Homily given at the
THANKSGIVING MASS FOR
ST MARY OF THE CROSS
Brothers and sisters in Christ
Fellow citizens of Australia
Yesterday Mary MacKillop was canonised at St. Peter’s Basilica here
in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI as Saint Mary of the Cross, the first
Australian-born saint in the two thousand year history of the Catholic
Church. We are delighted and grateful.
The Australia of today which welcomes this canonisation is very
different from the separate British colonies where Mary spent most of her
life before the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901. In
most ways Australia is now a better society, due to the wisdom and hard
work of our predecessors, women and men like Sister Mary. The
Australia which was and is Protestant or irreligious has made room for
Catholics and we are grateful for this too.
My second greeting this morning “Fellow citizens of Australia” (and I
apologise to those non-Australians present, who are certainly included in
the “brothers and sisters in Christ”) is taken from the final address of
another great and earlier Australian, described on his tombstone in
Scotland as “The father of Australia”.
Major General Lachlan Macquarie came to the colony of New South
Wales as governor 200 years ago in 1810 to restore order after the New
South Wales Corps, the “Rum Corps”, had overthrown William Bligh the
previous governor. It was then only twenty two years since the First Fleet
had arrived in 1788, comprising about 1000 convicts and soldiers.
Many of the convicts were Irish Catholics, who were flogged if they
did not attend the Protestant service on Sunday and had no freedom to
practise their religion. Their numbers and sometimes their demeanor
made officialdom uneasy. Although Macquarie laid the foundation stone
for the first St. Mary’s Church in Sydney in 1821, for most of the colony’s
first thirty years the public celebration of Mass was forbidden. Indeed on
becoming governor Macquarie was obliged to swear on oath that he did
not believe in the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation! It was only in
1829 that the Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell achieved Catholic
emancipation through the British parliament after a long campaign of
peaceful mass protests.
Macquarie was the first public champion to the outside world of
what he called Australia, not New Holland or even New South Wales. He
was determined to change a convict colony into a free society, the
beginnings of a nation and he built fine buildings, founded new towns,
crossed the Blue Mountains, encouraged education for Europeans and for
the aborigines also. But most importantly he insisted that reformed
convicts, the emancipists should be accepted into society and he
encouraged their children and the children of the free settlers, the
“currency lads and lasses”, taller than their parents, outspoken
sometimes, regularly determined, confident and occasionally irreverent.
Many Australians today still like to think of themselves in these terms.
Mary MacKillop was born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in
1842, the child of free settlers, some decades after Macquarie, and before
the discovery of gold turned the colony upside down, bringing hundreds of
thousands of immigrants seeking their fortune. But we believe that she
shared the best characteristics of the currency lads and lasses as she
exploited the openness of society which Macquarie encouraged, struggled
to spread education and battled quietly and effectively to combat the
Catholic versus Protestant antagonisms, the sectarianism which waxed
and waned until the middle of the twentieth century. She however
suffered more from her fellow Catholics than from outsiders.
Saint Mary worked to give poor Catholics the capacity to exploit
their opportunities, to avail themselves of the consequences of the
widespread Australian conviction, which Macquarie favoured, that
everyone had a right to a “fair go”. Many young Australians when she
opened her first school in Penola in 1866 did not want to go to school and
their parents were not too disturbed by this. Mary wanted them to know
the three “rs” of reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic but she also wanted
them to know of God’s love for them and for “the Word of Christ, in all its
richness, to find a home” in them.
Two quotations from her writings help explain her life’s work. Her
sisters as St. Joseph’s true children were to “seek first the poorest, most
neglected parts of God’s vineyard”, while probably her most famous
exhortation was that the sisters were “never (to) see an evil without
trying to discover how they remedy it”. I hope and pray that this
injunction sinks into the subconscious of all young Australians.
Mary of course became a nun, the founder of the Sisters of St.
Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a religious, devoted explicitly to the
evangelical counsels, to being and living in faith, hope and love as an
Australian. When presenting her rule to Rome for approval, she explained
in an accompanying letter that “It is an Australian who writes this, one
brought up in the midst of many of the evils she tries to describe”. She
stressed to Rome that “what would seem much out of place in Europe is
still the very reverse in Australia”.
We thank God today for the contribution of all the women religious
to the Catholic story “Down-under”, not merely the hundreds of young
Australian and Irish women who joined the sisters of St. Joseph, but all
the religious who have labored for our benefit, served with “generosity
and humility, gentleness and patience” to bring goodness and Godliness
into the empty spaces of our vast continent.
Unlike some of Australia’s best known humanitarians such as Fred
Hollows or Weary Dunlop, Mary’s life was centered on God. She realised
that she was one of those “chosen of God, the holy people whom he
loves” and she wrote “I want with all my heart to be what God wants me
to be”, to do only God’s will and never to stand in God’s way. Whatever
she did, she did in the name of the Lord Jesus and she set her heart first
of all on God’s kingdom and his saving justice. It was this faith which
motivated her service and motivated the many women who joined her.
