Mass To Give Thanks For The Declaration On The Heroic Virtues Of The Venerable Mary Aikenhead

27 Apr 2015

Mass To Give Thanks For The Declaration On The Heroic Virtues Of

The Venerable Mary Aikenhead

Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin

Church of the Holy Family, Aughrim Street, 26 April 2015


“We join this afternoon with the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity worldwide to give thanks to God for the Decree of Pope Francis recognising the heroic virtues of the now Venerable Mark Aikenhead.

We join in a special way with the communities in this Archdiocese of Dublin where the Congregation had its first roots and where it continues to give great Christian witness through the care of the poor.  This parish of the Holy Family has been particularly blessed by the presence of the Sisters over many generations and it is wonderful that we can celebrate here.


          “We gather to reflect on the life and witness of an extraordinary woman, now one step further on the path towards Sainthood.

It is important to remember that what is recognised in the papal decree is above all Mary Aikenhead’s holiness.   Very often today we are shy to use the word holy.  Dubliners especially do not warm to people who proclaim themselves holy.  The terms “Holy Joe” and “Holier than thou” speak for themselves.  What then is holiness?

Holiness was one of the central themes of the Second Vatican Council.  If I were to ask what the most significant phrase people associate with Vatican II was, many would answer with a phrase that the Council never used: “We are the Church”.    That answer is a reflection on how Vatican II stressed the centrality of the notion of the Church as People of God, as opposed to a theology which had stressed in the first place the hierarchical structure of the Church.

People are correct in saying “we are the Church”:  but not if they mean that in a purely sociological or Church-political sense.   To understand who we are all the Church we must turn to a fundamental, and often overlooked, chapter of the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium: about the universal call to holiness.

What makes all of us brothers and sisters within God’s holy people is the call of all of us to holiness.  All in the Church are called to holiness; no particular calling or office or vocation or position in the Church assures holiness; all of us are called to seek holiness and to grow in holiness.  “The holiness of the Church”, the Council says, “is expressed in many ways by individuals who each in his or her state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus helping others grow in holiness”.   Holiness is our calling; holiness is our vocation.

Stressing the centrality of holiness does not mean that we retreat from or turn back on the day-to-day realities and challenges of living in this concrete world into a vague culture of disinterested holiness.  The council also states “that by this holiness, our human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society”.  Holiness contributes to the humanisation of society. Holiness and care for the society in which we live are deeply intertwined.

These two elements are especially linked in the person of Mary Aikenhead:  her search for holiness sprouted forth in a remarkable movement of charity which enriched society; and her understanding of the good of human society was totally influenced by her holiness.

Perhaps in today’s world we tend to separate this intrinsic bond between holiness and working for a better society.  There are times when even believing and practicing Catholics tend to draw a line between their faith and the way they work for the improvement of society.  Their Christian faith is kept within the private sphere.  In other cases people tend to look on the renewal of the Church almost entirely in terms of the reform of structures, as if sociological factors on their own will bring about true renewal of the Church.

In some cases our liturgies have become inward looking and self-celebratory, rather than offering the silence, the prayerfulness and atmosphere of mysticism which can open our hearts to allow the life of the triune God to take root in our hearts and change our lives.

There are a number of aspects of holiness which spring from the life of Mary Aikenhead which I would like to recall this afternoon, as we reflect on her charism and her gift to the Church.  Her charism, we should never forget, was not just a gift to the Church of her times, but also to our lives today in a very changed Dublin and to our lives tomorrow as God’s people called to holiness.

The first is the fact that she grew up in a family steeped in both Catholic and Church of Ireland tradition.  It is quite interesting that both the Irish religious whose heroic virtues have been recognised by Pope Francis in the past year have sprung from a mixed denominational background:  Mary Aikenhead and the Jesuit John Sullivan who only became a Catholic in his thirties.  The fact that both became fully committed within the Catholic tradition should not hide from us the fact that their holiness has been enriched by both of the traditions in which they grew up.  Holiness knows no denominational boundaries.

Our Christian witness in Ireland suffered for far too long through a culture of polemical criticism in our relationship with other Christian Churches.   Today we need to develop an ecumenism of holiness.  While remaining fully committed to our own tradition, we must learn from the spiritual writings and also from the specific religious traditions of the Christian communities around us.

