St Mary of the Cross MacKillop: let the truth be told

St Mary of the Cross MacKillop: let the truth be told

Peter Westmore

Peter Westmore, publisher of AD2000, was present in St Peter's Square for the canonisation ceremony for St Mary MacKillop and five others and has filed this report.

About 8,000 Australian Catholics travelled to St Peter's in Rome to mark the joyous occasion when Pope Benedict XVI pronounced the canonisation of Australia's first saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, foundress of the Josephite Sisters.

St Mary MacKillop was one of six people canonised before around 100,000 people crowded into St Peter's Square on Sunday morning, 17 October. During the ceremony Pope Benedict described St Mary as "inspirational".

This event was celebrated by all Australian Catholics and attracted extensive, if not always well-informed, coverage in the secular media. No doubt part of this was due to the novelty of Australia's first saint, but there is also great interest in her life, which was marked by extraordinary difficulties, some of which arose from a misuse of clerical authority.

Nevertheless, she persevered in establishing schools throughout Australia, particularly in rural areas, where none previously existed, so as to provide a sound Catholic education for thousands of children. She also founded other institutions to help the poor and marginalised as part of the Catholic Church's response to the great social problems of the day.

St Mary embodied great personal holiness, a vision of what was needed to address the religious and educational crisis in her time, and a ready willingness to accept the responsibilities which she had assumed and the burden of suffering which her vocation demanded.

Without the heroic mission of the religious sisters and brothers who established primary and secondary schools throughout Australia from the 1870s onwards, exemplified by St Mary MacKillop, a generation of Australian Catholics would never have gained a sound knowledge of the faith and access to the sacraments.

Her order, the Brown Josephites, established hundreds of schools throughout Australia with no support from state or federal governments. In these schools, not only was Catholicism taught, but the sisters by their exemplary lives gave living witness to the faith, and inspired a deep devotion to it which was maintained in the Catholic community until a generation or two ago.

The fact that until the 1960s over half of Australia's Catholic population attended Mass every Sunday was a measure of the contribution teaching religious orders like the Josephites made to the Church and Australian society.

The ravages on Catholics of the 1960s cultural revolution - which involved dissent against the Church's teaching on human sexuality, widened to a denial of the Church's moral authority and eventually to a wholesale rejection of the institutional Church - was due largely to the impact of moral relativism and individualism. It slashed church attendances, destroyed not a few religious orders and created a generation of lapsed Catholics.

Not surprisingly, some people have tried to enlist Mary MacKillop in support of their own pseudo-religious or secular agendas.

One ABC program, for example, enlisted St Mary as the persecuted heroine who was excommunicated for trying to expose the evil of sexual abuse by the clergy. In fact, as the promoter of her cause, Fr Paul Gardiner SJ, has documented, her excommunication was the result of jealousy over the success of her mission by a number of priests who had the ear of a sick bishop. That injustice was corrected relatively quickly.

Others have portrayed her as a feminist victimised by a male-dominated hierarchy. Again, St Mary's own writings show that she totally and humbly accepted the authority of the Church's leaders, willingly submitting to it even when it was exercised foolishly or unfairly.

At the same time, she was determined that the Sisters of St Joseph should be internally self-governing, while always subject to the direction of the Church in matters of faith, morals and discipline. It was the insistence of some bishops that her Sisters should be responsible to the local bishop that occasioned a split in her order which has persisted to the present day.

Tim Fischer, Australia's Ambassador to the Holy See, has painted St Mary as a primarily a fighter for the underprivileged and while such an interpretation fits comfortably with the secular media - which knows nothing of her life other than a few popular themes – the reality was far more significant.

At the very time when the Brown Josephites, the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, Christian Brothers, and many other religious orders were establishing Catholic schools throughout rural and urban areas, every colonial and then state government was establishing a comprehensive system of quality primary and secondary schools across the country.

If St Mary's aim were merely to establish schools for the underprivileged, she was, to be blunt about it, wasting her time. The state had vastly more resources, and offered a comprehensive education for every child at no cost. It was, in the memorable phrase of Sir Henry Parkes at the time, "free, compulsory and secular".

What was distinctive about St Mary and her Sisters is that they provided a  Catholic education, and played a crucial role in creating vibrant Catholic communities which have been a creative presence in all walks of life in Australia over the past century or more.

Whether educated by the Brown Josephites or not, every Australian Catholic has reason to be grateful for the heroic witness of St Mary MacKillop.

The fact that some have, for their own purposes, enlisted her to advance their agendas is a strong reason why the full truth about Australia's newly canonised saint should be discussed and celebrated.

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