Homily from the Solemnity of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
8 August 2020
Many countries, particularly in Europe, boast a handful of canonised saints. Some even have a string of them. We Australians have only one. Today we celebrate her feast day. Mary MacKillop is now known universally in the Catholic Church as St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
Perhaps it’s the Australian sense of egalitarianism with a dash of anti-authoritarianism. Perhaps even a pinch of the larrikin. But our proud Australian boast is that our canonised saint, unlike most others, was excommunicated for a time.
The Bishop of Adelaide excommunicated her on 22 September 1871. The bishop was incensed because he wanted to amend the Rule of the newly established Sisters of St Joseph. He wanted “each convent to be entirely under the control of the local Pastor, with no central authority of the Institute”. And of course, the local Pastors would be under the control of the bishop. So it was about power.
Mary asked to meet with the bishop. He would not hear of it. He sent a priest with the order that she leave town. A few hours later, the priestly messenger “returned to say that the Bishop excommunicated me for my disobedience and for being the ringleader of such”.
Four days later, Mary wrote to her guide and co-founder Fr Julian Tenison Woods reporting all that had happened. She reflected:
“Don’t you see the protecting and beautiful hand of God in all that is happening? Oh never was I more tranquil and calm, and our loved Sisters the same.… We are all waiting, ready to go anywhere, under any circumstances, provided our Rule is not taken from us”.
The bishop, surrounded by a bevy of clergy who had it in for the Sisters, remained resolute until his health failed and he was on his deathbed. So after five months of ex-communication, during which time the Jesuits brought her communion (I am happy to say), Mary was allowed back in to the life and service of the local church. Mary wrote to her mother saying, “The poor bishop is indeed sorry for all now.” She was all-forgiving. She explained the situation to her mother:
“Thanks be to God, the poor Bishop had true priests near at a time when he much needed them. Up to that time others were near. We will not speak of them, but it would be a charity to pray for some at least amongst them. I am thankful to say that there are very few of whom I have to speak in this way. The Bishop has acknowledged the injustice of his conduct to all, for priests, as well as Sisters, have been wronged, but God wisely permitted it for a hidden mysterious end.”
One of the graces of Mary’s life was her capacity to make good out of evil and to learn from others’ mistakes. She told her mother: “I feel that the events of the last few months have made me much older in many things. They have strengthened me for still weightier cares than I have yet had. At least I trust in God’s mercy and love that they have done me this good, which indeed I needed.”
If only we who are both weighed down with COVID-19 and a mounting economic recession as well as being troubled by issues of vision, governance and transparency in our Church in the wake of the Royal Commission were able to be so truthful, charitable, and open to new possibilities. May our truly Aussie saint continue to inspire us and energise us for mission, with renewed hope in our Church and our world. May our bishops be open to meeting with those most affected by their episcopal rulings. And may our bishops always be assisted and well counselled by ‘true priests’ and not those others who need our prayers.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).