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Mater Misericordiae Hospital centenary mass

Mark Raper SJ

Homily at the Centenary 1906-2006 of Mater Misericordiae Hospital Mass
St Mary’s North Sydney
12 February 2006


Many of us are here because of a personal connection with the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, whether as benefactors, staff or volunteers, or perhaps as patients. We are but a handful of the tens of thousands of people touched over the past century, and still today, by the North Sydney Mater. Some of us grew up in its shadow. Some of us, myself included, were born there. My mother, who is here today, of course remembers more of that event than I do.

Through symbols and the participation of many we celebrate 100 years of faith, courage, innovation and service to the community. 100 years of the healing ministry of our faith: welcoming, healing, integrating, and making whole. “I was ill and you cared for me.” (Mt 25:36)

Until Latin classes began I confused the word “mater” and “martyr”, and wrongly assumed the hospital was named after that excruciatingly painful ordeal expected of brave Catholics who stand up for their faith. For us boys, when injured at footy, we had a choice between martyrdom by the stony glare of Matron at our school infirmary, or martyrdom through endurance in the queue at Mater Outpatients.

Now we all know well that Mater Misericordiae means Mother of Mercy, a maternal and compassionate Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Healing is the fruit of mercy. Healing flows from a loving heart. You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. Goodness does not calculate. It rejoices in giving. Love is the opposite not of hate, but of fear. Love drives out all fear.

The Mater today is not the Mater we knew as children. The Mater Public Hospital is no longer, few sisters remain to serve in today’s hospital, in fact the Sisters of Mercy are no longer the proprietors, though still well and truly connected to the place, and the Mater Private may now look a fairly solid, and businesslike outfit. The Mater has found a different niche and a way to continue. After the demise of the General hospital in 1982, a flourishing new Private has risen (“like a Phoenix ”, as predicted) and the manifold services it offers without discrimination are a joy to witness.

In the histories and reports of the early sisters, there are frequent references to the experiences of the Mercy Sisters and the Sisters of Charity in the Crimea , when Florence Nightingale modelled her service on the example of those sisters, who in this enterprise, are partners again. But the Crimea War, some remarked, was a Sunday picnic compared with the battle to save the Mater Public in the early 1980s.

There were many battles, sometimes simply for survival, sometimes against sectarianism, sometimes for a just share of public funding. There were surely many anguished decisions as the needs of the community changed, as medicine became more complex, and as ethical questions were sharpened.

Human history is like breathing. We are the lungs of God’s creation. God breathed life into Adam. Christ gave up the spirit with his last breath on the cross. The Spirit breathed new life into the Church at Pentecost. Every moment of the life of each person and of each human endeavour has this rhythm of breathing in and breathing out.

In each phase of our history, God’s creative hand is at work in our lives. We are naturally impatient and want to skip the intermediate stages on the way to something new. Looking back with the hindsight of history, let us trust the slow work of God. Accept the anxiety of feeling incomplete, and give him the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.

By its integration in recent years into the Sisters of Charity Health Care, the Mater has joined an extensive and collaborative network of service to the community enabling it to continue the healing ministry of our faith in order to meet today’s needs. The Gospel draws special attention to Jesus’ healing ministry: He healed a man with leprosy; he gave sight to two people who were blind; for one who was mute, he enabled him to speak; he brought a young girl back to life; he cured the woman who was haemorrhaging. He cured every kind of ailment and disease.

Today’s Gospel highlights the healing ministry. A nameless woman, her life literally draining away, totally impoverished since she has spent all she had on doctors, her “uncleanliness” leaving her as good as dead, more isolated and lonely than we can imagine, comes and secretly, with faith, touches the fringe of his clothes.

Why does Jesus bring this shameful matter into the open? Well we might ask, why do we celebrate in such a public way today the secret, private goodness of the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, and their thousands of collaborators who don’t ask for fame? In the Gospel, healing is never a private matter. Healing is a profound human experience. “Go in peace.” Jesus says to the woman. It is not a band-aid put on a scratch, but a reconciliation with the community. He gives wholeness, harmony.

Through his good news Jesus heals the sick in body, mind and spirit. Healing the body is worthless when the spirit is left bruised or broken. Neither teaching nor healing have lasting value if they do not open the mind and heart to the hidden presence of God. The work of Jesus is to unite, integrate and make whole.

The Holy Father in his recent Encyclical, “God is Love” asks that those engaged in the charitable work of the Church receive, in addition to their professional training, a “formation of the heart”. He speaks of a “heart which sees” where love is needed and acts accordingly. In another place, quoting Pope Gregory the Great, Benedict reminds us: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice”.

Today we celebrate countless experiences of mercy, charity and justice, and we renew a commitment to the same ministry. The Mater’s website speaks of its distinctive characteristics: Compassion, Justice, Respect, Excellence, Mercy and Hospitality. Today, at the time when we normally recite the Creed, we will have a ceremony of commitment to these qualities. It is not simply some humanistic replacement of the creed, but it is an act of faith. As Chesterton said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It has not been tried.”

If we live these qualities, we are putting our faith into practice, as the people of the Mater have been doing for 100 years.

Mark Raper SJ AM is Provincial of the Australian Jesuits. He worked for twenty years with refugees, serving as International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service from 1990 to 2000.

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