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'Sheila' MacKillop boosts Catholic brand


It's rare that you see people in the Roman Curia like Vatican Press chief, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, gob-smacked, but that's how he was when he saw the Australian media contingent for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. At the press conference I attended there were a couple of Canadians and a few sundry others, and 35 media personnel from Australia.

But Lombardi was not the only one gob-smacked. So was I at the saturation media coverage.

Channels Seven and Nine, Sky, SBS, the ABC, The Age (representing Fairfax) and several other Australian newspapers covered the event. Channel Seven alone had 27 people from news and current affairs on the ground in Rome. Sky News had continuous coverage of the event from 4pm with a live cross to the actual canonisation ceremony from the Vatican.

7Two presented an hour-long Seven News Special from 6.30pm (in which I participated) and their Sunday Night program covered the miracles and associated stories with live crosses into the 7Two coverage. On Nine Sixty Minutes featured a story discussing the miracles.

ABC News 24 carried the canonisation Mass live, but with an inadequate commentary. Geraldine Doogue was in Rome for the event and Compass did a special on it. ABC News Radio did live crosses to Rome. The History Channel replayed their special Blessed Mary which curiously featured Alan Jones as host.

The next morning the radio and TV news programs gave the event extensive coverage. I was interviewed just outside the Piazza of Saint Peter's by none other than 'Kochie' (David Koch) on Sunrise. The Seven web page quoted me saying the canonisation 'confirms that women are very much part of the ministry of the Church and that in many ways the Church's foundations are built upon their work'.

I made sure I got that plug in!

So what is the significance of this saturation coverage? Commercial TV does not spend a lot of money on an event unless there is something to be gained. They must have assessed that Saint Mary touched a chord somewhere in the Australian psyche.

Sure, they treated it like a sporting event, but they had enough sense to realise that the main game (the liturgical event) lacked excitement, so they knew they needed a lot of 'fill' — back-up human interest stories, everything from miracles to the Mary Mac trinkets on sale in the Piazza.

The sporting analogy can be taken further. People long for heroes and heroines and much of this has been focused on sportspeople, as well as those who gave their lives in war. Mary MacKillop fitted into that context perfectly. Here was a real heroine who gave her life in the service of others. She was a genuine battler who lived out and incarnated an ideal of Christian service to those at the margins.

So it's no wonder that the article on Mary MacKillop gets more hits than any other on the web page of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

But even better than that, at least from an Australian perspective, she stood up to authority, to pretentious bishops. As a certain commentator said 'She was a real Australian sheila'. Even the inaccurate story that she reported a priest for sexual abuse added to her gloss.

But there is even more to it than that. Somehow the Mary event tapped into an unarticulated, inchoate, almost unconscious need for spirituality.

Monash University's Professor Garry Bouma in his Australian Soul (2006) argues that Australians are quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious with an understated spirituality characterised by 'a serious, quiet reverence, a deliberate silence ... an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness'.

I suspect that somehow Mary MacKillop touched this inner spiritual core, that she fulfilled the expectations people had of what a committed Christian should be like.

I'm not saying that commercial media worked this out for themselves. But they can be very good at tapping into what is really happening at a deeper level in the community, they can 'feel' the subtle undercurrents; can intuit unarticulated, even unconscious movements in the community.

Actually, I don't think the Catholic Church is as much 'on the nose' at present as is popularly thought. The majority of people don't have bad experiences of Catholicism and some of them know priests or laity whom they regard highly.

Yesterday it was reported that the canoniaation boosted enquiries at Australia's Catholic Enquiry Centre by 63 per cent in the past year. A total of 721 enquiries were received in 2010, and 27 per cent came in the month of the canonisation. And in my experience there is still a lot of interest in what happens within both church and Vatican.

All up I think the canonisation was a positive experience both for Australia and Catholics. 

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC.

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Mary MacKillop, Catholicism, canonisation, Australia's first saint, David Koch, Kochie



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Existing comments

This article reveals how much of an unreal world Paul Collins has been living in for the last couple of decades. He now realises that 'the Catholic brand' is not after all shrouded in the negativity and gloom that he himself has done much to promote. The Catholic Church is 'on the nose' only to a small number of journalists and publicists with a theologico-political agenda out of touch with public opinion.

Sylvester | 19 November 2010  

Is Sylvester not barking up the wrong tree? Does he assume that a positive image of Mary McKillop means accepting Catholic teaching lock, stock and barrel? When we see our Churches filling again on Sundays for the Eucharist, then we can celebrate! Negativity in the Press has been mostly self-inflicted, especially about the horrendous paedophilia!

Peter M Budgewoi NSW | 19 November 2010  

I love Mary MacKillop. She should have been canonised decades ago except for some documents not being able to be found in the Vatican Archives. A story in itself!
By why the tumult that greeted her canonisation?
Australia had at last broken into the big league (to continue the sporting analogy so loved and understood by Aussies).
Another burden that made us culturally cringe had been removed.
We had proved ourselves as a nation capable of producing a saint. The fact that Mary was a determined anti-authoritarian woman was another dent in the armour of the male chauvinists who protected their image of what they thought an order of nuns should be like.
I think the fact that Mary was a Catholic was secondary to the wider cultural impact and significance of her canonisation. That's what the media saw and that is what commercial interests exploited.
But then again the Spirit is like the wind - it blows where it will.

Uncle Pat | 19 November 2010  

Non-Sequitur of the Week can be found between the first sentence and the second in this paragraph: “People long for heroes and heroines and much of this has been focused on sportspeople, as well as those who gave their lives in war. Mary MacKillop fitted into that context perfectly. Here was a real heroine who gave her life in the service of others. She was a genuine battler who lived out and incarnated an ideal of Christian service to those at the margins.” Australia has had saints in abundance for centuries, indeed eons, but the Vatican has never heard of them. Nor have most Australians and it’s one of the reasons why they’re saints. They’re nobodies in the world’s terms, which is why they are a threat to journalism and hierarchies and principalities and powers. Saintliness doesn’t have much to do with national identity, even if nations love claiming holy people as their own, normally after they’re dead. That heroic Australians have to be sportspeople or soldiers is actually a national problem, a journalistic recourse that reinforces stereotypes. In this context, Our Mary is an anti-hero. All this hoopla simply misses the message of true holiness, misses it completely.

Desiderius Erasmus | 19 November 2010  

Perhaps Paul, instead of reading it as accolades for the 'church', see it as human interest in a woman who characterised Australian anti-authoritarianism and whose motivation was a spirituality that defied what got in her way of doing what she believed God asked of her and was vindicated.

The fact that the church still treats women as second class citizens is sad and an insight into the male-centric world of the institution can be seen in barre relief by the egocentricity of one who thought he should be obeyed.

That she found the source of her spirituality within the Roman Catholic church is accidental (however had it been any other she would not be 'sainted') and i suspect the curiosity is about what made this woman 'tick', not about the church per se. A different perspective.

hilary | 19 November 2010  

The pick of all the interviews was on the SBS public service channel. A young woman was to interview Fr Paul Gardiner but she had the sense and wisdom to just let him talk. His stories and anecdotes were fascinating. It would be well worth keeping a copy of it for posterity.

Mary Round | 19 November 2010  

St Mary MacKillop's canonisation is important to Australians and Catholics. Her work encompassed both. My accolade goes to the Josephites and their friends and supporters who persisted for so many years to Mary's canonisation.

Persistence and determination are in themselves a sport, so surrogate religion and even sophisticated larrikanism are as grass roots as God and religion.

Mary Perth WA | 21 November 2010  

Paul, watching the MacKillop TV show I wondered “ … three nuns, two priests, a brother but where’s Aunty Ethel?”

Aunty Ethel, convict descended, mother of nine at State Mine Gully Lithgow in a two bed roomed cottage all at Sunday Mass and Brown Joe’s school.

The Church maybe not 'on the nose' but of Aunty Ethel’s great grand kids and Mary Mckillop’s graduates less than 5% continue an active Catholic sacramental life.

The Catholic Life survey of 1,321 parishes has 624,000 Catholics worship every Sunday with 34,000 in the 13 -18 age group ie 5.4% - still excessive from my observation.

In catholic schools are 58,979 staff with 365 religious i.e. .62%. In my years: Star of the Sea, St Columbus, St John the Baptist's Brown Joes, CBC St Kilda and Yarraville and Gordon and Ballan parishes it was 92% religious. Is this Catholic education success or religious life failure?

In our churchill Parish Catholic School 23 are in year six 12 are catholic and six were confirmed, 51% Catholics are in Government schools

Of Mary’s graduates only a few participate in the sacramental parish life.

They’re interested in Jesus but give the church a miss.

Michael Parer | 22 November 2010  

In Auckland the last week, I noticed that St Mary of the Cross is proclaimed as Australasia's first saint - Mary is not seen by others as Australia's alone. The Sisters of St Joseph of the Cross went to the south island of Aotearoa New Zealand in 1883.

Peter Horan | 29 November 2010  

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