The Visibility of One Catholic Sister

October 9, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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What with all the attention being paid lately to the beatification of Cardinal Newman, it’s possible that another event,  the canonization of Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Sisters of Australia, will fly entirely under the radar. Of course, MacKillop is an Australian, you might say; why would her canonization be a big deal? Truth is, Catholic sisters have been flying under the radar since slightly after the creation of the world. In an article about Catholic schools that appears in a recent issue of America, Archbishop Dolan of New York manages not to include the phrase “Catholic sisters” once in 2000 words. His praise for the American bishops who established the parochial school system is, on the other hand, hard to miss.  

Mary MacKillop was a Scots immigrant who grew up in a fairly dysfunctional family and, at the age of twenty five, organized a small group of women into what would become the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a congregation devoted to caring for and educating the poor. At the time of her death in 1909, 750 women had entered the Institute, and they operated twelve institutions that housed over 1000 people, and 117 schools with 12, 409 pupils.

You may be thinking that there’s nothing very remarkable about this, and indeed, many 19th century foundresses of Catholic orders did something similar. And, alas, neither was there anything remarkable about what the webpage about MacKillop’s canonization calls the “Challenge” of her life,  her struggles with various Autralian bishops determined to divide the Josephites into diocesan congregations subject to the bishops’ own control. Archbishop “Daggar John” Hughes of New York did much the same to the Sisters of Charity, forcing the New York group to separate from the wider congregation based in Emmitsburg which was founded by St. Elizabeth Seton. But Mary MacKillop was actually excommunicated for her resistance to the bishop of Adelaide. Later, during a visit to Rome, Pope Pius IX even referred to MacKillop as “the excommunicated one.”  And, like other foundresses, MacKillop chose to withdraw her sisters from a number of dioceses rather than allow them to come under the control of the diocesan ordinary. It was a long hard struggle on her part to get the Josephites recognized as a canonical congregation reporting to the motherhouse in Sydney, but MacKillop hung in there.

In all of this, what’s striking about Mary MacKillop is the extraordinarily Christian tone she manages to maintain, praying for her oppressors and urging her sisters again and again to do the same.  Of that excommunication, MacKillop wrote,  “When I was ordered to kneel before the Bishop, I felt lonely and bewildered. …I do not know how long I knelt there facing the Bishop and four priests with all my Sisters standing around. I know they were there but I saw no one…I shall never forget the sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God.”

Lest you think this nothing more than evidence of battered woman syndrome or some such, imagine being able to feel the presence of God when you’re being treated this badly. Eventually the bishop did, in fact, revoke the excommunication, and MacKillop lived to see later Australian bishops invite her sisters back into the dioceses from which they fled. And through it all, MacKillop urged her sisters to love, assuring them that with “humility, charity and truth” on their part, all would be well.  What would it mean if progressive Catholics today could respond with the kind of love MacKillop manifested  in the face of various maddening acts by the hierarchy and the Vatican? Maybe we too would be worthy of canonization someday.

Mary MacKillop will be canonized on October 17 in Rome.

PS. Truth in advertising requires me to add that the latest issue of America in fact moves Mary MacKillop above the radar big time, with an editorial about her. What I find interesting is that the Australian webpage I consulted says nothing about MacKillop’s excommunication being, in part at least, “out of revenge for her order’s part in pointing to a case of abuse by an Australian priest,” as the editors of America put it. Thanks to them for sharing that extremely timely fact before I published this blog.

Infallible Holiness

January 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In his op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, the religion journalist David Gibson highlighted something that had escaped my attention: all four of the previous popes –Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II–are now in the canonization pipeline. Is every pontiff a saint, he asks? 

Gibson begins by reviewing the recent controversy over the beatification of Pius XII, especially the harm it has done to Jewish-Catholic relations. He  goes on to question whether any pope should be made a saint, suggesting that to do so dilutes the meaning of sainthood. Following Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien, Gibson suggests that more saintly lay-people ought to be canonized, not popes.

I sympathize with Gibson’s position, as I intimate in a previous blog recommending the beatification of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri instead of Pius XII. But I have to tell you, David, that your proposal hasn’t got a prayer. The Vatican will go right on beatifying and canonizing previous heads of the Vatican as the sun is going to go on coming up in the morning.

So I offer an alternative proposal: why don’t we canonize all popes at the time of their election? The canonization process is lengthy and expensive and if the church is going to go ahead and proclaim the heroic virtue of all popes anyhow, why don’t we/they just do it right off and get it over with? All other considerations aside, such an approach would save the Vatican the embarrassment of announcing that the archives from the reign of a pope half a century ago aren’t yet in good enough order to be open to scholars.  

And would canonizing popes at the time of their election actually change very much? Bear in mind that the pope is already referred to as “Your Holiness.”  

Finally, automatic canonization would offer a new and thought-provoking experience for Catholics in the pew whose relationships with the saints up until now are limited or perhaps we could say diffused by the fact that those saints are dead.  Now we would know that the living breathing person we are speaking with or listening to actually is a saint. Consider the great certainty such an experience would afford us in this time of crisis and confusion.

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