Mary Glowrey and Pope Benedict fought same battle for culture of life

Mary Glowrey, front, tends to children in the dispensary that would become St Joseph’s Hospital in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh in India. From the Glowrey Papers, copyright of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga.

Red-Letter Advent: Awakening consciences to nascent mystery

“Every beginning brings a special grace, because it is blessed by the Lord,” so Pope Benedict XVI opens a new Church year and the liturgical season of Advent 2010 (Homily 27 November 2010). This Advent marks two very notable “beginnings” for Australia, the Church and the World.

In his few homilies and addresses thus far, Pope Benedict has brought us an exquisitely tuned synthesis of biblical, liturgical and spiritual themes which evoke the patient waiting and yet the fierce wakefulness of the expectant mother.   

He points out the explicitly maternal nature of Christian spiritual pregnancy: “During the Season of Advent we shall feel the Church which takes us by the hand - and, in the image of Mary Most Holy, expresses her motherhood.”

Advent, for Pope Benedict, is not simply a time of cosy sentimentality or self-congratulation, but a time of vigorous prophecy and expectation; of the purification and nurturing of conscience, of our being shaken awake to the reality of our beginnings and our final End.

The Biblical story of Jesus before His birth itself reminds us of the clash of two very different ways of seeing the world and people.  This is vividly pictured by Bishop Anthony Fisher OP (in his homily this year paralleling the Pope’s):  “There is more and worse.  There is a plot to kill the baby, hatched by a power crazed king.  The family must flee as refugees … In Advent, creation is pregnant with hope of new life but there are those who would terminate that hope.”

This Advent, Benedict XVI is forging a fresh and distinctive path in the Church’s evangelisation of the “culture of life”- a world-wide preaching and witness begun at the Second Vatican Council and brought into powerful prominence by Pope John Paul II.

While John Paul II used his large distinctive gestures to lay the broad philosophical foundations of this massive icon of the “culture of life”, Pope Benedict lays the delicate gold-leaf of liturgical and theological setting which is essential for this culture.   It is precisely for this reason that he calls all people “of life” to gather in adoration and the recitation of the psalms rather than to a public rally.

For Pope Benedict, liturgy means engagement with, not withdrawal from, the philosophical and cultural struggle.  In fact the liturgy is the fire which ignites the hearts of those who take the love of God outwards.  

The Vigil “for nascent life” is directed four square to modern man and woman and especially at  secular culture and institutions. “We are part of this world, tied to the possibilities and limitations of our material condition.”

Benedict declares this Advent as a time for prayerful vigil of the ‘nascent’ Saviour and at the same time the ecclesial and global vigilance for all unborn and frail human life.  

There is no escaping the timeliness of this.  

To believe in Jesus Christ means to see all human beings as intrinsically valuable.  

This is not a private belief.  Benedict calls for all Christians and people of good will to reach out and strike a chord in “the understanding and wanting” (the hearts AND minds) of all other people so that they can see this too.

For Australians particularly, there is an additional dimension of the “grace of beginning” which ties in the Pope’s global Advent mission.  On the Feast of St Francis Xavier (3 December, once the patron saint of Australia and now the Missions), the Archdiocese of Melbourne announced the preliminary phase of the cause for canonisation of the extraordinary Sr Mary Glowrey.  

The coincidence of the earliest “beginnings” of the Church’s formal recognition of her life, her mission and her sanctity and the Pope’s themes can only described as providential.

When Pope Benedict XVI declared last week during his homily: “Love for all, moreover, if it is sincere, tends spontaneously to become preferential attention to the weakest and poorest.  

“This explains the Church’s concern for the unborn, the frailest, the most threatened by the selfishness of adults and the clouding of consciences.” Here, he seems to have potted the life and vision of Sr Mary to precision.

In his luminous and comprehensive essay on Sr Mary’s life (published in Annals April-May this year), Fr Dan Strickland MGL writes that she was “a woman of profound faith and brilliant achievement …” who seems to have prefigured the “culture of Life” mission by over 80 years.

Not only was she a devoted and remarkably gifted Doctor of Medicine, one of the rare and first women of her time to become such, she was also a prophetic leader.  

She organised her fellow medical students against practices she describes as “contrary to natural law”: such practices included sterilisation of the poor and the “benign neglect” of disabled babies. She also wrote a booklet for

Archbishop Thomas Carr (Melbourne) against infanticide.

Fr Dan points out “her service for human life ... would find particular expression in her medical care of women and children.”  

She realised, decades before, what Pope John Paul II would write in his Letter to Women and his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae: that it would be the “genius” of women which would lead in the building up of a culture of life.

Despite her spiritual humility and reticence, Mary Glowrey was elected the Founding President of the Catholic Women’s Social Guild in the midst of the social upheaval and carnage of World War I.  

The Guild would later become the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga and from it inception the Guild became a remarkable force in actively and concretely working for the social, intellectual and spiritual dignity of women and children.  

Sr Mary Glowrey and her members worked to improve the working and living conditions of soldiers’ families, the industrial action of female workers and submitting research and publications which promoted the inherent dignity and well being of women and their families. Mary, along with Dr Eileen Fitzgerald (another Guild member), founded an infant welfare clinic and a respite care home for the children of struggling families.

She believed that God had called her to take the Gospel via the service to life to the women and children of India.  She became a consecrated apostle of “health and life,” a “Sister Doctor” as she was called by the people.

Her daily work and suffering as a Doctor was, in portrait form, delineated by Pope John Paul II’s call to “respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!” (EV #5). This meant she practised the principles of palliative care long before it was named as such.  

She denounced the patronising principles of the Marie Stopes clinics, she incorporated Indian traditional medicine with her own practice. More boldly still, from her tiny and poorly equipped dispensary in Guntur, India, where she cared for countless hundreds of thousands of patients, she founded the Catholic Hospital Association of India (CHAI) and she wrote papers in 1936 to the International Medical Congress in Vienna denouncing Euthanasia and Eugenics – against those forces of death which would swallow up and annihilate both the consciences of Europe and whole populations of Jewish people.  

These early days of the investigation of her cause mark a very exciting “new advent” in the Church’s role in this millennium.

Published by The Record

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