Homily of Archbishop Dermot Farrell on the Occasion of
160th Anniversary of Arrival of the Bon Secours Sisters in Ireland and 70th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Bons Secours Hospital, Glasnevin
8th September 2021
I am delighted to come here this morning to celebrate Mass on the occasion of the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the Bon Secours Sisters in Ireland the 70th anniversary of the foundation of this hospital.
From the very outset of his ministry in Dublin, Cardinal Cullen demonstrated a keen appreciation of the distress of so many because of poverty. Following Jesus Christ implies a commitment to overcoming poverty. To overcome the poverty, deprivation and discrimination, educational, political and socio-economic systems had to be changed. In an attempt to alleviate the plight of poor Catholics in the aftermath of the ravages of the famine, Cullen embarked on a policy of social, educational and medical relief. I briefly allude to that history, as it is against this background the Bon Secours Sisters arrived in Ireland in 1861 to commence their apostolic mission. On the 18th May 1861 Cardinal Cullen received a letter from Sr. Marie-Joseph, Superior General, Paris, stating that she is sending the Sisters requested, with two Irish novices. Four sisters came to Dublin, bringing their mission of ‘Good Help’ and ‘Healing’ by caring for the sick and dying in their own homes.
With Ireland still suffering the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ and centuries of intermittent warfare for religious and political freedom, Dublin was an over-crowded and very poor city. Sisters of Bon Secours were the first to stay in the homes, caring for the sick and dying for as long as required. Gazing on the world from the perspective of those suffering is a key call of the Gospel. “The Gospel is demanding: it demands to be lived radically and sincerely. It is not enough to read it… Jesus asks us to practise it, to put his words into effect in our lives.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People).
From their original convent in Granville Street, Dublin, the sisters moved to Lower Mount Street and also took charge of a ‘Penny Dinner’ Hall, now run under the auspices of Cross Care Services, where the sisters continue to minister. Given all the changes that have taken place since their first arrival in Ireland in 1861, the sisters have not deviated from the charism of their foundress. From the beginning, the congregation of Bon Secours has been dedicated to the service of the sick, the poor and the needy. Mère Geay, who succeeded Mother Potel as head of the Congregation in 1826, was often heard say, “What shall we do for the poor? It is for the poor that I am concerned” (Constitutions, Revised, John S. Burns and Sons, Glasgow, 1980, p. 29, art 45). This concern was later formally written into the sisters’ constitutions: “Our communities should be characterised by simplicity of life, availability to others, and love for the poor… The cry of the poor shall echo in our lives” (Constitutions, pp 28-29, arts 43 and 46).
The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) spoke of two kinds of grace—cheap grace and costly grace: “cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” What your Constitutions put before you is certainly not cheap grace. In earlier days—the days of caring for the sick in their own homes—care of the destitute entailed many personal sacrifices on the part of the sisters. Real contact with the poor is needed to understand poverty. With the gradual move to institutional care that has marked the sisters’ work, care of the poor still continues as a major ministry of the Bon Secours. Has everything been perfect in that ministry? It would be naïve to think it had been. Such naivety would be but another actualization of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” as the illusion of “cheap grace” was also to be found in “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession” (The Cost of Discipleship, p 4 ). As Pope Francis puts it, “in life it is difficult for everything to be clear, precise and outlined neatly. Life is complicated; it consists of grace and sin. The one who does not sin is not human. We all make mistakes and need to recognise our weaknesses. A religious who recognises he or she is weak and a sinner does not deny the witness he or she is called to give” (Address to Union of Superiors General, Rome, 29th November 2013). Our witness to the gospel and its gift of life, comes not from our being perfect, but from our ability in our shortcomings to turn to Christ, and allow his forgiveness and acceptance become the hallmarks of our dealing with others.
In 1951, Bon Secours Hospital, Glasnevin opened and a major expansion was completed in 2006 and this modern acute general hospital is renowned for its high quality holistic care, for the sick, dying and their families.
A hospital is a place people come to be healed. Today hospitals have specialisations. This we are told makes for excellence. But excellence must be wed to compassion. Compassion is a word that litters the pages of the Gospels. Literally, it means “suffer with.” Patients need to sense in all staff that they care. Medicine is more than a computer, a patient is more than a medical chart. Beneath the computer, the surgical gown, the life-saving technology, the uniform, lies a Christian conviction; these patients are human beings, beloved of God and in need of human loving.
What would Josephine Potel or her successor, Angelique Geay, be doing if they were among us today? I think they would look at the world through the lens of the Beatitudes. If we are not to be trapped by isolation and indifference, we must assimilate the past so as to move creatively into the future. Of course, be faithful, but be willing to risk to deal with the unique problems of the poor today.
The slope of the aging population, along which Ireland is sliding, presents major challenges. Perhaps never before has there been such a need to care for the aging poor, as would Jesus Christ himself, and serve them with love and respect until death. In the words of Pope Francis: “A people that does not have care for the elderly, that does not treat them well, has no future: such a people loses its memory and its roots” (28th September 2014, St Peter’s Square).
Congratulations on the 160th anniversary of your arrival in Dublin. Since your arrival here it would be impossible to measure your impact on generations of families in the Archdiocese. I could not conclude this homily without expressing my gratitude to you, the Bons Secours Sisters, for your presence and ministry here in the Archdiocese of Dublin, beginning in the year 1861 at the invitation of Cardinal Cullen and for continuing to proclaim Christ in a world that is continually changing. I am delighted that your Congregation took up residence here in this City, and today still has a very visible and active presence here.
May the Holy Spirit enlighten you on the paths you are called to walk; comfort you in the face of challenges and difficulties; may you continue to be inspired by the magnificent figure of your foundress whose contemplation of the self-emptying of Christ was the source of her apostolic zeal. The same Holy Spirit came down upon Mary, and the power of her ‘Yes’ to God changed the world forever. By entrusting your Congregation and all its members to Virgin Mary, I pray that she will keep you under her maternal protection.