‘Daughter of Australia, saint for every land’
This is Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s homily from the of St Mary Of The Cross MacKillop mass in St Stephen’s Cathedral on August 8.
WE may not walk on our heads, but the Antipodes are famously topsy-turvy. Nothing here is as it should be, which is why the first European settlers found Australia so unsettling.
The seasons were the wrong way round; the north was warm, the south was cool; trees kept their leaves but shed their bark; rivers ran inland, not to the sea; animals hopped rather than walked; birds had cries unlike anything heard elsewhere, one of them even laughed.
So strange was this Antipodean world that the early European-born painters couldn’t even see what was there in front of them.
They tried to paint a kangaroo but managed only a large rabbit.
If you trace the progress of colonial art, you can see how the painters come gradually to see Australia with Australian eyes rather than through a European lens. But that took time.
Their eyes had to adjust to something strange; it took time to see it as it was.
So too with sanctity Down Under.
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop may look conventionally European, all dressed up in wimple, veil and yards of brown serge.
But the sanctity that emerged in her was distinctly Antipodean; it couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
That’s why it seemed so strange to some, especially the Bishops, all of them European and attuned to a different sanctity.
In 1873, Mary began a letter to authorities in Rome with these words: “It is an Australian who writes this”; and she goes on, “What would seem much out of place in Europe is still the very reverse in Australia”.
Mary was always respectful but she refused to kow-tow; she stood her ground fiercely at times.
There’s something Antipodean in that, especially for a woman Religious of her time.
She was vastly active and practical: “never see a need without doing something about it” was her life’s motto, and that energy and practicality are also typically Antipodean.
She was imaginative and resourceful, even bold, able to think laterally in the different circumstances of Australia; she wasn’t bound by the ways of the Old World.
In more ways than one, Mary and her Sisters went where others wouldn’t or couldn’t go.
The Sisters could find themselves in distant outback places where they might go for days or even weeks without Mass.
Mary lamented: “We are able to have Mass so seldom, and never receive a spiritual instruction and are often weeks without getting to Confession”.
She also writes: “I do not spend much time in prayer, but God’s presence seems to follow me everywhere and make everything I do or wish to do a prayer”.
It’s hard for us to imagine how new and radical this form of consecrated life was at the time.
Mary was nothing if not resilient – not only spiritually and emotionally, but even physically with her constant travelling and her bouts of ill health.
She knew suffering of every kind and setback after setback.
But through it all she was undaunted – not just surviving grimly but flourishing even when that seemed least likely.
That kind of resilience, even toughness, is again Antipodean.
Mary was also quintessentially classless; she wouldn’t allow her Sisters to teach music because that was for the well-to-do.
She and her Sisters went where the need was greatest, believing in the preferential option for the poor long before those words were ever heard.
That sense of “a fair go for everyone” is also typically Antipodean.
In short, then, Mary MacKillop is one of us, which is why she has such appeal not just in the Catholic community but far beyond.
She touches the hearts of Australians across the board – perhaps because, even unconsciously, they recognise in her what is best in themselves and in the culture which we inhabit.
True sanctity is always incarnational.
It takes flesh in a particular culture and in particular circumstances.
That’s certainly true of Mary.
She’s unmistakeably the product of a particular time and place and culture.
Yet sanctity, like the Church, is also universal; and we recognise that in a special way this morning as we welcome the Apostolic Nuncio to the Cathedral for the first time.
Archbishop Yllana comes among us as the personal representative of Pope Francis and a witness therefore to the universality of Christ and his Church. Like the Holy Father, the Nuncio embodies the Gospel without borders, and that is a gift to us all, because at times we can see too little and think that the Church is no larger than our own patch.
True sanctity, like the Church, is catholic, all-embracing, universal.
That’s why we will sing of Mary MacKillop later in the Mass, “Daughter of Australia, saint for every land”.
She is very much a daughter of Australia. But now that she’s canonised, she becomes our gift to the whole world; she becomes a “saint for every land”.
The Antipodes may be topsy-turvy and we may be far away.
But we are immersed in the great communion of the Church which looks in turn to the great communion of God which we call the Trinity.
Mary knew that, as her frequent travels showed.
We too this morning, as we look to her, recognise that same truth.
We are very much daughters and sons of Australia, but we are also called to be a gift not only for the whole Church but for the world.
Mary MacKillop died at 9.30am on August 8, 1909.
It’s hard to think of her dying in the darkness, so much was she a woman of the bright Antipodean light.
That light shone around her through life, as it did in death.
But the light that shone within her both in life and now in death was and is the glorious light of Easter morning.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalen goes to the tomb with a woman named simply “the other Mary”.
I like to think of “the other Mary” as Mary MacKillop.
The two Marys see the empty tomb and then the Risen Lord himself comes to meet them.
What Mary MacKillop shares with every saint is that she went early on the first day of the week to the tomb, looking for the One who had been crucified.
In searching for him, she found the One who is risen from the dead; he came to meet her out of the blue.
Having seen him and heard him on that morning, she could see him and hear him everywhere, but especially in those places where others could see and hear nothing.
Before all else and beyond all else, Mary MacKillop, “the other Mary”, stands for ever and everywhere as a witness to the Resurrection, as a seed of infinite hope in this driest of continents.
St Mary of the Cross will stand for ever with St Mary Magdalen in the morning light, coming to Jesus who had first come to them, taking hold of his feet, worshipping him and teaching countless others to do the same. Amen.