The Excommunicated Saint

Tomorrow in St. Peter’s Square, six saints will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Among the six, an Australian nun who once was excommunicated, Mary MacKillop…

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

A Saint for Bold Women

It is raining in Rome as I write on Saturday afternoon, and the Pope is preparing to attend a concert in his honor in the Paul VI audience hall. People already are gathering to go in through the entrance to the left of St. Peter’s Square, and I am sitting in a cafe at the bottom of Via delle Formaci, and have to join them in a few minutes.

The music which will be performed is sublime: Giuseppe Vedi’s Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass). The conductor, orchestra, choir and soloists are all from Bavaria, in southern Germany, the region where Benedict himself was born and raised.

It promises to be a remarkable event, so later this evening, after the concert, I will send a report on the evening, unless I am overwhelmed by the music and rendered speechless.

And now, unexpectedly — as often happens in Rome — the sun has just come out, as if to shine benevolently on this concert, which speaks, of course, about that “eternal light” which we believe can shine even on those who have departed from this world, this “vale of tears” (“hac valle lacrimarum”).

A special viewpoint

Here below, I include a report on the canonization tomorrow of a very interesting figure, Mary MacKillop of Australia (photo).

I thought it appropriate to ask my Australian colleague and friend, Andrew Rabel, to write something about Mary, who will be proclaimed Australia’s first woman saint. He has a special sensibility in this matter that I, not being Australian, cannot have. And there is more…

“I am a Melbournian through and through,” Andrew writes to me. “I hail from the very city where Mary MacKillop was born. In fact, I was adopted at a foundling home that Mary MacKillop personally founded in Broadmeadows, west of Melbourne, staffed by her nuns, in 1902. To think she walked through those very corridors! Hope you are having a good time in the Eternal City, God bless, Andrew”

(I publish Andrew’s piece as he sent it; the views he expresses are his own. I will forward to him any reader’s letters on his contribution.)


By Andrew Rabel

With the news that Australia was to have its first saint canonized on October 17, the normally secular country has erupted with joy.

But it seems that many are more interested in a false conception of Mary, and perhaps this is a reflection of attitudes that have prevailed following the Second Vatican Council.

Her fame has even spread to other countries. For instance, looking on the website, a blog by Bridget Mary says, “Pope Benedict will canonize Mother Mary MacKillop, an excommunicated nun. Perhaps, this Pope is offering hope to the many thousands of Catholics who have been excommunicated, including women priests. Excommunication is not a barrier to canonization.”

Yes, but Mary Mackillop’s excommunication was lifted a few months later by the very bishop who performed the sentence, realizing he had been badly advised.

Following the tensions that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there has been the tendency for different factions in the Church to use a person like Mary MacKillop to bolster their own cause.

For instance, in the traditionalist publication, Catholic in Australia (at the complete other end of the ideological spectrum) after the excommunication of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and four bishops he consecrated in Econe, Switzerland, in an editorial written in 1988, mention was made of the sentence passed on MacKillop and the emergence of her cause for sainthood in the 20th century, saying that the same scenario may present itself in regard the French bishop.

Suffice to say that when the Holy See in January 2009 lifted the excommunications of the four bishops Lefebvre had consecrated, he and co-consecrator Antonio Castro de Mayer did not have this sentence lifted posthumously, in spite of the request of the Society of St Pius X. (This is not to say that one day Lefebvre won’t be rehabilitated, or that he will be. In 1965, Paul VI lifted the 1054 excommunication of Michael Cerularius which precipitated the schism with the East, but each case must be judged on its merits.)

But getting back to our subject, Mary MacKillop was far from being a rebel. She was a woman of deep fidelity and loyalty to the Catholic Church.

Prior to her beatification in 1995, the Major Religious Superiors of Australia signed a public document criticising John Paul II for issuing his statement Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, saying that women’s ordination is not to be part of any debate inside the Catholic Church. One of the signatories was Sr Mary Cresp RSJ, the Congregational Leader of the Josephite Sisters, founded by Mary MacKillop, at that time.

In an episode of Four Corners (a documentary series in Australia), Fr Peter Gumpel SJ, the Relator of MacKillop’s cause, soundly criticized such a position, and said the notion that she could ever have supported a position like ordaining women, would have been contrary to her Catholic sensibilities.

In 1873 when MacKillop met Blessed Pius IX at the Vatican, in an attempt to gain approval of her order by the Holy See, she recognized her lowliness in having been excommunicated (albeit falsely) and said that meeting the Holy Father was a day that was worth years of suffering.

