Good afternoon. It is great to be with you today to celebrate this important anniversary of 150 years after the death of Elizabeth Prout.
My name is Rosaleen Murray and this year I am celebrating 50 years of being a Sister of the Cross and Passion. Only one hundred more to go!
150 years is indeed a long time. Elizabeth died in 1864. Look at the changes that have occurred since then. Every decade brings even more change. If we even think back to the changes in the last 25 years we can see a real difference. Not only to the way we live, how we live, what we buy, how we look, but also how we think, what values we have, what constitutes society for us, what constitutes happiness for us.
I doubt that Elizabeth ever thought about 150 years in the future. She might not even have been certain that the congregation she founded would still be here.
She certainly could not have foreseen how her sisters would spread beyond Lancashire, living and working in many other countries across the globe.
For instance, if she were to come back today and take a walk around Sutton where she had lived and worked in her lifetime, do you think she would be surprised? What would she think of the mobile phones, the television sets, the cars, the airplanes, the speed of life, modern dress, modern day attitudes, computers, iPods, iPads etc etc?
We could forgive her for being confused, could we not?
Even if she were to look at the way her Sisters dress and live, she might be surprised.
She might wonder is there anything that still remains of the world she knew. She might wonder what remains of the legacy of the early congregation, her own legacy and that of the early sisters. She might ask what continues to inspire and energize her sisters today as well as all the people who know and understand what her life stood for.
What could we say to her? And what does remain that she would recognize in our society today?
She would surely recognize the same struggle of ordinary people to survive, to get a job, to live a dignified life in a time of recession. She would quickly see the pain of the chronically and terminally ill, the loneliness of the old, the difficulty young working class and poor people have still in gaining access to a good education.
She would notice the plight of adults, especially women still caught in abusive relationships. She would reach out to young children whose innocence is being violated and ruined. And further afield than the British Isles, where her sisters work in other countries, she would empathize with the frailty of children who never get a square meal. She would want to walk beside the vulnerable people who live in the slums of big cities, despised and excluded from medical aid, fresh water, good food, decent education and whose lack of self worth is so strong that they may even think of themselves as trash because others judge them to be so.
Many years ago when I was working in a very poor area in Peru, one lady said something to me that has remained with me throughout the rest of my life. Very sadly she looked at me and said, “Sister, you do realize that we are all trash here!”
Elizabeth would particularly sympathize with the ongoing and still unresolved struggle of women for justice in society.
No doubt, for one raised among the smells and smoke of industrial England, she would be sensitive to the pollution still contaminating the air of the planet, still causing illness and disease in the name of industry and profit.
And we know that her heart would respond to all this suffering.
And it is this reaching out of the heart of Elizabeth Prout that is our legacy. Compassion. This is her silent message to us today. Reach out in compassion. Hopefully this is what she would see today in those of us who have been inspired by her life and work.
She has left this compassionate heart that is able to respond with sympathy to hurting people, to our brothers and sisters in the Lord who are without support, without love in a world that is now charcterised by selfishness, and isolation. People are lonelier now than ever before.
Francis of Assisi is credited with the saying: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words”. I think that we can apply the living out of this to Elizabeth.
We don’t have any long sermons or exhortations from her. She didn’t leave us any poetry, any list of to do commands. She is more of a witness, and a prophet to us, than a teacher. A teacher describes to us what is, or explains to us what we should be doing. And we do value good teachers. A witness and prophet just do it, get on with it, even if it causes controversy.
The witness and prophet teach by example in a practical, compassionate, engaging with the mess of life.
As the first reading from first Corinthians that we heard today says:
“ I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.
I may have the gift of inspired preaching. I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets but if I have no love, I am nothing”.
And Elizabeth was a practical hands- on sort of loving woman. We know that when the sisters fell ill to an epidemic it was she who cared for them, cleaned, cooked, nursed, supported, encouraged them even though she was ill herself. She responded to the real needs of people where they where, not where she thought they should be.
She set up sewing and cooking classes for working class women to help them increase their skills and care for their families properly. Today in underdeveloped countries this would be seen as a necessary and commendable passing on of basic skills project.
She set up homes for factory workers where the sisters were to be like Mothers to the girls living in them, some as young as 13 years.
Her schools were those that taught the very poor, the ragged poor, the half timers at the mills and were in places where most teachers would not want to go.
Again the reading from Corinthians says:
“Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud”
Elizabeth did what she had to do to help those in need. She was in constant pain from her tubercular knee. She had to walk long distances to teach in school but she did it all the time. She just got on with it. Imagine that without a couple of paracetamol pain killers!
