self-sacrifice surrounded the emergence of your Institute from Callan. Your predecessors brought it with them across the world and with it built institutions and apostolates as diverse as Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta, the Marymount Centre in Castle Hill, St Michael’s Family Centre here in Baulkham Hills and Mamre Plains at St Marys, to name just a few.

“Varieties of gifts for varieties of service,” said St Paul to us this morning, “but all activated by the same Spirit...and all for the common good” (1 Cor 12:3-13).

Parramatta is the meeting place of the tidal waters of Port Jackson and the fresh water of the river, a place for spawning and so for fishing, for hunting and farming, for early settlement and lately a major city of the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans and Arabs of our First Reading (Acts 2:1-11) – as well as Irish and Aussie girls and others.

A metaphor, perhaps, for mission and ministry in contemporary Australia: each stream bearing life but bearing it differently, and bearing it to various peoples with diverse backgrounds, needs and aspirations.

Torrent and tranquility; diversity and complementarity; the sometimes dry creek bed and the waves thundering on the shore – symbols of your congregational life and of the lives of those you serve.

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Chapters are times for allowing living water to flow anew from the heart of a congregation. Mercy is the heart of your Institute.

Only this Monday past we heard St Cæsarius of Arles on mercy in the Office of Readings. “Sweet is the name of mercy,” he declared, “and how much sweeter the quality itself?...Let us make her our patroness in this age.”

Cæsarius was familiar with religious life, writing rules for monks and nuns and installing his own niece as abbess of the local convent. In fact, he was censured by the Pope for alienating too much Church property for the support of the women’s monastery. Sadly, bishops have not always erred on the side of over-generosity to their sisters!

But Cæsarius, who had a reputation for ‘telling it straight’, was clear: it is the worst sort of effrontery to expect to receive mercy when you neglect to show it yourself.

“What is mercy like?” he asked. “It makes you concerned for the hardship of the poor...(for) God is cold and hungry in them.” (Sermons, 25.1, Second Reading for Matins of Monday Week 17). Concern for the poor lies at the heart of your charism of mercy. This is what energised Catherine McAuley all those years ago in Dublin and beyond.

The Church of Arles in Cæsarius’ time took the poor very seriously. Bishops were not even allowed to keep hunting dogs, lest they deter the poor from approaching the bishop’s door (Conc. Macon (585) ch 13, in Carlo de Clercq (ed.), Concilia Galliæ 511–695).

We have no guard dog at the Parramatta Convent of Mercy but there is a perennial risk for bishops, as for all the faithful, that one way or another we keep the poor at a distance.

We might ask ourselves: what barriers have we put between ourselves and people ‘on the outer’ for whatever reason? In the pursuit of ‘efficient service delivery’ have we moved away from contact with the very ones we are called to serve?

Pope Benedict XVI made this point in his great encyclical on mercy, Deus caritas est. Caritas, love or mercy, he observed, ”will always be necessary, even in the most just society...There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.”

There will always be a need for that which suffering persons most crave, “namely, loving personal concern”. A good state will acknowledge, enable and coordinate various forces and initiatives but cannot substitute for living, person-to-person mercy.

“The Church is one of those living forces” for mercy. “She is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ” – a love which offers both material help and refreshment for souls.”

In the end, the Pope concludes, to think works of mercy superfluous is to fail to understand human beings; to declare loving service redundant is to prepare to eliminate the human person. (Deus caritas est §28b).

But which works of mercy, by whom, for whom and how? This is a time of flux for religious life all round the world and of reconfiguring for the Institute of Mercy all round Australia. So it is a time we need to be especially open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and especially aware of the needs of our world.

A chapter in such times is a chance to stop and take stock, to give thanks for what has gone before; a chance, also, to examine the quality of your present community and prayer life, the witness you give just by being rather than doing; and a time to discern the future course of your mission and ministry, the witness you will give in the doing. And so you pray for that Spirit that flowed as living water from the heart and side of Christ on the Cross, the living water of Divine Mercy.

I assure you of my prayers for you in the coming days and months, and to lend whatever support I can to you in the years ahead. Thanks be to God for each one of you. Thanks be to God for ‘our nuns’, the Parramatta Mercies.

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