We can continue to read Irish Church history in a polemical and confrontational framework and we certainly we will find faults on both sides of the religious divide; on the other hand, we can read history together in terms of how we live the Christian message and how we can together witness in a more visible way to the fundamental Gospel of love which we share.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls on all of us to listen to his voice so that we can be truly one flock and one shepherd.

The second characteristic of Mary Aikenhead holiness that strikes me was her determination to serve the poor.  In her earlier years she was attracted to various religious congregations but she found that their charism had become enclosed behind physical or psychological walls, whereas she desired to reach out directly to the poor.

That concern for the poor was the fruit of a special closeness Jesus who came to serve and not to be served and it was that form of holiness which became the fundamental driving force in her outreach and innovation.  She looked beyond conventional wisdom in caring for the poor; she identified those who were neglected in her time, and focused on needs of those who were otherwise overlooked:  the education of girls, the care of the sick, the care of female prisoners and the care of the dying.  In that way her holiness, to use once again the language of the Second Vatican Council, contributed in a unique way to the humanisation the society of her time.

That legacy of creativity and sensitivity to the poorest is the greatest challenge that her followers and disciples have to discern day after day in our own time, challenging the entire Church, as Mary Aikenhead did, to go out to identify the challenges of poverty each new day and to respond directly and personally and not just through the “business of caring”.

The third area where the holiness of Mary Aikenhead was significant was that her apostolic work was fully integrated into the life of the Church, but never in a passive or narrow parochial sense.  Like Catherine McCauley, Mary Aikenhead had a wonderful working relationship with my predecessor Archbishop Daniel Murray. Daniel Murray was Archbishop of Dublin at the time of Catholic emancipation  and his desire was focused not on just on the recognition of the new juridical position of the Church and of Catholics, but a desire that the Christian community would begin to flourish in holiness and service of the poor.

Archbishop Murray was man of great holiness.  His fellow bishops, in their correspondence with each other, referred to him often just as “the holy man”:  it seems that even in those days a bishop who was also a holy man was considered something out of the ordinary! But he was a holy man who had confidence in others; he was not afraid of Catholics becoming more present in the life of society and did not want any form of ghetto Catholicism.  He differed from all the other Irish Bishops in favouring a national school system and indeed a university system not based on denomination.

Holiness brings an added dimension to the quality of the charitable work of the Church.  I regret that often movements of Catholic origin can somehow become remarkably shy or reticent about their Catholic identity.  Our work should never be proselytising, but we should never be ashamed to let people know that we are inspired by the love through which Jesus Christ revealed to us who God is.  We have still today to overcome any sense of Ghetto Catholicism, where we close ranks out of fear and retreat from the public square, or on the other hand of Nicodemus- Catholicism where we hide our identity in the public square.

Finally I have to ask the awkward question for the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity.  Quo vadis?  Where are you going? Can we celebrate the past without first of all generating renewed confidence and hope for the future?

Mary Aikenhead was a woman of innovation.  She was not going to be enclosed by the either physical or psychological walls that she encountered in other congregations.  The congregation needs to renew that spirit of simple innovation, not looking for great revolutions, but never being trapped in the past.

I was struck recently by a phrase strangely of Henry Kissinger, who said in a totally different context: “repeating the things and the initiatives of the past only leads to stagnation”.

With all due respect to tradition, for many generations too many Novice Masters and Novice Mistresses and Deans of Formation in Seminaries became heralds and custodians of the past and of conformity rather than of the creative innovation of the spirit.

Mary Aikenhead’s understanding of religious life was innovative.  Encouraged by Archbishop Murray the Congregation was established under pontifical right and was not placed under the direct control of the individual bishops, something which most bishops did not like.  She was encouraged you might say to shop around and find the form of spirituality most suited to her work with the poor, for example through training and friendship with the Sisters of Mary Ward and the guidance of Jesuit spirituality.

A Church without vibrant religious life would be an impoverished Church.  But a Church with a closed and stagnant form of religious life would be equally impoverished.  Religious are called in today’s world not so much to be leaders in doing things themselves, but in being catalysts for new forms of engaging young men and women in radical commitment to the life of the Church, not necessarily for their entire life.  I am convinced that there are many young women in today’s Ireland who would be attracted to new forms of association in which they would dedicate part of the life to attaining deeper holiness through prayer, community and service to the poor.

We celebrate the memory of Mary Aikenhead.  We celebrate her charism and we commit ourselves to finding creative ways for that charism to flourish in the future for the good of the Church and of our society and especially the hopes and aspirations of brothers and sisters trapped in poverty. ENDS