Saint Mary MacKillop: A "rebel"?

On the Compass coverage of the canonisation last night, Geraldine Doogue interviewed the Secretary of the Bishops Conference, Fr Brian Lucas. He insisted that Mary was “a woman of the Church” and could not in anyway be painted as “a rebel”. Needless to say, Geraldine just about choked on this assertion and begged to differ. Fr Lucas, however, wasn’t having any of it.

My friend, Andrew Rabel, filed a report for “Inside the Vatican Newsflash” (my link for this isn’t working – sorry). Here’s some of what he wrote:

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.

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.

…Mary MacKillop was far from being a rebel. She was a woman of deep fidelity and loyalty to the Catholic Church. …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.

…Unfortunately, people today who resist Church authority in matters like women’s ordination or contraception etc …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.

…But when all is said and done, the key to understanding Mary MacKillop is that she was a person of holiness. …Yes the canonization of Mary MacKillop is very sorely needed, because we don’t need another sports star or celebrity. We need a saint.

Saint Mary was a “rebel” only in the sense that she was determined to be faithful to her vocation and to live faithfully according to the call of Christ despite the obstacles of many sinful people both inside and outside the Church. At no time was she ever a “rebel” against Christ’s holy Church. Those who try to coopt her to any movement of dissent in the Church are horribly abusing the memory and example of this holy woman.

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26 Responses to Saint Mary MacKillop: A "rebel"?

  1. Tony says:

    I think those who try to coopt Mary to any contemporary ‘political’ view of the church do her a disservice. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ‘she’s a rebel like us’ perspective or the ‘she’s loyal like us’ perspective.

    Her greatness, IMO, is that she rises above all those who ‘want a piece of her’ to either bolster their contemporary view of the church or as a weapon to ‘slay’ others.

    Having said that, St Mary was so much ahead of her time, that many (not just a sickly bishop) saw her as an out and out rebel long before it came to a head with spiritual and, later, physical banishment.

    Just the very act of a Sister ‘getting in the gutter’ with the poor was frowned upon big time. She just didn’t do what other women of the church did.

    At the same time, she was deeply loyal to the church in general and priests in particular.

    • Schütz says:

      She didn’t do what “other women of the church did”

      I am sure Mary was very aware of a whole raft of “other women of the Church” who did what she did, and drew her inspiration from them. She was neither the first nor the last “woman of the Church” to “get down in the gutter” with the poor.

      • Gareth says:

        Do the modern day Sisters of Saint Joseph really care for the poor?

        Where I live there is a ecunemical weekly prayer service for mothers and unborn children. The convent is only a ten minute walk.

        My family has attended regurlarly for ten years but we have not seen one SSJ?

        Saint Mary of the Cross, pray that we may help the poor.

      • Tony says:

        Yes, David, I think that’s probably true.

        She was part of a world-wide change in the way women religious did things and that was new and bold in places like Penola and Adelaide.

  2. Matthias says:

    It would be interesting to see if those who think Mary mckillop was a rebel-like geraldinedoogue-and thus against the whole male patriarchy of the Church,would also deny the Deity of Christ,the inspiration of Scriptures and the need for Confession of sins and repentance .

  3. Peter Golding says:

    Doogue,like most at our ABC,has a motto of “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”.She commenced the show by saying that St.Mary had been ex-communicated because she had outed a pedophile priest.This has been well and truly denied by Fr.Paul Gardiner S.J. who is as knowledgable as anyone on the history of St.Mary’s life.

    • Tony says:

      I’m not sure what statement of Doogue’s your refering to Peter.

      I just watched Doogue’s introductory story on the Canonisation coverage in I-View. In relation to this issue she says:

      … and in 1871 trumped up charges of disobedience were brought against Mary and she was thrown out of the church, but the real reason behind Mary’s excommunication was because the Sisters blue the whistle on a priest who was allegedly sexually abusing children. The Sisters reported him and he was promptly dismissed.

      Fr Paul Gardiner’s version (in response to Lindy Kerin on <a href=""AM):

      LINDY KERIN: But it was when the Sisters of St Joseph uncovered and reported the sexual abuse of children by one of the local priests at Kapunda that lead to a dramatic chain of events. They alleged that Father Patrick Keating was abusing school children. Strong disciplinary action was taken by the church’s vicar-general. Father Gardiner says some members of the clergy wanted revenge.

