Editorial - Aging with Grace: Mercy and Bioethics

 Michael McCabe
Issue 28, August 2009

At different points in ministry, since those halcyon days of seminary life at Holy Cross College, I have been reminded of an adage from the Rector, Monsignor Tom Liddy, who often said that, "One does not grow old. Rather one becomes old by not growing!" While every age and culture presents unique and fresh challenges for giving flesh to the gospel every life and all ministry contains a recurring theme of the need for growth in Christ.

To a greater or lesser degree, faith communities have an innate ability to remind all who come into contact with them of the need for continued growth. Invariably this reminder, be it for the individual or for the community, comes through nurture and presence and encouragement. It also comes through gentleness, respect, laughter and gratitude.

Since its opening on 1 May 1999, the offices of The Nathaniel Centre have been located on the ground floor of Saint Mary's Convent in Guilford Terrace Wellington. As well as housing the offices for the leadership team of Sisters of Mercy, Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa, Saint Mary's Convent also housed two communities of Mercy Sisters. While membership of these communities has changed over the years its members in recent years have been: Sisters Mary Winifride, Mary Agnes, Margaret Jennings, Marcellin Wilson, Phillippa Dowling, Monica Quigg, Veronica McManus, Marie Gore, Eileen Brosnahan and Mary de Porres. In large part the welcome and nurture we have received for our ministry in bioethics has come from these two communities. These ten Sisters of Mercy embody Catherine McAuley's charism of mercy in unique and profound ways and provided a daily reminder of the gospel challenge to live by faith.

Like Catherine before them, these Sisters have constantly displayed a wonderful ability to both discover connections as well as giving flesh to the living out of these connections. For example, through their own ministries they have been able to encourage us to also discover the connection and possibilities between the old and the new, between the poor and the rich, between the educated and the unlearned, and between the so-called influential and the ordinary. And, like Catherine, they have also challenged us by their ability and vision to continually place opposites together. Each day and in myriad ways they provided inspiration for our theory to be grounded in Christ, and they gave strength to our inner worlds so that we might continue to address the ethical and spiritual challenges at the interface between culture and technological possibility. Their example of daily prayer and worship in their chapel reminded us of our need to combine faith with reason, the scholarly with the prayerful, and a spirit of enquiry with a need for acceptance. They also reminded us of the gospel call to temper principle with compassion, particularly if God's mercy might have a new and fresh face for all people.

In many respects these Sisters of Mercy illustrated the wisdom and beauty of Dr David Snowdon's groundbreaking study of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States of America. Published in 2001 as, "Aging with Grace", this fifteen-year long epidemiological study of some 670 religious sisters participants explores the link between aging and Alzheimer's disease. (A similar twelve-year long study has been undertaken by Professor David Bennett with the Sisters of Saint Joseph in La Grange, Chicago.) What the study clearly shows is the powerful way faith and reason can be combined to give life and love at all stages of the life-cycle no matter what the external or physical circumstances may be. These prophetic religious women encapsulate the call of the Second Vatican Council and Donum Vitae "to recapture the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values." [n.2]

Like the School Sisters of Notre Dame the Sisters of Mercy believe in the power of knowledge and ideas and like them a large part of their ministry has been in teaching and healthcare. While the particular shape of their ministry has changed over the years their fundamental engagement and connection with society has not. Rather over time their ministries have become even more generative and ever deeper wellsprings of grace. For the Sisters of Mercy old age and the senior years are still a time of possibility and growth, a time of promise and faith-filled grace and potential. One only need look at Sister Mary Winifride, well into her nineties, still teaching music and singing, or to watch Sister Marcellin Wilson transform a tired and rather plain courtyard into a vibrant garden to awaken to possibility once again. In her spare time Winifride can be seen praying the rosary or knitting garments for sale for the missions, while Marcellin is busy working with Habitat for Humanity to provide low-cost housing for the poor, or she is supporting the wonderful work of Susan Baragwanath's "He Huarahi Tamariki", ("A Chance for Children"), the School for teenage parents in Porrirua. Retirement is very much a high quality and very rich lifestyle for these Sisters! Their constancy and their faith remind us that while the issues in bioethics may indeed change into new ones, or simply return under a different guise, the principles of reason informed by faith and tempered by the need for justice and mercy always remains.

And so as we take up residence in temporary offices in Lower Hutt to allow for major refurbishment of Saint Mary's Convent we simply wish to honour the Sisters of Mercy and our ten companions for their wisdom and grace born from their journey of faith. We are deeply grateful for the providence of God over the last ten years and equally grateful that the beginnings of the Nathaniel Centre have been so blessed by being part of the Mercy nest! For the sharing of their home and their hearts we pray a very sincere thank you.

Rev Michael McCabe
The Nathaniel Centre