Canonisation: about holiness, not miracles

Canonisation: about holiness, not miracles

Fr Paul Gardiner SJ

Father Paul Gardiner SJ, an Australian Jesuit, was for many years until his retirement in 2008 the official Postulator at the Vatican for the cause of Blessed Mary MacKillop's sainthood. He has written the authorised and definitive biography, 'An Extraordinary Australian: Mary MacKillop', and has kindly provided the following background for 'AD2000' on the imminent canonisation of Australia's first officially recognised saint.

When Stephen was stoned and other Christians were thrown to wild beasts, it was natural for their friends to lament their passing, but grief did not silence the triumphant psalm, 'To God be glory and praise forever!' The martyrs could now pray for their friends and inspire them to holiness.

This tradition still lives twenty centuries later. We praise God for his glory in Mary MacKillop's holiness, and we pray to be able to imitate her faith, her endurance of the Cross, and her kindness.

In those early years God's glory in his martyrs was celebrated on occasions like anniversaries. Later on, the faithful saw that a violent death was not the only evidence of the victory of God's grace, and the cult of other holy men and women joined that of the martyrs.

But enthusiasm can be ill- informed and motives can be doubtful, so the growth of such cults had to be controlled. Stories of 'saints' and 'miracles' had to be examined more carefully, and this scrutiny became stricter with time. Today it is very strict indeed.

When Mary MacKillop died in 1909 she was regarded as more than a good woman who had done great things in education and care of the unfortunate. People touched her body with rosaries and took home scoops of earth from around her grave at Gore Hill (Sydney) - unusual practices indicating that they regarded her as a saint.

In some such cases where people are convinced that there has been a saint among them a Church investigation can lead to a proclamation that they were right. The present practice is then to seek a sign of divine endorsement of this human judgment. This is commonly called a miracle.

The Church is not concerned with any philosophical definition of miracles. She simply states the conditions she wants fulfilled. As a physical illness is usually involved, medical specialists are asked whether, in the light of current medical knowledge, they can explain the outcome of the case submitted to them. They are not asked if it is a miracle. It is enough that they say they cannot explain what happened.

This is where the Cause of Blessed Mary of the Cross stands at the moment. Pope Benedict XVI has agreed that the last condition for canonisation has been fulfilled. The media reaction has been mostly positive, but the emphasis tends to give the impression that Mary MacKillop is to be canonised because of a miracle. The miracle is a condition that could be dispensed with. The cause is her holy life, her union with God.

Will of God

The papal decree issued in 1992 to proclaim Mary's heroic sanctity opened with a citation of something she wrote in 1873: 'To me the will of God is a dear book which I am never tired of reading, which has always some new charm for me. - I cannot tell you what a beautiful thing the will of God seems to me.'

Holiness, the heart of canonisation, consists in doing the will of God. That is why in those last years of paralysis in her wheelchair Mary was far from being 'a retired saint'. She was a saint at her very best, because she was doing the will of God in most trying circumstances. It is not achievement that makes saints, it is holiness.

When her Cause was taken up in the 1920s the authorities in Sydney called for anything she had written and for other documents relating to her life. A Tribunal was set up in 1925 to interrogate people who had known her, but it was interrupted in 1931 when an important document could not be produced from the Vatican archives. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the case seemed to have no future.

The notary at that Tribunal, Father Norman Gilroy, was never happy about the interruption. Twenty years later, as Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, he obtained the 'missing' document and re-opened the Cause. His role was of vital importance.

The formal Introduction of the Cause was eventually declared in a papal decree read at the Melbourne Eucharistic Congress in 1973. Among those present was the Cardinal of Cracow, later to be the pope who beatified Mary MacKillop.

The Cause was an excellent one, the decree said, but a full history called a Positio Super Virtutibus, had yet to be submitted. Moreover, further research might throw light on some obscurities in the story. Father Aldo Rebeschini of Melbourne attended to the research, and when in 1983 I was asked to go to Rome to write the Positio I was about to spend twenty-five years as Postulator of the Cause, guiding it in tandem with the Vatican Relator, Father Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit.

It was a great relief when the printer handed me bound copies of the Positio, and it was a very significant day when the Pope proclaimed Mary MacKillop's heroic holiness on 13 June 1992.

Now there had to be two miracles, one before beatification and the other after it. I had to prepare a Positio out of the evidence for the first one, and the decree accepting it was issued on 6 July 1993. This was the prelude to the beatification in 1995.

The second miracle decree, complementing that first one, was what caused all the excitement recently on 19 December 2009. The preparation of the Positio that led to it was almost entirely the work of the Josephite Sister Maria Casey who was appointed Postulator when I retired in 2008. She has prepared the way to canonisation.

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