Catherine McAuley’s Option for the Poor

Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy) grounded her option for the poor in her special devotion to Christ’s passion. For Catherine, the crucified Christ was identified with the poor. Christ’s complete self-divestment on the cross in the name of love deeply inspired her to follow Him in living in solidarity with the poor.

Catherine expressed her preferential love of the poor by embracing a life of simplicity. She Catherine McAuleyinsisted, for instance, that she be the last to be served at meals in her community. This action demonstrated her desire to identify with the poor who seldom if ever are first to be seated at table and then have to accept whatever is left to eat. Catherine’s way of viewing dress demonstrated her resolve to live out her option for the poor. She often “deprived herself of articles of dress. . . to relieve the necessities of her neighbors.”[1] Regarding dress, Catherine advised her Sisters:

Let us even love to want what is convenient and necessary to us, and rejoice, if possible, when we are not supplied with everything we require or wish for, since we are poor Religious who, like the poor, must be satisfied to want conveniences.[2]

Prayer was a central part of Catherine’s reaching out in love to the unemployed, illiterate, sick and dying poor. She began and ended her works of Mercy with prayer. She urged her Sisters to live out their option for the poor in a similar contemplative fashion. In so doing, she and her Sisters acknowledged
doing Mercy is God’s work, i.e., that God seeks to be present to the needy through others’ love of them.

Catherine considered herself privileged to love the poor of her day. She instructed her Sisters: “What an ineffable consolation to serve Christ himself in the person of the poor and to walk in the very same path which he trod!”[3] In the faces and lives of the poor, sick, and uneducated, Catherine met Christ. She sought out the poor to pour out Christ’s love upon them, writing in her Rule for her sisters:

Mercy, the principal path pointed out by Jesus Christ to those who are desirous of following Him, has in all ages of the Church elicited the faithful in a particular manner to instruct and comfort the sick and dying poor. (Original Rule, Chapter 3, Article 1)

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M., teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College. The preceding is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The MAST Journal (Vol. 8, No.1 Fall 1997), and is shared here with permission from the author.

[1] 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), 8.

[2] Catherine McAuley, Familiar Instructions (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 1927), 34.

[3] Ibid., 16.

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