Both my Primary school and my Secondary school were run by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious congregation founded by Catherine McAuley, in Dublin, in 1831. Whilst I can’t remember any explicit teaching about Catherine McAuley, I can remember the atmosphere the sisters created in the school and the values they embodied. We often had school Masses, usually in the playground, as this was the only place large enough for whole school. At one such Mass I remember singing the words, ‘Mercy, droppeth as a gentle rain’ as a refrain, to a simple, haunting melody. I wouldn’t have been aware that these words were Shakespeare’s, but was keenly aware of how they made me feel. I associate these words with a quality of tenderness, of quiet acts of kindness, a smile or a gentle acknowledgement. At that young age mercy felt within my reach, something simple that I could do. In later years, when we studied the Merchant of Venice, I would learn the rest of the quotation:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
My understanding of mercy deepened as we studied Shakespeare, though I don’t think I was able to make the connection with the literary text and my own life. And now after more than 20 years of living according to the Rule of St Benedict, mercy is a ‘building block’ of my life. Each day there are opportunities to grow in this quality, each day there are situations that call for mercy.
I look forward to seeing how Pope Francis continues to embody mercy throughout this year.