“Faith”, she explained “is the first essential if we are to cope” with life’s
Today we find strange the name she chose for her religious
profession “Mary of the Cross”, which explains our preference for the title
St. Mary MacKillop. We like to think of ourselves as positive and affirming
and one temptation today in our materially comfortable lives is to
downplay the evil and spiritual anguish around us, to soft pedal the costs
of redemption and ignore the flaws in our own hearts, the personal
consequences of original sin. We are not born bad and depraved, but we
are born selfish and imperfect. Nineteenth century Catholicism
understood all this better than we do.
Mary did not like suffering and did not go looking for trouble. Her
title “Mary of the Cross” was for her a happy one, which acknowledged
the afflictions of daily life. She claimed ruefully “the little crosses of
everyday life are harder to bear than the thumping big ones”. But she
was given a number of thumping big crosses.
She was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, a foolish and arrogant
man, who let himself be misled by priestly lies. She was slandered, saw
her sisters divided, suffered unjustly in a second enquiry and had to
endure the estrangement, despite her best efforts, of the co-founder
Father Julian Tenison Woods. Not surprisingly she turned to the Pope for
help and protection and Pope Pius IX did not disappoint her.
Pius IX was pope from 1846-1878, the longest reign in history,
surpassing even the twenty-five years traditionally assigned to St. Peter.
During this period the Church was often under ferocious ideological attack
and lost political control of the Papal States through military action.
The Pope was strict and not much given to conciliation, calling the
First Vatican Council which defined Papal infallibility. But he presided over
a period of remarkable expansion and renewal in Catholic life and
devotion, which occurred also in Australia. The Sisters of St. Joseph were
only one of a number of new religious orders from the nineteenth century
Pope Pius IX recognized that the finger of God was upon the young,
once excommunicated Sister Mary of the Cross. He understood her faith,
idealism and potential. He supported her and we have benefited
In Australian terms we would now say that in Mary MacKillop the
Holy Father backed a winner!
In these circumstances, we recognise her most remarkable virtue
which was the capacity to forgive. She made her own Paul’s instructions
to the Colossians which we have heard today: “The Lord has forgiven
you; now you must do the same”.
We are told that John Kennedy the American president said “forgive
your enemies but never forget their names”, while much earlier the great
Protestant queen of England, Elizabeth I is alleged to have recommended
burying the hatchet, but “don’t forget where you buried it”.
Sister Mary of the Cross belonged to a different school. During the
months of her excommunication, which she knew to be invalid, she wrote
“I have, through God’s wise permission at present enemies…. but they are
loved enemies”. Nearly twenty years later she told her sisters that “when
you become hard, suspicious and censorious, then goodbye to being
children of St. Joseph”. Over the years she practised what she preached.
She felt the “force of God’s immense love and patient mercy” despite her
own “poor and cold spirit” and told of her own return to equilibrium “a
quiet and slow healing process, rediscovering a calm after the storm
which had been (her) life for the past few years”. She truly said good bye
to her old scores.
St. Mary of the Cross was kind and commonsensical. She told her
sisters to expect crosses and realise that “we also give them” and
encouraged them to have patience with their own failures, to bear with
the faulty “as you hope God will bear with you”. She regularly dispensed
good Christian advice.
We thank God for the life, wisdom and contribution of St. Mary of
the Cross. We are grateful that she was not eccentric, not religiously
exotic. We warm to her advice, are encouraged by her perseverance in
sickness and adversity. Her faith and moral goodness are heroic, but not
in a way which is off putting or surreal. She does not deter us from
struggling to follow her.
From the earliest days of European settlement Christianity and its
Catholic component has been one of the most important rivers watering
and nourishing Australian life. In yesterday’s Papal ceremony the
universal Church put its seal on the outstanding Catholic contributor in
Australian history. By its approval majority Australia now acknowledges
that Godliness, Christian virtue and Catholic service have a well deserved
place in the pantheon of Australian achievements.
This canonisation is an occasion for Catholic rejoicing and an
occasion too for Australians to rejoice in a job well done. St. Mary of the
Cross is one of us, a child of the free and open society that Macquarie
created, who made use of all the opportunities that such a society gives
to bring God’s love and help to others. Her voice is an Australian voice,
the voice of a great woman all Australians can recognise as one of their
own. But her example and teachings – about forgiveness, about resisting
hardness of heart, and about working to overcome evil, refusing to be
disheartened or defeated by it – speak to women and men well beyond
our shores and in all ages. Australia is not a perfect place, but the
blessings God has bestowed upon us have been blessings in abundance.
Now he has raised up from among us St. Mary of the Cross as our first
saint. May we be blessed with many more to come and many more like
+ George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney