Archived News Item

Mary: The Mother of Mercy


In anticipation of the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, Mercy Matters is pleased to publish the following reflection written by Caroline Ryan rsm for the Institute’s former newsletter Tracking in late 2005.



Among Catherine McAuley’s outstanding strengths of soul was the consistently intelligent, faith-filled way she identified the gifts of Providence, and the creative, trusting, cheerful way she received and shared them. Think, for example, of her generous, visionary stewardship of the Callaghan inheritance. Think too of her wise, brave, humble response to ecclesial pressures which resulted in her founding a religious order – undoubtedly not in her plan when she and her earliest companions began their simple enterprise of mercy, but necessary if their commitment to her ‘most dear poor’ was to flourish in and beyond the Dublin of her day.


Another gift of Providence was that the opening of the first House of Mercy in 1827, on September 24, coincided with the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Apparently unintentional as this was on Catherine’s part, it gave to her and the women who were to become her sisters, a unique identity within the growing tradition of apostolic religious life, while gracing their mission with a dynamic, ever-demanding theology. It also moved Catherine to choose Mary to be the order’s patron.


Now, as Sisters of Mercy and friends worldwide prepare for our annual celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, perhaps we can ‘mine’ a little more of its providential riches. So what does Mary offer us these days?


In this brief reflection I want to dissociate myself from the Mary whom some writers and artists over centuries have sentimentalised beyond belief through depicting her as naïve, passive and terminally asexual. And I want to avoid that Mary whose womanhood has been burdened by such abstruse, dogmatic constructs as ‘immaculate conception’ and ‘ever-virgin’. Rather, the Mary who commands my attention here is the robust woman of robust faith; the one who disturbs me as she proclaims her magnificat with imagination, conviction and prophetic boldness (Luke 1:46-55). In that regard, I believe ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ offers us a feast day gift of perennial value.


The gift is Mary’s recognition that God does not reside in a state of divinely judicious detachment from poor, dis-graced humanity, but is most at home, most ‘Godself’, most holy, as it were, among people who are chronically bereft of hope and, for whatever reason, exploited or crushed by the cruelties of life. And it is not through soft, self-protective pieties nor sophisticated musings on the nature of God that Mary discerned this consoling yet amazing truth. Rather it is from the quiet desperation of her own poverty and shame and her visceral awareness of others’ suffering.


Ironically (or providentially), the mean and demeaning conditions imposed on Mary and her people by the socio-religious regime of her time, are ‘prerequisites’ for her experience of God’s mercy. That is to say, the realities of her being – her gender, lowly class and dubious status – which, in the eyes of the religious establishment determined her unworthiness before God, are the very reason (her qualities of soul notwithstanding) that God invites her radical participation in the mystery of liberation. As Mary is personally vindicated and blessed through this favour, so are those with whom she lives in social and spiritual solidarity. And so are the ones in every time and place – all generations – who are humiliated, hungry for justice or held bound by dehumanising forces.


Some years ago when I was a university chaplain, I was amused by (and actually coveted!) the T- shirt of one of the students which had emblazoned on front and back, in bright red, that old leftist cliché Subvert the Dominant Paradigm. I remember this whenever I contemplate Mary as she is depicted in the Gospel according to Luke. There is a real sense in which the text we know as the Magnificat could be called “Mary’s Song of Subversion” as she identifies and celebrates the way God’s mercy turns Israel’s prevailing beliefs, attitudes, mores and so on – its dominant paradigm – upside down, exposing its hollow, godless base and freeing with new dignity those it has oppressed.


So this year, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, as we pray for the people in the near and nowhere places of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and the even-wider world, who are grieving for God’s mercy, and as we give thanks for the ways in which God’s mercy subverts the dominant paradigm in our own time, even in our own hearts, let us sing our particular songs of subversion. Or if we do not have Mary’s confidence to sing with full heart and voice, perhaps, now and again, we might just hum a little subversive tune.


Blessings to all for our special day.


Caroline Ryan rsm


Graphic: Courtesty Fraynework Multimedia