      PAUL GARDINER: Priests being annoyed that somebody had uncovered it – that would probably be the way of describing it – and being so angry that the destruction of the Josephites was decided on.

      So the link with reporting abuse is hardly ‘well and truly denied’ by Fr Paul and I’m not sure the claim that ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ is well placed.

      • Peter Golding says:

        Over the weekend,APAC (Australian Public Affairs Channel) on Foxtel was devoted entirely to St.Mary and her up-coming canonisation.There were interviews with numerous people,one being Fr.Paul.He made it clear in that interview that St Mary was not ex-communicated because of the outing of a pedophile priest.She was apparently not even
        head of the order at that point.

  4. Marcel says:

    I think the overwhelming majority of the coverage prior to the canonisation was regrettable. This moment was a potential goldmine for evangelisation purposes. Instead, the PR machine of the Australian Catholic Church (I use the term deliberately) chose to focus on Mary’s ‘Australian-ness’, her ‘tolerance’, her ‘openness’, her excommunication, her ‘feminism’ and her ‘feistiness’. I was very disappointed, in particular, with Cardinal Pell’s newspaper column on the canonisation.

    It may seem redundant to empasise this, but in light of the lamentable commenatry accompanying nearly every report on St Mary of the Cross, perhaps news releases from our chanceries could have added as a footnote that Mary Mackillop was a proud member of the militant, anathematizing, dogmatic, triumphalist, pro-life, anti-Protestant and anti-liberal Church of Bl. Pius IX’s age. You wouldn’t have known it judging from the woefully inadequate public comments from the modernist Sisters of St Joseph and the Bishops of late.

    • Schütz says:

      I can’t say that I entirely disagree with you, Marcel. We keep hearing that Mary was a “woman of Australia”, that she belonged to “all Australians”. But the very name she chose for herself in religious life tells another story. She is not “Mary of Australia” but “Mary of the Cross”.

    • Tony says:

      Yes, Marcel, she was a woman of Pius IX’s age not of Pius V’s age or Pius VI’s age. Her successors are women of the ages of JPII and Benedict not Pius IX.

      She was also very much a challenge to the age and while a simplistic description like ‘rebel’ does her an injustice, there’s no doubt that she rattled a few cages and was very much ahead of her time.

      … the woefully inadequate public comments from the modernist Sisters of St Joseph and the Bishops of late.

      And, no matter what role they took in making her life and mission difficult, she never had a harsh word to say about bishops and priests and other religious.

      Finally, I’m as suspicious of tacky nationalism as anyone, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate that Mary was Australian born and came up with solutions that broke free of European mind sets.

      • Gareth says:

        Tony: Her successors are women of the ages of JPII and Benedict not Pius IX.

        Gareth: What do you mean by this?

        Would JPII and Benedict really condone the quasi-feminism, anti-orthodox catholicism and abandonment of much of the sisters prayer life that is exhibited by so many of the current day SSJ.

        I don’t think JPII or Benedict would be putting their hand up for standing for empty converts…

        • Tony says:

          Her successors are women of the ages of JPII and Benedict not Pius IX.

          Was in response to Marcel’s ‘Mary Mackillop was a proud member of the … Church of Bl. Pius IX’s age’.

          Would JPII and Benedict really condone the quasi-feminism, anti-orthodox catholicism and abandonment of much of the sisters prayer life that is exhibited by so many of the current day SSJ.

          Well, they had oversight of the order, so I guess you can draw conclusions from that.

          • Gareth says:

            I am not sure what conclusion to draw.

            • Tony says:

              I can only think of two possibilities, Gareth.

              1. Characterisations of the Joshephites such as ‘the quasi-feminism, anti-orthodox catholicism and abandonment of much of the sisters prayer life’ might not be fair or accurate. Or, if they are,

              2. They happened on PJPII and PB16’s watch and were therefore approved.

              (BTW, given that they both were at or near the top for a generation, I’m not sure you can claim that they couldn’t have known about what was going on.)

            • Gareth says:

              Are the Popes God?

              No, they can only do what that can do.

              The way I see it is that the past few Popes have offered up many plees and decrees for modern religious to re-consider the path they have taken at an individual and communal level (the Pope’s quote on religious dress that I showed you in a previous post) being one of many).

              The way I see it is that Bishops or the Superiors of religious houses have not been serious enough to heed the Pope’s words and things slowly but surely feel into decay.

