A Conversation with Catherine about COVID-19

1. Stained glass window portraying Catherine McAuley at Mercy Center in St. Louis
1. Stained glass window portraying Catherine McAuley at Mercy Center in St. Louis
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By Mark Piper, Mercy Associate

For Mercy sisters, associates and companions; Mercy Volunteer Corps members; students and educators; and healers and helpers across the educational, health care and social service ministries of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley—who followed Christ through the path of Mercy—is our comforting animator. She is a guide, in all that we do: in joy or in sorrow, or in the mingling of the two.

No matter that she has been dead for 179 years. Thanks to my prayers, imagination and a little inspiration from the late Sister Maureen Scott, who once gave a talk on what a conversation between Catherine and Cardinal John Henry Newman would be like, I have likewise provided a conversation between Catherine and me in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

This fictitious interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. [All responses are quotes attributed to Catherine. Many of these quotes are from her writings to Mary de Sales White.]

Q:  With social distancing brought on by this pandemic, many are now working from home. As it turns out, the home has many distractions—for example, children. Beyond the stress of staying healthy and employed, we also need to instruct our children on the schooling they are missing. With no finish line to this amended reality, how are we to manage this newfound, stressful, unknown without-end?

A: The simplest and most practical lesion I know… is to resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow. Let us take one day at a time … thus we may hope to get on taking short, careful steps, not great strides. [Also] attend to one thing at a time. You have fifteen hours from six til nine.

Q: Kitty Mac—can I call you Kitty Mac? There’s this thing called social media. It’s like real life but so much worse. Many of us are using social media a lot more to keep in touch and communicate with loved ones due to social distancing or shelter-in-place orders. What would you say when we encounter those saying salacious, misleading or mendacious things? What of those who post more selfies in one day than there are beads on a rosary?

A: Don’t let crosses vex or tease. Try to meet all with peace and ease.

[I inform Kitty Mac that that is a very tweetable response, and we go on a tangent about #CatholicTwitter. She seems mortified.]

Q: Gatherings and public mass are prohibited, as are church buildings and many other special places and locations of community. Distance is necessary to control the virus; loneliness and longing for friends, family and Communion is necessarily increasing. You had to improvise when you could not attend mass. How can we reconcile our duty to distance with our innate desire for togetherness?

A: We have one solid comfort amidst this tripping about, our hearts can always be in the same place, Centered in God, for whom alone we go forward or stay back.

Q: What can we do, individually, to keep our sanity and work in solidarity amidst this suffering?

A: Let us endeavor to use these days, such as we should wish the past to have been. Let us enter into the spirit of the Church, making this time a truly penitential season, mortifying the pride of self-opinion, performing all with humble heart.

Q: To whom shall we turn in this pandemic? Our healthcare system and health are on the brink, our economy and livelihoods are in dire straits. Our responses seem very disjointed from a global, national and even individual perspective. Whom shall we trust or implore for help? Certainly, health experts, but what of our local, national and global leaders?

A: We can never say it is enough. God and God alone must be the principal motive of all actions—it is this pure intention of pleasing God that renders good work valuable and meritorious. Without this … the most heroic actions and sacrifices are of little value.

Q: With all due respect, I’m not so sure that everyone is currently utilizing pure intentions.

A: God and God alone.

Q: But, I mean…

A: God and God alone! [And] The works of mercy unite us much more closely to Him.

[Awkward silence]

Q: I’ve taken to heart your Suscipe, and asked God to take from my heart all painful anxiety. Beyond anxiety, I have an increasing amount of anger. Like so many of your sisters, people whom I love are nurses, and I’m angry that they and so many others do not have the equipment they need to keep themselves and those they serve safe. What remedy is there to control our anxiety and anger so we can be present, calm and helpful?

A: Sweet Mercy! Soothing, patient, kind … soft peace she brings wherever she arrives [and] removes our anguish. We must try to be like those rivers which enter into the sea without losing any of the sweetness of the water.

Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that beginnings are of great importance. Where do we begin to help or heal? The enormity of this pandemic seems overwhelming. Keeping our families or those with whom we live safe and healthy, and attempting to maintain our employment or finding ourselves unemployed is a terrifying new reality for many. So many are in need of so much help, and so many in leadership seem to be falling so short.

A: God speaking to us by his inspired Apostles says—attend to thyself. Let us fly often to the foot of the cross and repose in the wounds of Jesus. He has written us in His hands. Shall we not write His wounds in our minds and hearts?

Q: We’re still in the early stages of this pandemic. It seems we’re much nearer the beginning of social distancing and other changes, and thus we may have many weeks or months to go before we “turn the corner,” or regain a semblance of how we used to work, gather and show fond affection. Have you any parting advice on how we are to go on when we cannot yet see the end?

A: The impression made on our minds by forty days meditation on Christ’s humiliations, meekness, and unwearied perseverance will help us on every difficult occasion … pray for your portion of Easter Grace. Pray fervently and constantly, do not give up…

Looking for more inspiration from Catherine and Mercy while #stayhomesavelives is our ongoing COVID-19 pandemic anthem? An unexhaustive list of very good reads: