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New Ways of Living the Gospel – What Mary MacKillop may be able to say to us during the Year of Grace

As you know, towards the end of our National Prayer for the Year of Grace we have the phrase: "with the intercession of St Mary MacKillop, who showed us new ways of living the Gospel".

This morning I would like to reflect on some the new ways that she found to live the Gospel.

During the talk I will quote frequently from the book An Extraordinary Australian – Mary MacKillop by Paul Gardiner, the Jesuit priest who was the postulator for Mary's cause for beatification and canonisation.

Let me outline again, briefly, some of the details of Mary's life.

Mary was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 15 January 1842. Gardiner says the place of her birth is 'within a stone's throw of St Patrick's Cathedral'[1]. But Mary's life and faith were nourished, not in the aura of the Irish shamrock of St Patrick, but in the tough, frugal spirituality of the Scottish Highlands.

Both her parents, Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald, had come to Australia in their twenties. They had not known each other in Scotland, although both families came from the same region of the highlands. They met in Melbourne, and were married in St Francis's Church. Flora's parents also came to Australia, and it was from her grandfather MacDonald that Mary learned Scots Gaelic as a child.

Paul Gardiner tells a good story of how Mary visited the Highlands while in Europe awaiting a decision from Rome about the Rule. She was in a small ferryboat being rowed by four highlanders, and they were speaking what Mary called 'the Gaelic', while she was talking in English to a woman who accompanied her on the journey. Gardiner tells us that 'the boatmen went very red when they realised that [Mary] could follow what they were saying' [2].

Before coming to Australia, Mary's father had spent about seven years as a seminarian, first at the Scots College in Rome (where he must have learnt to read and speak Latin) and then back in a seminary near Aberdeen. He was intelligent and well-educated, an idealist and an enthusiast, but lacking sound judgment. He would make rash business decisions and his growing family was often in severe financial trouble. Like many in colonial Melbourne, he became rich and suddenly poor again during the gold rushes in the 1850s.

Mary's mother was practical, and long-suffering. Mary referred to her in later life as her teacher. Mary, their oldest child, seemed to have inherited the best qualities of each of her parents and few if any of their faults.

Although Mary had little formal schooling, by the age of 18 she was working as a governess in Penola, in the neighbouring colony of South Australia. This was, principally, to help support her younger brothers and sisters at home.

It was here that she met the man after whom this room is named, Julian Tenison Woods. She would always refer to him as the Founder of her Order.

'Tenison' was his mother's maiden name, and he was sometimes referred to as Fr Woods, sometimes as Fr Tenison Woods. He was ten years older than Mary and was exceptional within Adelaide's Irish clergy in that he was an Englishman. He was tall, charismatic, highly intelligent and devout. His father, who was often away from London, was a Catholic, but Julian's early religious upbringing was at the hands of his mother, who was the daughter of a Church of Ireland vicar. Julian 'converted' (if that's the word) from Anglicanism in his teenage years, and spent some time as a novice with the Passionists in London. Then he came under the influence of the famous Oratorian, Father Faber, who wrote the words of such popular hymns as Faith of Our Fathers, Mother of Mercy and O Purest of Creatures. From Fr Faber, Julian imbibed a deep, sometimes sentimental, Marian devotion. Then, during a bout of poor health, he went to the south of France, where he met the Marists and joined their novitiate. At one stage his spiritual director there was Fr Peter Julian Eymard, who would go on to found the Blessed Sacrament Fathers and himself be canonised. Finally Julian came to Australia and, after further studies with the Jesuits in South Australia, he was ordained for the Diocese of Adelaide in 1857. As many of you would know, Julian was also a keen observer of the natural world and became a famous botanist, mineralogist, zoologist and geologist. After he died Mary wrote a short biography of him, extolling his many good qualities.