One doesn’t find the Sr Joan Chittesters and Veronica Bradys (a well known Australian dissenting nun) speaking with that kind of reverence towards the Vicar of Christ.

Unfortunately, people today who resist Church authority in matters like women’s ordination or contraception etc , or support a man like Archbishop Lefebvre in his decision to consecrate bishops without a pontifical mandate, use Mary MacKillop as an example to justify these actions. They say “She was disobedient and payed the price for that. Now the Church has made her a saint because of this”.

For starters, Mary MacKillop founded her order of nuns to teach the Catholic faith to the poor children of Australia. She knew that in this emerging waspish country the faith was under attack by people of influence who wanted secular education only. Her resistance to Bishop Sheil’s edict had nothing to with disobedience, as such. She had made religious vows to live her life in a certain manner, with the principle of self-government that he had agreed to. Suddenly when things had not gone to his liking, he had no authority to tell Mary to conduct her community differently, and this was the advice she had been given by her Jesuit confessors who had been trained in canon law. Bishop Sheil had limited knowledge of these areas.

The Holy See approved the rule, with a few modifications, but most importantly they gave approval to her principle of self-government, and they were to be supervised directly by the Holy See. Later on the successive bishop of Adelaide, Christopher Reynolds still tried to get the Sisters to follow him and when they wouldn’t, banished Mary to Sydney. Fr Paul Gardiner SJ, a postulator of the Cause, always regarded this episode as worse than her excommunication, as it involved outright calumny. (A nun who falsely accused Mary to the bishop of being a drunkard, because of the brandy she was taking to deal with painful periods!) Bishop Reynolds had no right to do this, as the Rule now approved by Rome, stated they were not under the authority of the local bishop.

Regardless, the interest in Mary at this time is phenomenal. Geraldine Doogue, commentator on the TV show Compass that deals with religious affairs, says that after the clerical sex abuse crisis, the Catholic Church has finally come into its won with its decision to canonize Mary MacKillop. This Sunday night’s episode will be broadcast live from the Vatican, as a post mortem to the canonization. Most of the Catholic identities that appear on the show are normally of a progressive persuasion, but in its two decades of broadcasts, never has it had a live show from Rome.

Mary’s picture is everywhere, even on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, and there are big festivities planned all around Australia on Sunday.

In the life of the Church following Vatican II, Catholic doctrines like the intercession of saints, and miracles perfomed through their intercession, took a severe battering. With the growth of the ecumenical movement, so often the new thinking was that when it came to prayer, all we needed to do is go straight to Jesus Christ. So this new interest in saints, among ordinary, disinterested people, is an interesting phenomenon.

The Australian government has intervened and stopped companies from using her name commercially. This exists for only one other Australian, the cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman.

But when all is said and done, the key to understanding Mary MacKillop is that she was a person of holiness.

One of the most prolific letter writers in Australia is Mildura physician, Dr Arnold Jago. In a recent post on his blog he had this to say of Mary:

“Even in her own lifetime, people tried to domesticate Blessed Mary and treat her as a ‘pioneer’ or something. Priests and others made so many demands on the Sisters that it threatened to interfere with their regular prayers. Mother Mary complained to one such: ‘Are we not Religious first — Teachers second?’

The original ‘Rule’ of the Josephite Order spelt out the proper priorities of the Sisters: ‘Those persons who enter religion do so first of all for the salvation of their own souls.. the spirit of the Institute is a spirit of Poverty and Prayer.’

The same point was made by Pope John Paul II at Mother Mary’s beatification in 1995: ‘Dear friends: Mary MacKillop cannot be understood without reference to her religious vocation… Mother Mary of the Cross did not just free people from ignorance through schooling, or alleviate their suffering through compassionate care. She worked to satisfy their deeper, though sometimes unconscious, longing for ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ.’

Australians don’t need yet another ‘pioneer’ or ‘celebrity’ to fuss over.

They need somebody different — somebody whose mind was totally God-centered.

That’s what Blessed Mary MacKillop offers.

But will we ever hear about that from the modern-day Josephite Order?

They seem happy to trivialise her as a dinkum Aussie or some kind of glorified social worker.”

(end Dr. Jago’s reflection)

Yes the canonization of Mary MacKillop is very sorely needed, because we don’t need another sports star or celebrity. We need a saint.

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