Bishop Mark Davies gave this homily yesterday at the Mercy Convent's 150th Anniversary Mass yesterday.
When Bishop James Brown established a foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in July 1868, I wonder what expectations filled the minds and hearts of those women who arrived in a new spring-time for the Catholic Church in England. In his celebrated Sermon, 'The Second Spring' Blessed John Henry Newman evoked the pattern of the changing seasons to express this miracle of renewal which he saw taking place in the English Catholic Church - like winter giving way to the transformation of spring. In timeless prose, he described how we "mourn the blossoms of May, because they wither; but know May is one day to have its revenge on November," teaching how "in our height of hope, ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation never to despair." Shrewsbury too would receive honourable mention in his dramatic survey of England's Catholic past and future. He declared that "if the world lasts, (Shrewsbury) shall be a name as stirring to the heart as the glories we have lost" and foreseeing that from Shrewsbury, saints would arise and teachers and preachers too.
And so the Sisters of Mercy came to this town as part of that first flowering of a new spring-time. They arrived without human resources beyond their own self-giving. A new community founded less than 40 years before by the Venerable Catherine McAuley and part of a vast renewal of Consecrated Life which in 19th Century saw hundreds of new communities taking brave and long-lasting initiatives and making of the streets of our expanding towns and cities, their cloister. Little more than four years before, a Shrewsbury woman, 44-year old Elizabeth Prout had died in the midst of her mission to found a new, religious community serving the women of the industrial north. Here the Sisters of Mercy must surely have been conscious they constituted a first shoot of this renewal of Religious Life which had once flourished in this town and across this county. A new shoot, planted by the faith and love of the first Sisters, would flourish in the shadow of this Cathedral.
It is now easy to forget the public hostility with which the return of Religious Life was met and how obedience and consecrated celibacy was considered highly suspect in Victorian Britain. A sustained parliamentary campaign demanded government action to rescue the women who had embraced this life! However, the witness of these same women would progressively overcome such ingrained prejudice - it was by their works you shall know them. The Sisters of Mercy were so seen in this town in the education of the young, in the care of the poorest and in the service of women and families. Yet the radical impetus which brought the Sisters to Shrewsbury and has sustained their life for a century and a half, is found in the Gospel given to us on this Feast of Saint Matthias. They knew the friendship and the choice of Christ who says: "you did not choose me, no, I chose you." It was a Divine vocation, not assurances or predictions of the future which brought them here. We cannot foresee the future, any more than the Sisters could in the distant summer of 1868. Yet on this 150th Anniversary we can truly say theirs is a "fruit that will last" for they set out to live in that greater love - to lay down their whole lives - that is the hallmark of the consecrated life and the priesthood. In this Eucharistic love the Sisters would abide and in the words of the Gospel, their joy is complete.
Pope Francis observes that, "wherever consecrated people are, there is always joy!" Today, as we recall the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy and give thanks for all the Sisters who have faithfully served this mission, we rejoice. And we pray never to lose the joy of consecrated life and that, together with all the Sisters gone before us and the countless souls they served, we may share in everlasting joy.