Tenth Anniversary of Canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
17 October 2020
Today is the 10th anniversary of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop at St Peter’s in Rome – Mary, the down to earth Aussie who was fond of saying, “Never see a need without doing something about it.” 10 years ago, I happened to be in Rome for a regular Jesuit meeting at the Jesuit headquarters.
In the television coverage of the canonisation, we all saw the Pope, the cardinals, the bishops, the sisters and political dignitaries. We saw less of the Indigenous Australians who played a key role in the accompanying celebrations.
I was sitting with an Aboriginal group at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Outside the Walls held the day after the canonisation. Aboriginal dancers participated in the Offertory procession. The late Aboriginal deacon Boniface Perdjert from Wadeye in the Northern Territory, who had welcomed Pope Benedict to Barangaroo when he arrived by ferry for World Youth Day, assisted at the Mass. The Aborigines around me were very proud of the Aboriginal participation in the liturgy. It was their participation which rendered the celebration most Australian, even for those of us who were not indigenous.
Evelyn Parkin, an Aboriginal woman originally from Stradbroke Island off the coast of Brisbane, beamed a wonderful smile as she surmised about her people completing the circle: Italian missionaries had come and ministered to her people in 1843, establishing the Catholic Church’s first mission to Aborigines. 167 years later, her people had come to Rome as people of faith proclaiming their faith to the Italians just as the Italians had done to them.
Sitting behind Evelyn was Agnes from Kununurra in the Kimberley, the other side of our vast continent. At the beginning of the liturgy she whispered to me: “Father, this a sacred place?” I answered, “Yes”. “Then I could take off my shoes?” “Of course,” said I thinking of God’s declaration to Moses at the burning bush: “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
At the conclusion of the liturgy, some of the Aborigines invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church. They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, an Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. He had been presented with his religious habit by Pope Pius IX who said, “Australia needs a second Francis Xavier; may the Lord bless this boy, and make him into one!” Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears.
The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed; Aboriginal church elders led the prayers and the singing of ‘The Old Wooden Cross’ (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father. Many of us who had arrived at this grand basilica knew nothing of this story. The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter’s Square the previous day. Here were indigenous people not only finding voice but leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonisers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer.
Ten years on, the memories are fresh. And the challenges are as great as ever. When Mary MacKillop was first beatified in 1995, Paul Keating was Prime Minister. He told Parliament:
“I trust honourable members will understand what I mean when I say that the beatification of Mother Mary MacKillop rings with significance for all Australians. The qualities she embodied—openness and tolerance, courage, persistence, faith and care for others—are qualities for individuals, communities and nations to live by. The Josephites continue to practice those virtues in their work for the poor in Australia and New Zealand, and increasingly in countries of the Third World. I think all honourable members will agree that we will serve Australia well, and future generations of Australians well, if we allow the values which inspired and guided Mary MacKillop’s work to inspire and guide our own. There is nothing to be gained from pretending that religious faith and the place of the church in our communities have not declined since Mary MacKillop’s day, yet the message of her life easily translates to our much more sceptical and secular society. It would, I think, bring a blessing on Australia, on future generations, if as a result of the beatification of Mary MacKillop that message spread.”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).