And yet he refused to have anything to do with her for the last fifteen years of his life, and agreed only reluctantly to let her visit him on his deathbed. He had parted company with her when she stood solidly by the Constitutions – which, in the main, he himself had written, and which Rome had approved – for the Congregation to have a central governance beyond the confines of a single diocese. Julian on the other hand supported the Bishops of Bathurst, Maitland, Goulburn and other places who sought to have the Sisters under their diocesan control, leading to what became the 'Black Josephites', rather than Mary's 'Brown Josephites'.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Bishop Sheil, the Bishop of Adelaide, summoned Julian from Penola back up to Adelaide, appointing him director of education and inspector of schools, at a time when the schooling of Catholic children was a contested political issue. The Australian colonial governments were moving towards providing free, secular, government-run education, but most of the bishops wanted to establish separate, Catholic schools. But how was the Church to build and staff these schools? Catholics in Australia were generally poor, of Irish stock, convicts themselves or the descendants of convicts, or Irishmen who had fled the potato famine of 1848-49. In Sydney and Melbourne, where some Catholics had got rich through commerce or the gold rushes, Irish Sisters of Mercy and Dominican Sisters had established some schools for fee-paying children. But in the 1860s there were still no religious sisters in the colony of South Australia.

Mary MacKillop felt called to live some sort of vowed religious life, in a spirit of poverty, and serving the needs of poor families. Julian recognised and encouraged her vocation, and saw in it an opportunity to establish a system of Catholic schooling in the vast Diocese of Adelaide which, at that time, encompassed the whole of South Australia, and up into the Northern Territory.

Mary began wearing a religious habit in June 1867, and took her first vows in August. She was 25. By the end of that year, there were 10 Sisters in what Julian would always call the Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph. Within four years there would be over 120.
Vatican II's Decree on Religious Life talks about the 'spirit and aims of the founder', which should be 'faithfully accepted and retained'. [3] So, what were the spirit and aims of the Sisters of St Joseph? And, for that matter, who was the founder?

Most people today would say that Mary was the founder. But, as I said, Mary always referred to Julian as the founder. In many senses that was the truth, although Mary's high ideals, holiness, and practical good sense helped shape Julian's vision for the Institute.

The older European orders then in Australia, such as the Sisters of Mercy, had two ranks of Sisters – so-called Choir Sisters and Lay Sisters. These Lay Sisters were judged, or happily judged themselves, to be incapable of chanting the few Latin psalms in choir, or of teaching in classrooms. So they fulfilled the roles of cooking, cleaning and hospitality in the convents. They wore a simpler habit but, sadly, could be looked down upon as menials by the more gifted Choir nuns. Both Julian and Mary were insistent that this was not to happen in their Institute. I believe that he, an Englishman and she, Australian-born of Scottish background, sensed the egalitarian spirit that marked the new European society in our ancient land, and neither of them could abide a division of rank or degree among the Sisters of the Institute.

A greater novelty, though – and here we see the first of her 'new ways of living the Gospel' – was that here was a group of religious women who, while clearly identifying as nuns by their religious habits and way of life, would nevertheless be prepared to live even at the margins of settlement, in a spirit of real evangelical poverty, owning nothing, living in rented rooms if necessary, and being at the service of those most in need – as we'll sing in the Entrance Hymn at Mass today: 'so that in our rugged homeland, the poor will find a place'. Of course many religious congregations, before and since, have begun with similar ideals. Indeed, we might worry about any community that would set out without these ideals.

The Sisters were engaged primarily in teaching although, from the beginning, they also provided refuges for the poor, especially for women. At first their schools catered only for what we would now call infants-and-primary-school children. An interesting detail is that the first generation of Sisters were not allowed to teach music. This was one of Mary's ideas. She thought that a family that owned even a fiddle, let alone a piano, would be sufficiently well off to pay others to teach their children music. Mary's vision was to live and work with the poorest of the poor.

