Saint Australia

The blessings of the Lucky Country now extend to the afterlife

by Gordon Campbell

The canonization of Mary MacKillop last month has been a good news event in waiting, ever since the campaign to certify her sainthood was first launched back in 1925. Currently, the MacKillop story could hardly come as better news for a Catholic Church battered here, as elsewhere, by the rash of child abuse scandals. Sainthood has always been something of a political process, and the advent of Australia’s first saint needs to be understood in the wider context of what canonisation has come to mean to this pontiff, and to his immediate predecessor.

As is well known, the papacy of John Paul II saw a great deal of activity in the declaration of saints. All up, John Paul II certified more saints – 130 in all over the 25 years of his papacy – than all previous Popes had done over the course of the last five hundred years, combined. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI is, if anything, proceeding at an even faster per annum clip – 29 in the first five years of his time of Pope, and nearly half of them happening since the start of 2009.

That’s not to say that Mary MacKillop was not as good a contender as any. Even if, as James Verini recently pointed out in Slate magazine, she must have been one of the few with her own posthumous blog and dedicated travel agency. Such modern trappings, of course, do not detract either from her achievements in founding a religious order to help the poor, or from the example of devotion and service that her life has to offer – and that, as Verini adds, has always been a key factor in bringing candidates for sainthood to the fore.

While they’re a sine qua non, miracles are not the engine of sainthood. In the halls of the Vatican, more thought is given to a good life story. It’s the moving quality of a saint’s vita that will carry him or her through. The most labored-over task in the process is the writing of the prositio, the formal argument for sainthood, whose “aim is to show an ordinary life that was lived in an extraordinary way,” Jeannine Marino, an American canon lawyer who works on sainthood causes, told me.

A life of merit, with a potential to instruct and to inspire. To make that potential more readily and speedily realisable, the canonization process was streamlined in 1983 along lines tentatively initiated by Pope Paul VI. Among other things, the medieval practice of the Promoter of the Faith (better known as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’) charged with putting up the case against the candidate, has been scrapped. Much else remains the same. The candidacy still needs to start at the grassroots, with a bishop usually making a case for a prospect from his diocese, and it is supposed to start at least five years after the death of the candidate. Again, the last two Popes have not strictly observed that convention, and proceedings were more speedily launched on behalf of Mother Teresa for example, and for Pope John II himself.

Within the Vatican, the bureaucracy of sainthood is situated in an office called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose website contains much useful information about the process, and the reasoning involved.

Acceptance of the first of the three main stages – Venerable, Blessed and Saint – serves to trigger the appointment of a Postulator, whose job is to amass as much information as possible about the candidate, who is described at this point as a ‘Servant of God.’ Details of the Servant of God’s good deeds, sayings and writings and any eye-witness testimony tends to go into the case file. At some point with cases that show definite potential, an exhumation of the body is carried out to ensure that no untoward cult-like behaviour has occurred with respect to the body or the grave. At that point a few relics are taken – with a view to promoting officially sanctioned cult-like behaviours in future, when and if this particular Servant of God makes it all the way.

Miracles are still required – usually, one to reach the rank of Blessed, two in all for sainthood. (Previously two miracles were required after Blessed status had been achieved.) It should be stressed that these miracles are not achieved by the candidate. Rather, they are to be taken as evidence that the candidate is now in God’s presence and has interceded with Him successfully for a cure, when asked. In MacKillop’s case the initial miracle was part of the case made for her Beatification in 1973. The second miracle involved the cure of an Australian grandmother called Kathleen Evans, whose cancer had been judged to be inoperable, and where both chemotherapy and radiation therapy had been considered as not offering sufficient chance of success as to justify the risk and pain involved.

Enter Mary MacKillop. On the saint’s website, Evans explained what happened next :

I had a friend who lived in the Hunter Valley. She gave me a picture of Mary MacKillop. Attached to the back, was a piece of Mary’s clothing. This is called a relic. I wore this relic on my nightie and later on my clothing. It never left me. She also gave me some prayer cards that had been given to her by the Sisters here at Mount Street. They were given out to all my family and friends asking them to pray the same prayer, asking Mary to pray with us to God for nine days on my behalf.

Instead of my health deteriorating, I started to get stronger. I was even able to stay out of bed longer. Within 2 weeks, I was able to go on a weekend retreat. Now I wasn’t jumping over the moon, but I was able to attend every session over that weekend and I have never looked back.

