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Australia's feminist saint

Michael Mullins |  11 October 2010

Mary MacKillopFather Paul Gardiner has described media discussion arising from facts presented in last night's Compass feature on ABC TV as inaccurate, and a 'nasty swipe' at the Catholic Church in the weeks leading up to Sunday's canonisation of Mary MacKillop. 

For many years, Gardiner was the driving force behind the presentation of the case for MacKillop's canonisation. Media reports in recent weeks included a simplistic interpretation of friction between MacKillop and male church authorities. They portrayed her excommunication as a direct consequence of her exposure of sexual abuse of children by a priest.

Stressing that there's enough legitimate evidence of human weakness in the Catholic Church aside from this 'misinformation', Father Gardiner told Mount Gambier's Border Watch newspaper: 'Somehow or other, somebody typed it up as if I said Mary MacKillop was the one to report the sex abuse … It's the ill-will of people who are anxious to see something negative about the Catholic Church.'

Such negativity can be seen as an attempt to revive the sectarianism that marred Australia's religious landscape until recent decades. Narrowly focused, and often distorted, religious argument between Catholics and Protestants ensured division in Australian society for generations.

These recent attempts to rekindle sectarianism miss the point of MacKillop's elevation. The canonisation signifies her triumph over adversity on behalf of all Australians, and not a victory for Catholics over non-Catholics.

The inclusiveness of her struggle for education for rural and regional Australians in particular ensures her legitimacy as a role model for all. She faced and overcame obstacles such as the patriarchy that dominated both church and society around the turn of the 19th century.

In a commentary published last week at the ABC's Religion & Ethics portal, historian Father Ed Campion wrote of the trials of MacKillop's migrant Scots family as they struggled to make a go of life in Australia, which they found 'strange and at times uncomfortable'.

He went on to quote an American source which suggested that the mature MacKillop's combative response to the patriarchy's assault on the dignity of women at the time has 'made her a heroine to modern Australian feminists'. 

Campion says: 'Living in isolated little cottage convents, young and unlearned, subject to chicanery and abuse — "ignorant servant girls" one parish priest called them from his pulpit — they nevertheless stuck to Mary and her understanding of their vocation.'

It's easy to see that sexual abuse was part of the mix of challenges facing MacKillop and her sisters. But clearly it was one among many elements of disfunction within the church and society of the time.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications. The image above is a depiction of Father Paul Gardiner outside the Josephite schoolhouse in Penola, SA, which is undergoing renovation following a tornado (courtesy Christine Hogan/CathNews Gallery)



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Submitted comments

Mary MacKillop saw the way forward was to educate girls; this is what upset the male clergy and to an extent still does. We "have not kept our place" and continue to challenge to this day. Maybe the journalists too need to look beyond the story and find the TRUTH or is that too hard??

Thanks Michael.

Rosemary Keenan Gwelup WA 11 October 2010

… It's the ill-will of people who are anxious to see something negative about the Catholic Church.'

Paul Gardner is among the 'Church' people who still don't get it. The bias in Michael Mullins article surprisingly seems to endorse this.

Survivors of all kinds of abuse within the Church sang Alleluias when the report of the sexual abuse broke.

Why has it been kept quiet for so long? It doesn't matter if it was Mary or her congregation. They showed a rare courage.
Please Paul and Michael do not take our small consolation away.

Anne Norman 11 October 2010

Mr. Mullins does seem to side with the apologists . I fear they will never "get it ". They refuse to open their eyes and ears. They believe if they set in church 1 hour a week they will be saved. I believe the church must return to the concepts that were practiced in the first 3 centuries . The modern day clergy don't wantt believers who don't follow them blindly and follow them hook, line, and sinker. If women can become saints they should have the same rights in the church as men. I don't believe Jesus approves of the churches present ways.

J. Paul Kezior 11 October 2010

It is simplistic to say that it was St Mary McKillop's scheme for the education of girls which upset the clergy. It was a priest, Julian Tenison Woods, Director of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Adelaide, who worked with Mary to found the Sisters of St Joseph and establish the network of schools. Many parish priests welcomed the Sisters and their schools. Bishop Sheil was also supportive before things fell apart. Indeed, these intiatives could not have been taken without his consent. It was the Pope of the day who vindicated her.

The secular commentary on St Mary, from the Prime Minister down, tries to turn her into some kind of latter-day post-modernist feminist heroine, glorified trendy social worker, pugilist against ecclesiastical patriarchy and crusader for assorted fashionable causes of 'equal opportunity' and 'human rights'. This is anti-history which dumps contemporary left-liberal orthodoxies and neuroses on this nineteenth-century woman.

A reading of Mary's life and, in particular, her letters, reveals someone who had absolute respect for priests and the hierarchy, even when badly treated by them. What they reveal above all is a women of profound faith, a life centred on God, a life of prayer and penance, a woman who sought sanctification through the consecrated life and the apostolate of Catholic education for the children of the poor.

It is significant that the addition to her name in religion, "of the Cross" is never used by secular commentators. She was, before anything else, St Mary of the Cross.

Sylvester 11 October 2010

Why is a Saint a Saint?

What is a miracle?

Can she perform a miracle for me and grant me faith and suspend my beliefs?

patrick williams 11 October 2010

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