Apart from her ill health and struggle, everything that could have been thrown at her was. Her response was one of faith and focusing her eye on the poor people that needed her. She struggled on and won through. Like so many of us still have to do today.
“Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.”
She was abandoned time and again by companions who drifted away from the small group.
She was painfully betrayed by some of them who complained to others about their way of life. One up and coming star got the community into great debt and took off. Elizabeth had no other option but to go and beg in Ireland, to get enough money for the institute to survive. She did what she had to do to save the institute but can you imagine the humiliation of it?
She was criticized by local priests of the time, nervous of the fact that the institute was a poor one, unlike other orders whose rich founders brought financial resources to their enterprise. Everything that the early sisters had, they earned themselves.
Then, because of backbiting and rumours, the Diocese subjected the institute to an investigation. Although the charges were found to be false, can you imagine the worry and stress, the fear that the order would be closed down?
At the end, even her good name was attacked. We have a record of what Father Ignatius Spencer said about that”
‘Do you not see that God is asking you for the rarest thing you can give? Give your good name then freely, and thank Him for taking it. Don’t you see that by this you are resembling Him more clearly? . . Let us resign ourselves unreservedly into His hands. “
“Resembling him more clearly.” That is certainly worth thinking about when we consider Elizabeth!
By her gentle fortitude, determined compassion and steadfastness in the face of adversity, we can see that Elizabeth was spurred on and inspired by the gospel values of Jesus Christ.
We can see again and again how she “preached the gospel at all times using words when necessary!”
To all the difficulties that she encountered in her own life and the life of the early congregation, Elizabeth responded with faith and hope and courage.
To the difficulties she encountered in the suffering people of her time, she responded with compassion and love and determination to keep on giving that love through the institute she was putting together, and fighting for its survival with all the strength that her poor sick body could muster. Frail in body but strong in spirit.
Her way of doing and being was socially progressive, spiritually inspiring and psychologically challenging.
When we look at the second reading that we have heard today from John 13: v. 1-15, we see Jesus washing his disciples feet. Peter didn’t want it. He refused it. He was shocked by it. Jesus taught him humility by washing his feet. Then, once he gets the message that Jesus is trying to teach him, he goes to the opposite extreme and says that Jesus can wash his hands and head as well!
Jesus shows us his human hands- on approach here. He says little. He just kneels down and gets on with the job of washing his disciples’ feet, a task that was usually carried out by slaves.
What is he saying to us? Do we get the message?
Did Elizabeth get the message that Christ was trying to communicate? I think that she did. Perhaps more than we can ever understand.
Jesus teaches us that we have to be servants to one another, that we have to care for one another’s needs, that there are no superior beings among us, that we are all servants to one another, that we must be willing to wash the feet of others and also let them wash our feet. It is a two- way relationship.
Jesus is saying that we are a community of equals.
One of Elizabeth’s aspirations when she founded the institute was so that working class women could become religious on an equal footing within the new community. They would need no dowry. Most religious orders in those days demanded a dowry from women wishing to join and it was a practice even up to quite recently. This precluded women whose families lacked financial resources, in fact, most working- class women. Moreover many orders had two classes of sisters, those who were educated (choir sisters) and those who were not (lay sisters) The lay sisters did all the menial work such as cooking, washing and cleaning.
But Elizabeth wanted a community of equals, as Jesus had.
This was extraordinary at the time. Even now the most difficult thing that we can do is try to live in an equal, respectful and honest partnership with others, without prejudice or judgement.
Moreover, some of the early sisters were uneducated factory girls. Mill workers and factory workers, who had to work for a living often in rough conditions, were generally despised by wealthier people and indeed even by other working class people of the time. I come from Belfast and even today the word “millies”, referring to girls who had worked in the linen mills, is a derogatory term, in spite of the fact that there hasn’t been a working mill in the city for decades. The derogatory sense of the word still remains although the places they worked in have long gone.
So, in Elizabeth’s day, when she hoped for a form of religious life that accepted not only women without a dowry but uneducated ones at that, as full and equal members of community, she was proposing a truly revolutionary and gospel- inspired initiative.
A practical woman of compassion; a socially progressive thinker; a supporter of access to education for all people; a quiet leader who was nevertheless criticized for her loud laughter (my personal favorite); a woman with heart who was moved at the sight of injustice and suffering; a forward thinker desiring an inclusive community of equals.
If we could take away one thing from Elizabeth Prout today 150 years after her death, then, let it be her compassionate, practical love.
“Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.
Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love”
Thank you and may the Passion of Jesus be in OUR hearts.