Later provincial chapters, in Mary's lifetime, overturned this initial ban, and one of the conditions that Rome placed upon the ratification of the Rule was that the Sisters were to own their own convents – the sort of shrewd wisdom that Rome had imposed on even St Francis of Assisi, and which would allow Mary and the Sisters to erect the buildings in which to give flesh and life to her vision. And, needless to say, the Sisters of St Joseph have since included many fine music teachers.

Mary was prepared to answer requests to send a group of two or three Sisters to start a school even in an isolated place where there was not yet a resident priest, or an established parish.

This had consequences that the traditional European orders – the Sisters of Mercy, the
Dominicans, the Loreto Sisters – had never encountered. It meant that nuns might be living in distant, outback places where they might go for several days or even several weeks, without getting to Mass. Mary writes: 'We are able to have Mass so seldom, and never receive a spiritual instruction and are often weeks without getting to Confession'. [4]

It's hard to overstate how novel and radical this was, as a form of religious life, especially for religious women.

As Mary wrote to Rome, trying to win approval for the Institute, 'what would seem much out of place in Europe is still the very reverse in Australia.' [5]

Mary was wonderfully down-to-earth. She strove for what we'd now call quality control in the formation of the Sisters, both in their spiritual or religious lives, and as teachers. She insisted on them coming together for the end-of-year, pre-Christmas retreat. Part of the agenda of this retreat was to prepare the Sisters to accept, in a spirit of generous obedience, their new postings for the coming year.

And in their daily routine, after their evening meal, they were to spend time preparing their lessons for the next day, according to a syllabus that Father Director and herself had devised.

It wasn't easy going. At one stage Mary writes to Julian that 'Sister Teresa is very useful with the little ones, but though she studies every night regularly, she cannot yet manage a sum in addition'. [6]

The rapid expansion of the Order also meant, perhaps inevitably, that a few young women were accepted who were unsuitable. Religious life has always been attractive to some misfits. This is probably true especially in the earliest, most idealistic days of a new religious movement. Undoubtedly, Julian's intense, charismatic personality, and Mary's obvious, unpretentious holiness were influential in attracting good, generous young women. Many of these Sisters proved, by their lifelong commitment and the calibre of their lives, that they had genuine vocations to religious life.

Some however showed signs of serious mental illness. Mary writes to Julian that 'poor Mary Joseph has quite lost her reason', she acts 'like one possessed', and 'generally says she is going to heaven in a balloon'. She stole and concealed knives and scissors, to harm herself and others, and the Sisters could not leave her alone in the convent. [7]

Julian for his part tells Mary in a letter that Sr Rose is 'quite mad and incoherent, sometimes screaming violently'. [8]

There was also a more subtle problem, which eventually caused great tension between Mary and Julian.

If Mary was practical, Julian was something of a romantic. In particular, he was thrilled when several of the Sisters, two in particular, gave indications of having mystical experiences and being, as he referred to them, 'visionaries'. Mary knew the Sisters at closer quarters than Julian did, and she was soon convinced that there was at least spiritual immaturity in their experiences, if not self-deception or worse. Julian, however, encouraged these two 'visionaries' and singled them out for special praise, sowing dissension among the other Sisters.

This proved to be Mary's first major cross in religious life. (As you know, she had taken the religious name of 'Sister Mary of the Cross'). She always had the highest respect for the
office of the clergy, and had particular respect and affection for Julian. She also felt under a spirit of obedience to him as founder of the Institute. He was ten years her senior, and she was new to Religious life, let alone to the responsibilities of being the Superior of the congregation. But she believed that in this matter he was at least misguided, if not simply wrong, and pleaded with him to be more cautious.

Mary's outlook was as exalted as Julian's. She spoke often of her absolute devotion to the will of God (or 'our good God' as she so often wrote), but she was practical by nature. She had had to be, as she helped provide for the large family of her spendthrift father. However, it is possible to speculate that her father ('poor Papa', as she always referred to him) [9], for all his financial incompetence, may have gained from his seminary years a more rounded, integrated spiritual formation than Julian. The dour home of Gaelic Scots in inner-city Melbourne is not likely to have harboured talk of visionaries.

