Sydney is looking a picture. I have a window seat and we have just taken off on the Qantas flight to Hong Kong. The customs man asks with a smile if I am travelling on to Rome. Obviously there will be a number of pilgrims on board. I am on my way to an annual meeting of Jesuits who gather at the Jesuit Curia to plan co-operative international initiatives involving universities and our commitment to social justice. The Roman weather in October is usually delightful. Early autumn seems to be the preferred season for canonisations which take place outdoors to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims. This is the second time that my Jesuit meeting has coincided with the canonisation of a saint of interest. Five years ago, Pope Benedict in one of his first moves as pope canonised Alberto Hurtado, a 51 year old Chilean Jesuit lawyer who was very committed to social justice. Being 51 at the time and a Jesuit lawyer, I felt some connection with this guy. At the canonisation mass, I stood behind a Chilean woman in tears, clutching a photo of two boys I presumed to be her sons. I never learnt their story, or hers. But I was left in no doubt about her faith and confidence in the intercession of Alberto and the Christian community gathered around that enormous Eucharistic table in St Peter’s square.
This time the connection with the one to be canonised has a nationalistic flavour and a local pride that a little Aussie battler is to be declared saint. Like most Australian Catholics, I have come across the Josephites established by Mary MacKillop in some of the unlikeliest and toughest places in Australia, as well as East Timor. I also feel connected through her brother Donald, a Jesuit who ministered amongst the Aborigines of Daly River in the Northern Territory at the end of the nineteenth century. He wrote one of the great letters to the editor when he penned a note to the Sydney Morning Herald at Christmas time 1892: “Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the blackman to live. She marches onward, truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The blackfellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart; her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet.”
I also feel connected through Julian Tenison Woods the one rightly credited by Mary as a co-founder of the Josephites. She once told Archbishop Kelly that “nearly all was due to him…He may never be overlooked in the history of what God has done by our sisters.”
Julian and Mary did much to educate and liberate the poor Irish Catholics who migrated to Australia, though neither of them was Irish. My own Irish forebears owe much to Julian who eventually fell out with Mary, thinking in part that the Jesuits had infected her mind permitting her to loosen up too much on their original shared vision of poverty and obedience for the sisters. Woods on one of his scientific expeditions turned up in Maryborough, Queensland where my widowed great great grandmother Annie Brennan had arrived in 1862 with her five children – a courageous move by any reckoning. Family legend has it that Woods got my great grandfather Martin off the grog and back to church. So his next son, my grandfather, was named Frank Tenison Brennan, as am I. One of the good things about a canonisation is that ordinary events and ordinary connections in life take on a graced dimension. Our history becomes holy, while our present remains messy.
Heading for Rome, I recall that Mary had cause to visit there as a young religious woman aged 31 years. Why? Basically she was being persecuted by local bishops who were wary of her sisters being too independent. She got a good hearing from the Pope with whom she was able to meet personally, and she received great assistance from Fr Anderledy who became the Superior General of the Jesuits. She met with him 26 times in Rome.
Like many, I am looking forward to the enthusiastic coverage there will be of the canonisation this weekend with the ABC program being led by Geraldine Doogue. It is only four months ago that Geraldine was reminding the priests of Australia that the Vatican was less than welcoming to the nuns who gathered in Rome this year for their meeting of the International Union of Superiors General. The pope was not available to meet with them. Neither were his officials able to organise a personal message from him to them. Addressing the National Council of Priests, Geraldine spoke of a “real lack of charity in dealing with the official Church’s own people, from right within your ranks. Sometimes these are attitudes that wouldn’t be tolerated, I assure you, within the wider lay Catholic community or wider world.” Geraldine rightly said, “I thought that was a terrible neglect of those nuns. How callous that no-one thought to alert the Pope or someone high up that this was a special group, meeting just down the road from St. Peter’s, who laboured their hearts out for the Church and those they served. In a lay world, someone would have belled-that-cat… would have openly questioned the attitudes inherent in such a neglect.” Hopefully the nuns, though not at the altar, will be centre stage in everyone’s thoughts this Sunday.
I plan to skip some of my meeting on Sunday morning, popping into the Square, sanctifying our past and commending our messy present Church and World to a loving God who inspired people like Mary to keep heart and to remain focused whatever the odds. I hope it doesn’t rain. But it won’t matter. In most places where the Joeys are at work in the land down under, the sun will be shining.
Father Frank Tenison Brennan SJ is based at the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. He has contributed photos to the CathNews Gallery such as a carving of Father Julian Tenison Woods.
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