              Anyhow, it is the religiou sisters own fault if they could not have seen their orders falling to pieces and then freely choose to do nothing about it.

              Praise God that those religious that are faithful to the rules of their orders, prayer life and are truly counter-cultural will lead the next leaders of the Church this century.

            • Tony says:

              No, they can only do what that can do.

              Which, on your assessment of the Joeys, wasn’t enough.

              ‘Plees and decrees’, Gareth, or ‘suggestions’?

  5. RonPrice says:


    Two or three nights ago, after a day of writing and reading, editing and posting on the internet, research and what I have come to call independent scholarship, I settled down with my after-midnight snack. I watch TV at that time to help turn my brain off and so get into alpha waves after what has been a busy day of ratiocinative activity. I chanced upon a movie entitled The Magdalene Sisters.(1) It was set in Dublin in 1964 and portayed the sexual, physical and emotional abuse by nuns, priests and others in church-run residential schools or asylums, incredibly horrific Dickensian institutions.

    Part of the reason for making the film, wrote the director Peter Mullen, was the need for closure by the victims of these institutions. The film received the British Independent Film Award in 2003 and the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2002. For my money, for my television and cinema tastes, this film deserved both awards.-Ron Price with thanks to (1) SBS1 TV, 14 October 12:05-2:15 a.m. and Sarah Lyall, “Report Details Abuses In Irish Reformatories,” The New York, 20 May 2009.

    Where will I start with my comment
    on this moving account of fallen and
    abused women needing redemption
    for their so-called sins in old systems
    of homes maintained by religious orders
    in Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church?!*
    How can believers reconcile their faith
    with these historically oppressive facts?

    Where will I start on this special day of
    the canonization of Mary MacKillop??
    The declaration of heroic virtue in 1992?1
    Your beatification on 19 January 1995?2
    The decree of 19 December 2009 by the
    Congregation for the Causes of Saints who
    issued the papal statement recognising that
    second miracle: the complete and permanent
    cure of a woman with lung and brain cancer?

    Will I mention that by October 2010 your
    official website was receiving an average of
    9,000 visitors per day? I’ll have to see that
    1994 film Mary, the 2008 play Her Holiness
    and that musical of 2008 Mary MacKillop for
    Australia’s first saint: what does it all mean???

    Perhaps–that one can not use the words and
    deeds of mortal-men as a standard for the true
    understanding and recognition of God & His
    Prophets. It’s a very difficult lesson to learn
    on life’s path of faith, eh Mary? Putting one’s
    trust in God has never been easy, has it Mary?
    I wish you well wherever you are leaping and
    soaring, perhaps, in the land or ocean of light!!

    1 This is a process internal to the church and conducted by some of its senior members.
    2 Pope John Paul II performed this beatification. For the occasion the acclaimed Croatian-Australian artist Charles Billich was commissioned to paint the official commemorative portrait of Mary MacKillop.

    Ron Price
    17 October 2010

  6. Pax says:

    I followed these posts with interest.What I have read of Mary and her background makes me suspect she would not have much time for too much talk.She seemed to be rebellious in the way of all great saints. She could not betray Truth. This enabled her to act outside of current convention when Truth required her to do so.I find it rather endearing that she seems to have united Jew, Muslim and Christian at least for the day of her canonisation surely a miracle in itself worth giving thanks for in these troubled times.

    • Tony says:

      I find it rather endearing that she seems to have united Jew, Muslim and Christian at least for the day of her canonisation surely a miracle in itself worth giving thanks for in these troubled times.

      Thus it was in her time, Pax, as the Wiki entry explains:

      Notwithstanding all the trouble, the Order did expand. By 1877, it operated more than 40 schools in and around Adelaide, with many others in Queensland and New South Wales. With the help from Dr Benson, Barr Smith, the Baker family, Emmanuel Solomon and other non-Catholics the Josephites, with Mother Mary as their leader and Superior-General, were able to continue the religious and other good works, including visiting prisoners in jail.

  7. Matthias says:

    Can i ask a simple question for I am a simple man:
    is there a history of angst between Tony and gareth or is it just this blog that we find these two combatants

    • Tony says:

      Not sure if ‘angst’ is the right word, Matthias, but the simple answer is ‘yes’.

      I won’t bore you with my version of our encounters because I always aspire to keep the personal out of exchanges.

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