In case you missed it, there were five non-Australians canonised saints today here at St Peters in Rome. But all Australian eyes were on Pope Benedict XVI as he added the first Australian to the Roman canon of saints: Maria della Croce MacKillop, better known as Mary MacKillop.
Though nationality counts for nothing in the communion of saints, it surely counts in the reception given saints by local churches. The streets of Rome have been filled with Australians sharing stories about the “Joeys”, with the Australian media crews leaving no cobblestone unturned making the arcane Roman processes of canonisation comprehensible and appealing to the average viewer.
Indigenous Australians placed their indelible mark on proceedings with song and dance in the Vatican Gardens on Friday night. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics from across the land mixed with bishops, donors, politicians and pilgrims accompanying the Joeys wearing not brown veils but their light blue pilgrim scarves.
William Barton on the didgeridoo joined his mother Delmae and a string quartet under the lights of the dome of St Peters. Four years ago Delmae had lain uncomforted with a stroke at a university bus stop for hours as hundreds passed her by, prompting a national reflection reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This night she and her son gave all Australians a place of belonging in this sacred place. The Vatican Museum put on display Aboriginal art sent from the missions back in 1925, predating by 50 years most of the Aboriginal art on display in galleries back home.
Just before coming to Rome, I had the chance to check out the wonderful new galleries at the National Gallery in Canberra. They are spacious, making great use of natural light. In one gallery, there are two paintings by the late Hector Jandany from Warmun in the Kimberley. One painting is entitled “The Ascension”, and the other, a bequest from Sir William and Lady Deane, is entitled “Holy Spirit”. Hector was encouraged to paint in his home community by the Josephite sisters who had established a spirituality centre nearby. They also ran the community school and assisted at the old people’s home.
The sisters were not trained anthropologists or art advisers. Like Mary MacKillop they came amongst the poor in a remote area, shared what they had, educating the children and encouraging the adults. None of the sisters would claim any of the credit for the art of Hector and his school of Turkey Creek painters. But for the sisters’ presence at Warmun all those years, I doubt that Hector’s paintings would now be hanging in the National Gallery. But for the selfless dedication of the sisters all these years throughout Australia, I doubt that there would have been 8,000 Australians in St Peter’s Square this morning attesting the holiness of Mary Mackillop.
The prayer before the mass summed up Mary’s life so well: “God of all blessings, you revealed in Mary MacKillop a woman sensitive to the rights and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, race or creed. Help us to value each person. Help us to respect different cultures, faiths and peoples. May we learn from Mary to overcome prejudice and fear.”
This prayer did sit a little awkwardly with the Exodus reading of this Sunday’s mass read by Sr Anne Derwin RSJ speaking of Joshua mowing down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword! But the congregation took it in their stride and the Aussies were proud to see and hear an Australian woman at the lectern with the distinctive accent of the nation. In his homily Benedict urged us all to continue serving God and the Church with faith and humility. By communion time there were hundreds of serried ranks of clergy in red, purple and black. As ever at a mass of these proportions, communion for the faithful was commotion. But the Australians around me negotiated the crowd, well relishing the opportunity to share in the Body of Christ.
Rejoicing in the life of holiness and service of Mary and delighting in Australia’s first entry in the Roman catalogue, we are all too well aware that the Joeys are not as young or numerous as they once were. And yet the needs of the world are still great. Mary’s injunction still sounds to all Australians of good will, especially the young: “Never see a need without doing something about it.”
May she long inspire us, especially those early years of her ministry before she took on the religious habit. The temptation for all of us nowadays is to presume that the primary responsibility for meeting difficult needs like education for the poor and disadvantaged in the bush is a task for the State rather than for us who are the people of God. Where in the past, we created a Church apostolate we tend now to expect a State intervention. Inspired, excited, and freshly motivated, may we serve God, the Church, our nation and the poor of our world with faith and humility. Otherwise so much of today’s celebration will be just for show – an exhibit for the archives rather than an emblem for the future.
The rain held off; the sun shone; and the pilgrims have now left the square intent and hopeful that Mary will speak to Australians for generations to come. With her, may we let God’s glory absorb our thoughts, deliberations and actions. And may the other five saints of the day inspire those who came to celebrate them, as Mary has inspired us who were cheering for the little Aussie battler.
Father Frank Tenison Brennan SJ is based at the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. More of his photos of the canonisation are here.
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