On the International Day of Women: Remembering Australia’s First Saint

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St Mary MacKillop

On 17 October 2020, there was great happiness in Rome when Cardinal George Pell celebrated Mass and gave the occasional sermon at Domus Australia to mark the 10th anniversary of the canonization of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. The event recalled the good heart of Australia. Sr Maria Casey, Fr. Paul Gardiner SJ, and Mr. Tim Fischer [then ambassador to the Holy See] who worked for the process were remembered with thanks. The “great cloud of witnesses” [Rev. 12:1] of so many Josephite sisters in their dedicated service was remembered and cherished and praised.

St Mary MacKillop, said the Cardinal, “led and interesting and full life” and “knew that in the Christian dispensation suffering can be, and with faith, is a strong reliable currency.” She continued with successes and endured bitter reverses. Those present at the Mass knew that so it has been for Cardinal Pell, a determined and persistent man of faith, who was publicly celebrating with cardinatial dignity for the first time after so many reverses.

— Fr. Robert McCulloch


10th Anniversary of Canonization of St. Mary of the Cross

Cardinal George Pell

This tenth anniversary celebration of the canonization of St. Mary of the Cross Mackillop provides us with an opportunity to thank the good God once again for the life and achievement of the cofounder of the Josephites, and to thank God for the mighty and continuing contribution of the sisters since the small beginnings in South Australia in 1866.

We celebrate in the unusual times of the COVID pandemic, the first such world-wide plague since the Spanish flu immediately after the First World War. Two major changes since 1919 might be mentioned. Today our medical knowledge is far superior about both diagnosis and treatment, although the pursuit of a successful vaccine remains inconclusive. The second point is that this is probably the first occasion in history that (as in Europe) many of the population confront the challenge without any belief in life after death, and it is probably this fear which has strengthened public acceptance of the draconian restrictions imposed by governments to limit the spread of infections.

Australia, of course, has suffered less than, e.g., Italy, much helped by our isolation; and in fact, the number of deaths of the elderly (a month or so ago) in Australia was 1000 fewer than last year! We thank God for this.

As believers, however, especially on an occasion like this, we should grasp the opportunity to consider the basic issues; as we used to say, to consider our last end and what we should be doing in the interim. The Gospel reminds us of the flowers of the fields, which are more beautiful even than the robes of Solomon – for a brief time, before they are thrown into the furnace. I often quote St Mary’s reminder that, “we are but travelers here”, that we don’t have unlimited time and numerous opportunities. We should do God’s will now, whatever the difficulties; not distracted by our concerns about tomorrow because each day has trouble enough of its own. It is so easy to spend much time, expense, and nervous energy on what is unimportant in any truly human scheme of things, and especially one which is Christian. It is the pagans, those who don’t know the one true God and His concern for us, who spend their lives worrying about what we are to eat, drink, and wear.

The canonization was a happy and a good occasion for both the Church and our nation. All Christians and most Australians were pleased that Mary’s contributions have been recognized internationally. 8,000 Australian pilgrims came to Rome for the ceremony led by Pope Benedict in St. Peter’s Square and the thanksgiving Mass on the following day at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, the traditional burial place of St. Paul. The basilica has a long association with England, as the English kings before the Reformation were honorary canons there and Bishop Salvado, who had been abbot at the Benedictine monastery in New Norcia, Western Australia, brought two young indigenous monks from Australia to the monastery in the nineteenth century under Pope Pius IX. Neither of them long survived. Catholics and Australians generally recognized that the first canonization of a local saint marks a significant stage of development, civically and religiously. The fact that Mary’s people were from Scotland helped her popularity among the Anglo Australians, and the divisions in Australia were not as deep and contested then as they have since become.

In the first reading we heard about the ninth century B.C. prophet Elijah, who played a leadership role in the struggle to maintain the monotheist tradition against the notorious Jezebel and the hapless Ahab, her unfortunate husband, also a bad man devoted to Baal. We know of the violent confrontation between Elijah and the 300 prophets of Baal and of his subsequent flight from Ahab to Zarephath, in Sidonia, where he was fed miraculously from the small amount of bread and oil remaining to the dying widow and her only son.

We too in Australia know the types of drought Elijah experienced nearly three thousand years ago. Indeed, for eighty per cent of the time we Europeans have lived on our continent there has been a drought somewhere. And more and more we know of the struggle to maintain and pass on the monotheist tradition.

The sisters regularly had more than the cup of oil and scrap of bread of the poor widow, but we can easily see how poor people were in Australia, even after the discovery of gold in the 1850s until World War Two, and how basic Catholic schooling was before government funding started to arrive in the 1960s. It was nuns like the Josephites, who provided the bulk of the teachers at the old bush and city schools, with their “seedy desks and benches” immortalized in the poetry of Monsignor Patrick Hartigan, better known as John O’Brien. 

In our age of highly educated, credentialed teachers and well-equipped buildings, many of the motley host of memories of the old bush schools have vanished.

“A queer, old battered landmark that belongs to other years; / With the dog-leg fence around it, and its hat about its ears, / And the cow-bell in the gum-tree, and the bucket on the stool”.

Australian society today owes an enormous debt to the teaching brothers and these sisters, like the Josephites, who were at their work of service in the schools and elsewhere in good times and in bad, in the seasons of plenty, as well as the droughts and flooding rains over 150 years, so providing the foundations for contemporary prosperity and cohesion.

Because of their efforts and those of the priests in the parishes, Australia, and especially the Irish Catholic communities, became more prayerful and religious as the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century progressed; but even then, and especially now, we have many Australians who are quite different from the persons described in the psalm today as having souls that are longing and searching, pining for God like a dry, weary land without water. Recently, a priest from a small country parish wrote to tell me he knew no such people in his area. Like St. Mary MacKillop we too have our challenges, although the more strident attacks on the church will certainly provoke interest and faith in some or many of the indifferent and the lazy.

St. Mary MacKillop led an interesting and full life, seeing the numbers in her order grow exponentially, spreading from South Australia to Queensland and New South Wales and even to Victoria and New Zealand. Her nuns were spreading heartfelt compassion, bringing that deep peace of Christ to the hearts of many, especially those with clear consciences.

But she adopted the name of Mary of the Cross, and she knew that growth in godliness came not just through her successes, but also in the bitter reverses; through her excommunication by Bishop Shiel; through the struggle with many bishops on the question of control of the order; when Cardinal Moran prevented her being superior general; through the differences, the going of separate ways by Mary and her co-founder Fr Julian Tenison Woods, by the false accusations, the opposition and hostility of a few of her sisters; by her long-term health problems and the final years as an invalid.

Mary knew that we are redeemed by the suffering of the man-God on a cross and that the work of the Kingdom is not achieved merely by affirmation and publicly recognised growth or human flourishing.

She was a determined and persistent woman of faith, who pressed on through her difficulties, was away in Europe by herself for two years securing the future of her sisters. She knew that in the Christian dispensation suffering can be, and with faith, is a strong, reliable currency.

We must work to incorporate this basic truth, this understanding into our hearts and to spread the word to help believers cope with their own challenges.

Many people have written to me from many countries fearful that the Church is facing increasing misunderstanding and hostility. They are not necessarily correct because life is unpredictable. No master plan produced Mary MacKillop.

But for a Christian, difficulties need not mean diminishment or even disappointment. I don’t think it was our Lord who said, “When the going is tough, the tough get going,” but he did tell us to take up our cross; that our burden is light. As they say in the classics, “we should get on our bikes”.

We do know that the Saviour of the world hung on the cross.

We thank God that Saint Mary of the Cross understood this well and I am sure she wants us to share this belief and this hope.

Domus Australia Chapel


17th October 2020

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