When I first heard that Mary MacKillop was born in Fitzroy I felt an immediate link: after all I barracked for Fitzroy. To my child’s mind it seemed as though the Church was giving its seal of approval to football. But of course there is more to Mary MacKillop than that.
Some facts about Mary MacKillop are well known: she was the founder of the Sisters of St Joseph and she had a run-in with a Bishop who pulled rank and excommunicated her for a time. Being Australians, we called her religious Sisters “the Brown Joeys” and loved them for their ordinariness and accessibility. In an age when religious women were very dependent on the local Bishop, Mary decided that her Sisters would “work in consultation and cooperation with the diocesan bishop but not under his complete authority.” The bishops were affronted and Mary and her fledgling religious institution became the scandal of the Catholic bureaucracy. As the work of the Josephites spread and the foundations of the Catholic Education system were laid, this humble woman was perceived by some bullying, authoritarian Church leaders as a tall poppy, to be cut down to size.
People who “stick their necks out” and in the process get things done have healthy egos. Mary MacKillop was one. We think of her as a humble woman, which she was, but she had a healthy ego. As a young woman she was secure and confident in the belief that she was called to do God’s work in the Australian Church and that in so doing she was an instrument of God. She encouraged her Sisters to live with the poor of the Australian slums and country towns without the protection of solid buildings and encircling walls, the accepted custom for religious women. When challenged by the ecclesiastical authorities about this and other innovative practices, she was able to respond with respect, confidence and humility because she knew that in so doing she was simply a channel of the ongoing action of God’s Spirit. She was a great woman, a powerful woman, but she never claimed it as her own. She was never full of herself, only full of God.
I am proud of Mary MacKillop and proud too that she is recognised as an Australian woman who did something about the rights of all to education and a decent standard of living. When this woman is canonised next month it will not because Rome has given the thumbs up to the required number of miracles. It will be because she faithfully lived out the Gospel message as a woman, religious Sister and an Australian. I do wonder, though, what she would make of all the fuss and expense surrounding her inclusion into the A-List, that exclusive group we call saints.
Some of the customs surrounding Church practices like canonisation do seem to come down heavily on the side of male pomp. In Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus", Bishop Geoffrey Robinson argues that the misuse and wrong place of power in the Catholic Church is an issue that the Church needs to address. " The Gospel message is about oneness with the disadvantaged, not the bigger and better advocated by all sections of the media…... Let our model of Church be the inclusive circle, not the “official table”. Mother Mary of the Cross would say, “hear, hear.”
Judith Lynch is a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne.
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