But, for all her deference to Julian, and indeed obedience, Mary was actually living with these visionary Sisters, and became convinced that fostering, or even believing, their claims of heavenly revelations was actually harming them and others. She found that, increasingly, they were lacking in humility and candour. They played Mary, their superior, off against
Julian, who was encouraging them and who, despite Mary's pleas to him, continued naively to support them.

She writes to Julian: 'I see you and my two Sisters incline so much to the supernatural; and you in especial [sic] as the spiritual guide of such souls do not seem to take those precautions which prudence suggests to guard against danger'. [10] Mary has underlined the word 'prudence', perhaps because Julian had written previously that 'prudence is no use to me whatever.' [11]

Not only did Julian have no use for prudence. He also confided to Mary that 'God always spares me the pain of doubt' [12] and, in a later letter, that 'I have not been wrong in one single thing'. [13]

Meanwhile Julian was becoming unpopular with many of the Adelaide clergy.

As the network of schools and convents expanded rapidly, some of the clergy were rightly concerned about the debts that Julian was racking up (albeit with the bishop's at least implicit approval).

There was also a deal of jealousy, from mediocre men, towards someone who was highly talented, energetic and effective.

And there was simple racism on the part of a largely Irish presbyterate towards an Englishman.

Interestingly, Julian and the Sisters got more support and understanding from the local community of Austrian Jesuits than they did from the bishop and the diocesan priests. One of
Mary's brothers would join these Jesuits and work as a missionary among Aboriginal people up on the Daly River.

Finally, a word about Bishop Shiel.

He was an Irish Franciscan, and had initially supported and encouraged both Julian and Mary. In his latter years his health was poor, and he was at least a problem drinker, probably an alcoholic. Inevitably, as he began to fail in leadership, others stepped into the void and, sadly, he was surrounded by some ambitious, querulous priests.

As the storm clouds gathered around Julian and Mary, the bishop had to go to the First Vatican Council. With the long sea voyages, and a visit to his native Ireland, he was away from the diocese for fourteen months.

Mary, for much of this time, was in Brisbane, where it sometimes took over three weeks for a letter to reach her from Adelaide, and the same amount of time for the reply.

Julian was in Adelaide, with the Sisters. There were by now about 120 of them, running 34 schools in South Australia.

Two unrelated incidents led to Mary's excommunication, and to the temporary disbanding of the congregation.

Let me quote directly from the Paul Gardiner. 'The Sisters had evidence that one of the priests [at Kapunda], Father Keating, was guilty of scandalous conduct and they informed Father [Julian Tenison] Woods. He in turn called in Father Smyth, the Vicar General, and as a result Father Keating was sent away. This turned his fellow Franciscan, [Fr] Charles Horan, into a mortal enemy of Woods and the Sisters.' [14]

Then a few days later a very strange event occurred in one of the Adelaide convents. A ciborium with consecrated hosts disappeared from the tabernacle. At first Julian suspected Father Keating, who had been called back to the cathedral parish. But the next day bloodstains appeared on the altar cloth, and Julian became convinced that something wonderful and miraculous was happening. Fires broke out, and Julian read these as diabolical visitations.

A later board of enquiry established that it was all the work of Sister Angela, one of Julian's esteemed so-called visionaries who, within a few days, admitted she had taken the hosts. Five years later, Mary wrote to Rome about these events. 'All that I used to think or say about [the visionaries] was treated as a temptation by our poor Father [Julian], and even now that she confesses everything and that we have so many proofs she is sincere, he will not believe' (the last two words underlined) [15]

The Bishop arrived back in Adelaide as the storm was about to break.

