A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Interview With Postulator of Mary MacKillop’s Cause

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, JULY 19, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Audacious, intrepid and a woman ahead of her times. But also kind, good and very prayerful. This is a description of Blessed Mary MacKillop, set to become in October the first saint of Australia.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) will be canonized Oct. 17 by Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square.

ZENIT spoke with Sister Mary Casey, a religious of the order founded by Blessed Mary and the postulator of her cause for canonization. Sister Casey describes Blessed Mary’s insight into evangelical charity and explains why the saint suffered excommunication.

ZENIT: How would you describe her childhood and youth?

Sister Casey: Mary MacKillop was born of immigrant parents from Scotland, in Melbourne, a city that was only seven years in existence. Australia was settled by Europeans for less than 100 years, so living arrangements were primitive. Mary’s parents had arrived separately but may have known each other in Scotland. Mary was born on Jan. 15, 1842, the first of eight children born to Alexander and Flora MacKillop. Her father was unable to stay in stable employment so the circumstances of the family were constantly changing. They often depended on relatives for a home and the means to live. At an early age Mary went to work, first in a stationery store and, later as a teacher and then as a governess to cousins. She was a fine horsewoman, loved nature and had a great affection for her family.

ZENIT: How did she discover her call to found the Sisters of St. Joseph?

Sister Casey: When Mary was a governess in the southeast of South Australia, she noted that there was little or no education for rural children and especially for Catholic children. She had a dream of becoming a sister but had to put that dream aside to help support her family. While she was a governess she met the parish priest, Father Julian Tenison Woods, whose parish was very large, almost the size of England. He shared Mary’s dream and when she was 24 years old she believed that she was free at last to follow that dream.

She did not want to join any of the few religious congregations already present in Australia as their work was mainly confined to the cities. In 1866, she and her sister opened the first school in a disused stable in Penola and so was born the congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Mary was advised to move to Adelaide, where the new congregation expanded and soon spread to other colonies and to New Zealand. They begged for their support and only asked parents for any payment they could afford. Many could not pay anything. Soon Mary established homes for unmarried pregnant girls, for women coming out of jail and for destitute elderly.
ZENIT: What were her main virtues?

Sister Casey: Blessed Mary is remembered both for the works she did and for the person she was. As Pope John Paul II said at the time of her beatification in Sydney, “Because the love of God inflamed her heart, she tenaciously defended the weak, the poor, the suffering and all those on the margins of society. She worked to assist women and families in distress and to eradicate ignorance among the young. … In her, the unwanted, the unloved and those alienated from society found comfort and strength” (John Paul II at the Domain, Sydney, Jan. 18, 1995).

She lived the Gospel imperative to love one’s neighbor as oneself. She gave dignity to the poor and especially to women in a harsh and difficult environment. She treated first peoples of the land, the Aborigines, with a respect that was not often accorded them. As a governess she befriended the local aboriginal children and taught some to read and write.

ZENIT: Where did so much goodness come from?

Sister Casey: Blessed Mary had received from her mother a profound belief in the Providence of God. She lived by that belief and imbued her sisters with that same trust. Her living faith, her active hope, charity and openness to the action of grace nurtured her daily life and were evidenced in the exercise of all the virtues. With courage, gentleness and compassion she lived with isolated rural “battlers,” urban slum dwellers and the ordinary working class people. She exhorted them to be faithful to their constitutions and rules, to pray individually and communally, to have devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to live constantly in the presence of God and attend Mass whenever a priest was available. She was loyal to the Church and had particular care for priests in their apostolate. She would never allow a sister to say a word against a priest or bishop.

She lived by the spirit of the law and not just the letter. She did not recoil from changing the rule for individual sisters when circumstances demanded it. Her friendships with persons from all levels of society are well documented. Her friend, Joanna Barr Smith, an Anglican lady, wrote toward the end of Blessed Mary’s life, “Living or dying … I am ever the same to you and am proud to look back on nearly 40 years of friendship.” Yet her most outstanding gift was her kindness. It was not just the kindness reflected in all the works for which she had been responsible, nor the kindness of an isolated, aloof person but the kindness which St. Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense and is not resentful. Love … delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

ZENIT: And she is admired in Australia both by people of the secular world and by religious …

Sister Casey: After her beatification, the prime minister of Australia addressed Parliament reiterating her contribution. He said, “The qualities she embodied — openness and tolerance, courage, persistence, faith and care for others — are qualities for individuals, communities and nations to live by” (The Honorable Paul Keating, Prime Minister of Australia, addressing Parliament, Jan. 31, 1995).

Last year during his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day, Benedict XVI, in speaking of Blessed Mary MacKillop, said “I know that her perseverance in the face of adversity, her plea for justice on behalf of those unfairly treated and her practical example of holiness have become a source of inspiration for all Australians.”

ZENIT: Why is it said that she was a woman ahead of her times?
Sister Casey: Mary MacKillop was considered to be a woman ahead of her time for many reasons. First, in Australia she wanted her sisters to be under the government of a sister superior-general who would be free to send the sisters wherever there was a need. In that period sisters were usually under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. She wanted her sisters to live as the poor did in small communities of two or three sisters and in houses that were poor like those of the people. She encouraged the sisters to live in isolated places where Mass and the sacraments may have been available to them infrequently. She saw all persons as being equal before God, regardless of social status, religion, race or age. Finally, she had a vision for the whole of Australia when it was still a country of individual colonies.

ZENIT: An unusual event happened in her life: her excommunication by the bishop of Adelaide. Why did this happen?
Sister Casey: The reasons for the excommunication of Mary MacKillop were complex. The priest-founder, Father Julian Tenison Woods, had been made director of Catholic education in Adelaide and was not popular with his fellow priests. In establishing new schools, many of which were staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, debts increased. Some of the sisters were not as well educated as desired, but Mary insisted there would be no division into choir and lay sisters — all were to be equal. There were problems from the clergy in accepting that a woman should have charge of the congregation. T
he final problem was that Mary was told by one of the bishop’s advisers that he wanted her to return to a country town immediately. Mary responded that she needed to see the bishop before going back there. Her response was reported to the bishop as a refusal to go. His advisers recommended that she be excommunicated.

ZENIT: And what did she do when she was excommunicated?

Sister Casey: When Mary was excommunicated the other sisters were forbidden to speak to her and many of them were also sent away from the congregation. Mary received refuge from friends and, eventually, from a Jewish businessman who provided a house for her and some of the women forced to leave. The Jesuit fathers realized that an injustice had been done and continued to give her the sacraments. Five months after the excommunication the bishop realized his error and, from his deathbed, sent one of his priests to remove the sentence of excommunication. During the time of excommunication, Mary would not have an unkind word said about the bishop and continued to pray for him.

ZENIT: What was the miracle to enable her canonization?

Sister Casey: The miracle for the canonization was the cure of a lady from inoperable lung cancer. She was given a few weeks to live, a few months at the very most. She had no treatment whatsoever. Her family, friends and the Sisters of St. Joseph prayed through the intercession of Blessed Mary MacKillop for her recovery. She is now, many years later in life, well and, according to very stringent medical evidence, is free of cancer.

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