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Celebrating life of Australia's first saint

Opinion

As Catholics celebrate the feast of Saint Mary MacKillop today, August 8, Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ reflects on her work and how the Church of today can continue to learn from her example.

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One of the features of St Mary MacKillop’s life was the way in which she instinctively moved beyond narrow boundaries to look to bigger horizons in a wider world. At a time when so many changes in our world are introduced by people who want to cut connections with other groups and to emphasise the power and the entitlements of their own group or nation, she has much to say to us.

Mary was a great traveller. She went from Melbourne to Portland and to Penola. After meeting Fr Julian Tenison Woods, she moved to Adelaide to found her congregation.

From then on her life was one of constant and demanding travel by horse coach, ship and later by train to visit her Sisters throughout Australia and New Zealand. She also travelled to Rome to gain approval for the Congregation.

At a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was becoming more decentralised with the creation of new dioceses and new boundaries, colonial Australians were debating the merits of Federation. The beginnings of the Josephite Sisters took place against the background of tension between local and national aspirations.

Mary insisted that the Sisters should be under their own Superior and not at the disposition of local bishops. This principle was central to her vision and to the struggles she had to win to enshrine it in the governance of the Congregation. It ensured both that the spirit of the Congregation and its commitment to poor young women would be maintained, and also that the Sisters would be available to work where the need was greatest.

This insistence led to conflict with some local bishops and to the division of the Sisters into Congregations which worked in a single diocese under the local bishop and the Congregation living under the rule for which Mary obtained approval. Through her travels Mary herself had unrivalled experience of the life of the Australian and New Zealand churches in remote areas and a unique sense of Australia as a whole.

A smaller but equally symbolic crossing of boundaries led to a disagreement with Julian Tenison Woods. It concerned the teaching of music by the Sisters.

For both people the apparently insignificant issue was of symbolic importance. For Woods, teaching music marked a retreat from the commitment to the basic education of poor students and the adoption of a broader educational service for aspirational Catholic families. For Mary, the boundary was worth crossing. Teaching music to external students helped straitened local Sisters to support themselves and their work for poor students. Moreover, as the Sisters taught music also to girls who were not Catholic, their teaching helped cross sectarian boundaries in local communities.

As the Plenary Council comes closer, Mary’s convictions speak strongly to us. In her work she focused on the poorest and neediest people in society, young women without opportunities for education. She was part of a Church of the poor.

What mattered to her was to go out to these young women as persons. Her story began with faces, not abstractions. Her work then took her further and further, across the boundaries of states and of Church dioceses, to meet the needs of young people and their families.

To help poor students in the Church of the poor she needed to be free to go where the need was greatest. As her Sisters went to railheads and port towns they helped to break down the boundaries that divided local communities.

For us as a Church, the Plenary Council will help us focus on what matters, on who matters, and to regain Mary’s focus on the poorest people in our society. Mary’s example might also lead us to broaden our prayer and our interest in the Church beyond our local parishes to look at the whole of Australia and the world, so enlarging our hearts.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services

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