The details are complex and riveting, but there's not time here to tell the whole story. Suffice to say that, under pressure from Fr Horan, the Bishop decided to divide the Institute into Choir and Lay Sisters, and made what seemed to Mary to be odd and arbitrary decisions about convents and the staffing of various schools. He told Mary that any nuns who did not accept his alterations to the Rule would be dispensed from their vows.

He sent Mary off to a distant convent, and he and Fr Horan began examining the Sisters, ostensibly to determine their competence as teachers. One of the nuns told Fr Horan that his manner of questioning the Sisters was so distressing that no man should behave that way, let alone a priest. [16] Horan and the Bishop also made changes of appointments for some Sisters, without reference to Mary or Julian.

The Jesuits advised Mary that, if the Bishop insisted on altering the Rule, then Mary and the others were not bound to it, unless they took new vows to live by this new Rule.

Mary asked to see the Bishop in person before setting out for the convent where he had ordered her to go. Again, to quote Gardiner, 'When Mary suggested that the changes be delayed until the founder came back, she was met with the indignant accusation that the
Sisters seemed to think Father Woods was their bishop. When she asked why a Chapter of the
Sisters was not called, she was told that the bishop was their Chapter. When Horan pressed
for a direct answer on the matter of her going to [the convent where the Bishop had ordered
her to go], she replied, "Father, how can I go under these rules?" Her later comment was: "I feared refusing to go and yet dared not give my Sisters cause to think I accepted the new Rule".' [17]

Mary would be grieved to write an account of this meeting to Julian. 'I now know for certain that Father Horan denies the substance of the conversation we had the night before I was excommunicated. It was with a keen pang of sorrow and shame that I heard from the Kapunda Sisters that he had positively denied the conversation we had, and made it out to them that I had simply refused to obey the bishop ... Father, it is hard to think a priest could tell a lie and in such grave matter". [18]

So Horan returned to the bishop, with what was in all likelihood a toxic account of Mary's words and motives. He came back to the convent at 10.30 pm (Mary had already gone to bed, unwell), and announced that unless she complied with the Bishop's wishes she would be
excommunicated. She replied that she would go where the bishop wanted to send her, but 'tell him I wish to see him before I go'. [19]

At 8 o'clock the next morning, the bishop came to the convent with four of his priests. Mary knelt to receive the bishop's blessing but he refused to give it. He went to the chapel and, having arrayed himself with mitre and crosier, he pronounced the sentence of excommunication on her, for her disobedience and rebellion. He commented on the spiritual pride and the wickedness of the world that Mary MacKillop had brought into the convent with her. [20]

Fr Horan read out the names of the nuns who were to become Lay Sisters. The first four declined and were peremptorily dispensed of their vows. When others said they were of the same mind, the bishop told them to remain at the convent, and that anyone who left without his permission would be excommunicated. After the clergy had left, one of the priests returned and removed the Blessed Sacrament from the convent chapel.

The Sisters, with no money, no street clothes, no accommodation – and no hair – were understandably desperate. A Jewish man allowed them to live rent-free in a house he owned, and helped them acquire black dresses and bonnets.

The day after the excommunication Mary wrote to the Sisters: 'If we cannot agree to what our poor dear old Bishop requires, at least be humble in the way we refuse'. [21]

She also wrote to her mother, assuring her that 'the holiest and best priests say I have only done my duty, and that our poor, dear bishop has made a terrible mistake'. [22]

The whole business soon became public and, in the sectarian climate of the time, the Protestant Advocate had a field day. But so too did the Irish Harp, which happened to be owned by Julian's brother. It weighed into the controversy on the side of the Sisters, to Mary's great consternation.

It would be many weeks before Mary could write fully about the events of that day to Julian, who was far away, in Sydney. She called this a 'Conscience Letter', meaning that she was writing as if speaking to Julian in the confessional.

'When I was called into the presence of the Bishop, I felt, whilst in the community room, confused, lonely and bewildered. It was an intense relief when the Bishop ordered me to kneel down. I do not know how long I knelt there facing the Bishop and the four priests, with all my Sisters standing round. I knew they were there but saw no one, and I think I was trying to pray. But I forget a lot until we were in the oratory and I was once more kneeling out alone.

'From that moment until the screams of the Sisters roused me, I really felt like one in a dream. I seemed not to realize the presence of the Bishop and priests, I know I did not see them, but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before.

'I can only dimly remember the things that were said to me, but the sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget. I have been told that some of the priests have since expressed their surprise at my silence, but, Father, I solemnly declare that the power, or even the desire of speaking was not given to me. I loved the Bishop and priests, the Church and my good God then more than ever. I did not feel alone, but I cannot describe the calm beautiful something that was near. It was like waking to a painful disagreeable reality when I felt Sr Paula's arms round my neck and heard her wild screams. The rest I think you already know'. [23]

It was not until five months later that Bishop Sheil, literally on his death-bed, lifted the excommunication. There was no penance or penalty imposed on Mary or the other Sisters, no retraction demanded, and no preconditions laid down. The bishop died on 1 March 1872.

The new Administrator of the diocese, a Father Reynolds, had always been one of Mary's supporters. On 19 March 1872, the Feast of St Joseph, Mary and ten others received back their habits.

Five days later, on Palm Sunday, Fr Horan preached what was supposed to be a panegyric for the late bishop. Instead, as Mary wrote to Julian:

'Father Horan preached two sensational sermons on Sunday – one at Kapunda at Mass, and the other in the evening at the Cathedral. He must have driven down in great haste from Kapunda to be in time for Vespers at the Cathedral'. [Kapunda is about 80 km north of Adelaide, and he would have had to drive his horse-and-buggy on a road that would have been no more than an unsealed track.] 'The sermons I believe were dreadful ... He accused you of many things and used very forcible language. The Jesuits were attacked by name. I was also brought in too. Oh Father he is an awful man and has done mischief that years of repentance and suffering will not repair. He did not spare poor Fr Reynolds – and today there is a letter in one of the Protestant papers attacking the Administrator [Reynolds] for his partiality to the Sisters ... Fr Horan makes out that your debts are so great that you dare not show yourself in Adelaide and that, had you come back, you would have been silenced and condemned like the rebellious Superioress of St Joseph's'. [24]

Unsurprisingly, Reynolds suspended Horan for his sermon. Within a year the whole matter had been examined in Rome, where it was recommended that the Josephite Rule should be examined, Tenison Woods should be removed as Director of the Institute, Horan should leave Adelaide within thirty days, and that the Pope should name Reynolds as Bishop of Adelaide. [25]

I'll have to stop there, and give the rest of the story in just the barest detail.

Reynolds duly became the bishop, and later the first Archbishop of Adelaide. This is how Paul Gardiner describes him:

[His] 'scholastic background was minimal. There is every reason to think Reynolds would have maintained his uncomplicated reputation as a good priest if he had remained a parish pastor. There can be little doubt that Reynolds honestly did not expect to be the next bishop. His lack of ambition was probably based on self-knowledge, and there is no reason to suggest that his distress at the appointment was feigned'. [26]

Mary was, as usual, more charitable in describing him in a letter to Rev Dr Campbell, Rector of the Scots College in Rome. Or, in other words, this is how a saint describes someone who is not very bright:

'He is a good, holy, hardworking Bishop, but not what many would call a clever man'. [27]

If Sheil was an alcoholic, Reynolds was an extreme wowser. As a priest, and in his early years as bishop, Reynolds had been a supporter of Mary. Later, however, Reynolds banned her from Adelaide. Among other reasons, he believed an accusation that Mary was intemperate with drink. Mary suffered from acute pain and illness associated with her monthly periods, a disease known today as dysmenorrhoea. She took the brandy that doctors prescribed for her, never touching the bottle herself, and taking only what she was administered by the Sister Infirmarian. This, however, was more than enough for Archbishop Reynolds.

She fell foul, too, of yet another Irish bishop, the Bishop of Brisbane, whose attacks on her got quite personal. Gardiner lists some of the barbs:

'She was accused by Dr James Quinn of being young, sentimental, colonial (that is, born in Australia), of non-Irish stock, female, the daughter of a bankrupt colonial [ex-] seminarian, a former excommunicate, a strong personality, obstinate, ambitious, based [in] Adelaide and
controlled from there, influenced by the Jesuits, a friend of Archbishop Vaughan [Archbishop of Sydney, and an English Benedictine]'. [28]

Commenting on the word 'young', Gardiner remarks dryly: 'She was thirty-three at the time [that 'being young'] was supposed to be a significant charge against her. It was the age at death of Alexander the Great, of Catherine of Siena, and indeed of Jesus Christ'. [29]

Finally, after several trips to Rome in 1873 and 1874 the Rule was approved by Pius IX.

But some bishops in Australia still wanted the Sisters to be under their diocesan authority, rather than under the central governance of a Mother General. To Mary's great bewilderment and astonishment, Julian Tenison Woods supported these bishops. Just as the followers of Francis of Assisi broke up into several Orders during Francis's own life time, so the Sisters of St Joseph split into different Congregations – one following Mary, and several diocesan congregations following Julian.

And after that, as I said, Julian refused to have anything to do with her until he was on his deathbed in 1887.

He spent the last three years of his life on scientific expeditions in South East Asia, carrying out geological and botanical observations. This was all done without any ecclesiastical permission. When he returned to Sydney, Cardinal Moran would not grant faculties to such an eccentric itinerant. Mary was relieved that the Cardinal allowed Julian to be buried from the cathedral.

Very briefly ... At the age of 60, in 1902, Mary suffered a severe stroke while visiting New Zealand, and had poor health for the rest of her life. When she died here – just in that next building – on 8 August 1909, Cardinal Moran said, 'I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint'. [30]

So, what lessons can we take today from the life of this strong (even tough), saintly woman?

Her life reminds us that heroic holiness is the ideal and benchmark for everything in the church. What is the point of being involved in the life of the church unless it is an attempt to walk this path?

We are reminded that heroic holiness is often found in the weak, the young, the women, the outsiders. And, just as truly, it is sometimes lacking in those with positions of leadership and responsibility in the church.

I believe that Mary is also a model for how we must respond to those in authority, especially in those faith-testing situations when we believe that they are acting in a way that is contrary to what is best.

Mary would state her case clearly and simply when dealing with the person himself or herself (whether priest, bishop or her own Mother General during the years when Mary was not in charge of the Congregation). If necessary, she would give her side of a dispute honestly and fully to higher authorities – the metropolitan archbishop, or Roman congregations.

She would act with courtesy and forbearance to all, even those who did her much harm, and she would insist that the Sisters act in the same way. She hated public controversy and scandal, or anything that could bring the status or authority of priests or bishops into disrepute.

There is a saying of Mary that is recounted in the oral history of the Congregation, though I have not been able to find it in any of her letters: 'Better a dagger in my heart than a word against the priest'. It would only be to her Founder and Director that she would write the sentence I quoted above, about Fr Horan: 'Oh Father he is an awful man and has done mischief that years of repentance and suffering will not repair'.

Likewise, when she wrote, the day after the excommunication: 'If we cannot agree to what our poor dear old Bishop requires, at least be humble in the way we refuse', this was nothing trite or facile or glib. For her it was the clear will of God, both to disagree with the bishop, and to be humble in doing so.

I think Mary is also a great model for how we can pray, especially for those of us who lament that we do not pray enough, or well enough.

