The educational vision of Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, is rooted in Christian ideals and values. For Catherine, the ministry of education is, in essence, a work of Mercy, that is, a wholehearted, compassionate, and integral response to people’s learning needs. In her writings, Catherine views educational endeavors as a way to live out Jesus’ mandate to love others through enabling their personal and professional development, including attuning them to the importance of social responsibility.
Catherine grew up in an Irish society rampant with poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and religious bigotry against Catholics. In response to the needs of her day, she developed educational opportunities ranging from pre-school to the adult level. Thus, she sought to provide others, especially poor young women and children, the chance to improve their human situation. Clearly, Catherine understood that education is essential to the process of the betterment of both individuals and society.
Catherine McAuley possessed various personal qualities that enabled her to become an excellent educator. She was a visionary woman of keen intellect who inherited a propensity for independent thinking from her mother, Elinor. Catherine was open-minded and flexible. She readily adapted to changing circumstances and possessed a remarkable ability to be practically oriented. Her very way of being reflected her profound commitment to Christian values.
Catherine was consummately human and in her humanness is found her holiness. She looked upon love as the cardinal virtue and reminded her Sisters that charity refreshes and enlivens and that love of one’s neighbor is living proof of the love of God. Catherine’s loving nature was visible in the compassionate way in which she welcomed poor persons into her life. She literally spent herself, her time, energy, talents, and financial resources, to enable the poor to live dignified lives. Throughout cities and villages in Ireland and England, Catherine and her Sisters provided economically disadvantaged persons food, clothing, shelter, and educational experiences rooted in Christian principles.
Daily, Catherine spent substantial time in prayer. Oftentimes, she rose early in the morning to eke out a segment from her busy schedule to rest in God’s presence. Such experiences taught her to trust God completely. In a letter to Sister M. Angela Dunne, for example, Catherine queries and then advises: “Tell me all the news you have about your school, sick poor, and your little children. … Put your whole confidence in God. He will never let you want necessities for yourself or your children.”
According to Catherine, to be genuine, the work of the Mercy educator needs to be rooted in an ever deepening communion with God, the source of one’s generosity and courage in carrying out the tasks of one’s profession. Catherine viewed teaching as an act of prayer and praise of God. For her, to teach is to express in word and deed that God is Love. In essence, according to Catherine, the work of the Mercy educator is meant to be a potent expression of the love of God and others.
Referring to the cross of trials or opposition in life, Catherine perceptively notes that “Some great things which God designs to accomplish would be too much joy without a dash of bitterness in the cup.” This reflection is applicable to the educator who experiences diminishments such as misunderstandings, the inability to respond to the needs of some students, or overwork. The educator understands, with Catherine, that experiences like these can occasion the birthing of some form of new life – a spirit of patience and humility, prayerfulness, acceptance of the cross, an attitude of mercy and love, and enthusiasm for service.
In and through her abiding respect, love, and concern for the neediest of her day, Catherine demonstrated her commitment to the social justice dimension of her educational vision. She understood that to be merciful is to act justly by being in solidarity with poor persons. She was convinced that to live mercy entails extending practical, active love to starving, homeless, sick, uneducated, and unemployed persons. Catherine’s statement: “The poor need help today, not next week,” conveys the urgency she felt for the neediest. She insisted that loving poor persons means empowering them, especially through education, to become the architects and agents of their own future. While consistently responding to people’s immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, Catherine sought to effect systemic change by establishing educational institutions. Integral to her strategy for fostering such change, she not only established schools for the economically disadvantaged, but also founded pension schools in which middle-class students learned the importance of social responsibility.
Present-day Mercy educators, like those of us at Saint Joseph’s College, are called to follow in the footsteps of Catherine and her Sisters, who wholeheartedly committed themselves to live out an ethic of social justice. Today, such educators extend Catherine’s legacy in this regard by means of creative, innovative responses to the signs of our times.
In 1993, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas adopted the following statement concerning the mission of Mercy higher education
The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas recognizes that higher education is integral to the mission of the Church and is an effective expression of the Mercy mission. The ministry expresses commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge and to the furtherance of the social, political, economic, and spiritual well-being of the human community.
Advancing this mission in the 21st century entails providing students rigorous, academically excellent liberal arts and professional preparation that promotes students’ holistic development within the context of the theological and ethical principles and values that Catherine embraced and embodied, including
- The teachings of Jesus Christ and the heritage of the Catholic Church;
- God’s Mercy and the call to live mercy;
- Commitment to serving the needs of poor, sick, and uneducated persons;
- A spirit of hospitality;
- Reverence for each person and all other forms of creation;
- Special sensitivity to the needs and status of women and children;
- Active concern for and response to the needs of those who suffer material poverty;
- Ecumenicity in embracing all persons who seek truth and moral values;
- The primacy of life-impacting Christian learning and spiritual formation; and
- An understanding of and response to local, national and global issues of social justice
Those of us who share in the ministry of Mercy higher education are called to uphold the values of mercy and justice that were uppermost in Catherine’s lived spirituality. In Catherine’s footsteps, we are commissioned to be heralds and agents of God’s good news of mercy and justice.
Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M. teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.
 A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy – Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 15.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 46, quoting Catherine McAuley.
 Roland Burke Savage, S.J., Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1949), 238, quoting Catherine McAuley.
 Familiar Instructions collected by first Sisters of Mercy (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 192), 136.
 Bolster, 11, quoting Catherine McAuley.