Fifty years as a Sister of Compassion

Sr Catherine Hannan dolc celebrated 50 years of religious life last month. She gave this homily at her parish church, St Joseph’s, Māoria on 19 March 2006.

For the past six years I’ve been at the Compassion Centre and one of my special tasks is welcoming our guests to the evening meal. The building is smokefree and so after dinner many go to a place attached to the main building for a smoke. One evening, when I went to join them, one of the men said ‘Eddie wants to take you to the movies but I said your husband would be the problem.’

Too quickly I rejoined ‘Oh, my husband will be no problem’ and then realised this needed qualifying, so added ‘I’m a Religious Sister; I haven’t a husband.’

‘No,’ someone said, ‘You’re married to God.’

‘You’re not allowed to get married,’ said another, ‘which led to a very lively conversation taking in every angle and then one of the guests asked:

‘Would you do it again?’

Not long afterwards I was with my family in the south and I related this story at dinner. One of my nephews said:

‘And would you?’

‘Would I what?’

‘Would you do it again?’

When I said ‘Yes,’ he mimicked the Toyota ad:

‘Of course you’d have to say that.’

I’m not sure whether I retorted ‘I can say what I like’ but more of that later.

I was taken by the Gospel story we’ve just heard of the Samaritan woman at the well [Jn 4:1-30]. But I must admit that when I first heard that this was the Gospel for today I was thrown. How was I going to handle a story with five husbands? But of course there’s much more to it than that.

The scene is so ordinary, so simple. Here is an ordinary woman drawing water from a well in Samaria, a small province on the border of Jerusalem. She is truly an outcast – she is a Samaritan, despised by the Jews, she is a woman and no good Jew spoke to a woman in public – even to his wife or mother; and why was she at the well alone, missing the gathering of the village women and the local gossip – probably something to do with a life that included five husbands?

And she meets Jesus who has no problem with outcasts. He chose to go to people on the margins because God is close to the poor and the broken-hearted and no one, no one has a monopoly on the spirit of God.

The Samaritan woman shows us what conversion to the living God means and the challenge of a deep experience of God. Her encounter with Jesus changed her life and led her to recognise Jesus as the Messiah and she then went out to spread the greatest testimony of all time – the announcement she had met the Messiah, the one they had all been waiting for.

What has this to do with my life and vocation as a Sister of Compassion. Probably I’m getting clearer about this as I get nearer to the end of my journey than when I began. It’s taking me a lifetime to depth the meaning of compassion but I can truly say it is wildly exciting.

When I joined the Sisters of Compassion over 50 years ago it was often said of someone entering Religious Life ‘She’s leaving the world to join the Convent’.

I soon found it was more opting into the world.

For there were the many and varied works of compassion:

• Teaching disabled children and helping them with music and ballet

• Working in several cross-cultural situations

• Māori Schools on the Whanganui River

• An Aborigine Mission in outback Australia

• helping Egyptian Copic Orthodox women set up Childcare in Sydney

• Chaplaincy at Arohata Women’s Prison and Catholic Social Services

• Leadership within the Sisters of Compassion

• And now the Soup Kitchen with its innumerable facets of being with people in need in the inner city

• As well as Caritas and the face of Justice

In my earlier years, while I was aware of how enriched I was by the people I ministered to, I thought I had the answers. Now I am realising more and more that I have nothing to offer meaning to people’s lives, unless I have been touched by their doubts and glimpsed their chaos.

Jesus became our Saviour out of compassion, by embodying the hurts of the poor, the blind and oppressed, the ones who actually defined his mission. He came to us in powerlessness and if I don’t embrace powerlessness like Jesus I’m not following the agenda of the Spirit of God but rather my own.

There is a story which captures for me the essence of this powerless ministry.

A young mother had a handicapped son and she was conscious she had been over-protective so one day she let him go out alone. He was late returning and in her concern she went out to the street to wait for him. Finally when he appeared she rushed towards him saying ‘Where have you been?’ He replied ‘I was coming home and I met Carol. She dropped her doll and it broke.’ His mother blurted out, ‘And you had to stop and help her pick it up!’

‘No mother,’ he said, ‘I had to stop and help her cry.’

Confronted by others’ pain and suffering, we often do not have the right words. We do not always know the right thing to do. But we can always speak out of what we do not have: we can speak to the powerless out of our own powerlessness. Sure, there are often the practical things of compassion we can do [food, housing job search, etc] but it is also stopping and being there and taking time. We can always help people cry. Like the woman at the well I can be there and listen, and discover to my surprise that I am the one given a gift.

This going out to others who are victims of exclusion: those with addictions, the deaf, the unemployed, those with crippling mental health problems, defines mission. It defined the mission of Jesus and it defines the mission he gives us.

To be sent on mission is to be vulnerable and dependent. But this is the only proper response for a Sister of Compassion in a world which produces the homeless and the hurting and the stranger.

At one stage Albert Camus in speaking to Dominicans in France said:

There is in this world beauty and there are the humiliated. We must strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful, neither to the one or the other.

We must strive, hard as it is, to live in this powerless tension.

And this is where I consider I am so blessed. While I am privileged to be with those who are the humiliated; for several years now I have been part of this parish and I want you to know how often I am inspired by you, by your kindness and your love.

In the Incarnation, God takes on human flesh in Jesus in the Eucharist and in all who live out their faith. What Jesus did we can do too, and it is what I so often see you living out – in your concern for each other, especially the sick and elderly, our grieving together, the support of families and the love the children are surrounded with, not only from their own families. We now need to extend our outreach into the wider community.

I appreciate the celebration of our liturgies which are so vibrant only because many of you invest such effort into preparation.

I know that many of you carry burdens and deep sorrows and face all kinds of uncertainties and struggles.

We do need each other and hopefully you gain strength and encounter God through the Eucharist and the love of this community.

Once again I want to thank you.

And would I do it again?

I have lived great joy.

I have been stretched mentally and spiritually.

I have had an ever deepening search for the love of my life, the living, loving God.

Would I do it again? Yes, definitely.

I believe I can do no other.