'I do not spend much time in prayer, but God's presence seems to follow me everywhere and make everything I do or wish to do a prayer. I love to write in the oratory, for then I feel so near Jesus and give Him all my thoughts and what I am going to do; and I love at night to sleep where I can see the lamp burning and the Tabernacle behind it; and yet all the while I do not pray, only feel near God, and my mind working and my mind resting to please him'. [31]

However, the peak spiritual experience of her life was when she was formally and canonically excommunicated. Listen again to how she described that experience:

'I really felt like one in a dream. I seemed not to realize the presence of the Bishop and priests; I know I did not see them; but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget'. [32]

I believe there is something profoundly radical in Mary's statement that the closest she had ever felt to God was when the solemn authority of the church, an authority which she respected and revered, was casting her out of the church.

She experienced the 'calm beautiful presence of God' even outside the church. She experienced the truth that God is bigger than the church. She gives us a language in which we can speak to those many people today, particularly young people, who are living outside the church, or at least outside the sacramental life of the church, but who experience in their lives the 'calm, beautiful presence of God'. We can be inspired to talk to them, not in our language, but in theirs, about the God they know and have experienced.

Each of us will be called to follow Mary to some margins, some frontiers of our society, to share with the people there our love of God.

"... With the intercession of St Mary MacKillop, who showed us new ways of living the Gospel ..."

I believe that Mary's example, her ideals, and her intercession, can be among our greatest assets in this Year of Grace.

Peter Brock
Mary MacKillop Place
North Sydney
8 May 2012


1] Gardiner, p. 11
[2] ibid, p. 139
[3] Perfectae Caritatis 2b
[4]] Nest of Crosses p. 190
[5] Gardiner p.25
[6] Nest of Crosses p. 172
[7] ibid p. 99-100
[8] ibid p. 119
[9] Gardiner p. 18
[10] Nest of Crosses p. 61
[11] ibid p. 12
[12] Gardiner p. 89
[13] ibid p. 116
[14] Gardiner p. 85
[15] ibid p. 86
[16] Gardiner p. 101
[17] ibid p. 103
[18] ibid p. 106
[19] ibid p. 104
[20] ibid p. 104
[21] Letter in the Mary MacKillop Museum, Sydney, dated 21/9/1871
[22] Gardiner p. 106
[23] letter dated 16 Nov. 1871, Nest of Crosses, pp 310-311
[24] Nest of Crosses, p. 369-370
[25] Gardiner p. 128
[26] ibid p. 267
[27] ibid p. 222
[28] Gardiner p. 229
[29] ibid.
[30] ibid p. 479
[31] quoted in Australian Catholics Edmund Campion, p. 49
[32] Gardiner, p. 105


The two works most frequently cited here are the first and last listed:
("Gardiner" and "Nest of Crosses")

Paul Gardiner SJ An Extraordinary Australian – Mary MacKillop
E.J. Dwyer Alexandria NSW 1994

Mother Mary of the Cross MacKillop Julian Tenison Wood: A Life
Introduced and annotated by Margaret Press RSJ
St Pauls Publications Strathfield 2010

Margaret M Press RSJ Julian Tenison Woods
Catholic Theological Faculty, Sydney 1979

Edmund Campion Australian Catholics
Viking-Penguin Ringwood Vic. 1987

Four volumes of Mary's letters
All arranged and edited by Sheila McCreanor RSJ:

• Mary MacKillop and Flora
Correspondence between Mary MacKillop and her mother, Flora McDonald MacKillop
Sisters of St Joseph, North Sydney 2004

• Mary MacKillop in Challenging Times, 1883-1899
A collection of letters
Sisters of St Joseph, North Sydney 2006

• Mary MacKillop on Mission To her last breath
Correspondence about the Foundations of the Sisters of St Joseph in Aotearoa New Zealand and Mary's final years 1881-1909
Sisters of St Joseph, North Sydney 2009

• Mary MacKillop and a Nest of Crosses:
Correspondence with Fr Julian Tension Woods 1869-1872
Sisters of St Joseph, North Sydney 2011

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