This month, the centenary of Sister Mary MacKillop’s death was celebrated in Catholic Churches across Australia. She is likely to be canonised — one day — as our first saint, but her life was not a simple tale of saintly goodliness. She had trouble with ecclesiastical authorities and 100 years later, there are many women involved in the Catholic Church who are undergoing similar experiences with the boss men of the flock.
In 1866, Mary MacKillop set up a new religious institute to serve people in need. With Father Julian Tenison Woods, and the newly formed Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Sister MacKillop moved to Adelaide to administer secular and religious education to the disadvantaged. She was excommunicated from the Church in September 1871 for alleged insubordination by Bishop Sheil, one of whose complaints was that her students sang too loudly. Shiel also unsuccessfully attempted to disband the Sisters.
Sister Carmel Pilcher RSJ, Liturgy Consultant for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, grew up in Adelaide with knowledge of the significance of Mary MacKillop. Sister Carmel recalls:
"I was attracted to a woman who would take a stand, who would struggle for what she wanted no matter what, but all out of deep faith and prayer. It was always God’s work, not her own. Mary was 24 years of age when she founded the Congregation.
"Within a few years, after some opposition from certain bishops, it became apparent that the only way for the Order to flourish with the vision of the founders was for Mary to travel alone, and without any money, to Rome to gain papal approval of the rule. So, in the guise of a young widow, Mary begged a passage from Adelaide to Rome, and, eventually, succeeded in her quest."
Eventually, Sister Mary’s excommunication was overturned, the work of the Sisters of Saint Joseph expanded and so did the number of sisters who joined the order. The rest, as they say on cable TV, is history.
The Vatican is currently undertaking an evaluation of the religious lives of the 59,000 Catholic sisters in the US in an attempt to learn how they are contributing to the Church and society, and to help strengthen and support them. It is known as an "Apostolic Visitation" and is in part a response to what the Church calls "challenging times". By that they mean the decline in women opting for the consecrated life, linking to a study which shows that while in 1945 there were 180 practicing Catholics for every nun in the US, in 2000 each nun was matched with 761 faithful.
The visitation hasn’t exactly been greeted with open arms by women religious in the States. Sister Sandra M Schneiders gives an excellent rundown of the issues in this article. Sister Sandra writes:
"The current ‘Apostolic Visitation’ is not a normal dialogue between religious and church authorities. It is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or a prima facie case of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind. There are currently several situations in the US church that would justify such an investigation (widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds, cult-like practices in some church groups) but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these."
The National Board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 95 per cent of the nuns in the US, issued a public statement in which they expressed their surprise at the planned visitation. Sister Sandra reports that "The religious leaders discovered that their orders and members were under investigation by reading about it in the secular press."
The visitation’s questionnaire looks more like a funding acquittal than a program seeking to understand what support religious women need.
As one commenter on this blog wrote:
"All the self created obstacles to vocations in religious life as we so clearly see them lived out today is why I left religious life in the seventies. I am truly saddened to see the same nonsense continuing. Our Lord must weep with frustration, thank heavens He never gives up on us. For those religious women who truly believe they have transcended the Church and religious life, all I can say is please leave so that you stop confusing the laity and wounding Our Church. Have your career, apartment and individuality. I will continue to pray for you and for all those who stay!"
Francine Cardman, an Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, isn’t clear why these questions are being asked now in the US. Cardman believes focus on doctrine puts it in the context of establishing a "correct" and exclusive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and of women’s religious communities. She said the inquiry should be seen "as part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control."
Commenters at A Nun’s Life expressed their concerns about the visitation in no uncertain terms. Deerose writes:
"It is SO obvious to me now that the Pope really wants to get retro on us … Does Rome think women who wear pants, occassionally dine in fast food restaurants (or drink beer in pubs — ha, ha) and go on vacations with secular friends and family every five to 10 years all of a sudden turn into harlots?"
Perhaps this is why there’s a Facebook group of supporters praying for the success of the visitation. Others are referring to the visitation as "Nuns Vs Vatican?". In the event of an almighty damnation of the Church’s property portfolio, they will have some killer movie options to fall back on.
To some, events which contradict all natural laws are hocus pocus. To others — including many Catholics — such events are miracles. The beatification of saints is a complex process and not possible without at least two certifiable miracles and, apparently … the endorsement of men.
When the Pope was in Sydney for World Youth Day, he visited the Josephite Convent in North Sydney where Mary MacKillop died. Kevin Rudd met with the Pope while in Rome earlier this year and encouraged His Holiness to support MacKillop’s canonisation. Apparently the Pope said "She will be canonised, we’re waiting for the miracle".
Even Blogwatch’s favourite Cardinal, the unmelting iceberg of faith in climate stability named George Pell, has conceded that the church at the time had treated MacKillop "disgracefully", noting, however, that she had not lapsed into "bitterness". He added: "This community needs its home-grown heroes and local models to encourage us in the right direction … We know Australians are good but
some can be very good."
The beatification of Mary MacKillop has possibly moved closer to a reality with recent events like the recovery of an Irish backpacker, bashed in Sydney on 9 August 2008 (note the date) but emerging from a coma eight months later.
Others in the blogosphere suggest faith in Mary MacKillop assists in other ways — like matchmaking and microwave oven repairs.
Father James Martin, SJ is optimistic:
"The canonisation of troublemakers shows that the Vatican typically has
a clearer understanding of holiness than do some contemporary
Catholics, who sometimes conflate holiness with being unthinking,
uncritical or blindly obedient. But popes have often canonised saints
who were held in contempt by some church leaders of their time.
"The implied message of the Pope’s visit to her tomb? She will soon become a saint — perhaps the patron saint of troublemakers."
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