As Verini says in his Slate article, the modern canonization process has a preference for medical miracles. “The papacy is generally suspicious of other supernatural events—visitations from the Virgin, experiencing the stigmata, levitation…” (However, see the recent case to the contrary below, of Padre Pio.) Canonisation though, does not create a saint. It is said to merely certify that the person is now in Heaven, and enjoying the Beatific Vision. Once certified, the process cannot be reversed, which has led to some theological quibbling as to whether a canonization – sealed as it is with the Pope’s words that “ We do solemnly decide and define” – is or isn’t an infallible decree. The current consensus is that strictly speaking, is isn’t, even though – reportedly – St Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that such a certification deserved to be taken, all things considered, as an infallible verdict.

The closest that the Catholic Church has come to reversing the process was in 1969, when a slate of saintly personages – including St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers – were demoted, mainly because their certification had preceded the formal rules for canonisation laid down and established by the Vatican in the 13th century. Even so, the demotions didn’t revoke the sainthood. It merely cost the people in question their place on the roster of official feast days, reserved on the church calendar for devotion to that particular saint. Mary MacKillop, who has been now ratified under the name of St. Mary of the Cross, has her feast day on August 8th, the anniversary of her death in 1909.

Overall, the MacKillop elevation has been a win/win for all concerned. For secular Australia, it has been a bit like winning a gold medal in some arcane sport at the Olympics – a celebration in an otherwise not closely followed code, but Ozzie. Ozzie. Ozzie, very welcome all the same. Thankfully, MacKillop’s case for sainthood was not a controversial one, and nor does it exalt a controversial cause. Not like say, the 2002 fast track to sainthood afforded to Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the very controversial founder of the cult-like and secretive Opus Dei movement. Escriva was declared a saint barely 18 years after his death, amid allegations of his Fascist sympathies and despite his (at least) tacit support for the Franco regime and reportedly, without any witnesses critical of him being heard.

Better quick than never, his supporters would say. Such is the Church’s current beleaguered state due to its handling of the child abuse allegations, it is hard to believe that the Catholic Church could get away today with pushing the canonization of someone like Escriva. Nor for that matter, could it probably get away today with the canonization of the stigmatic Padre Pio – who besides his famed bleeding from the hands, was also believed by some of the faithful to be capable of levitation and bi-location, or the ability to be in two places at once. Not everyone was convinced that Padre Pio was the genuine article :

Popes had various opinions of him, however, the harshest being John XXIII, who, a recent book contends, considered him a fraud and a womanizer. In 1960, the pope wrote of Padre Pio’s “immense deception.” A Vatican doctor called him “an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity.” Many suspected that his wounds were caused by carbolic acid, which, one recently unearthed document contends, he once ordered from a pharmacist.

Regardless, Padre Pio was canonized in 2002 by John Paul II. Ironically, and thanks largely to the ongoing scandals over the management of the child abuse allegations, the case for sainthood of John Paul II himself seems to have lost some momentum of late. His beatification, originally believed likely to occur last month, appears to have been delayed. Substantive doubts have also emerged about the ‘miracle’ of a French nun’s alleged cure from Parkinson’s Disease thus undermining the proof formerly intended to be central to the late Pope’s process of eventual canonization.

No such worries with MacKillop, whose relics-on-the-nightie cure for cancer was good enough for Kathleen Evans, and for the Vatican. Given the fallout from the Church’s complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable – those whom Mary MacKillop spent her life trying to help and to comfort – the canonization of a homegrown contender has served as a welcome change for Catholicism in Australia, and a useful distraction. As her website points out, Mary MacKillop’s tomb in North Sydney is fast becoming a focus of devotion :

In our times popular devotion to Mary MacKillop is growing steadily. Numerous people are venerating her relics and are joining in Novenas for favours through her intercession. People visit her tomb at Mount Street, North Sydney every day…. Many touching stories are recorded by Pilgrims of favours granted and moments of personal healing experienced. Still others tell of the opportunity it provided for a deep spiritual encounter with their God… Some items of clothing worn by Mary MacKillop; some books she used; some letters she wrote and some material which touched her coffin are part of the spiritual patrimony of the Sisters of St Joseph.

Such faith – some would call it credulity – is easy to mock. However, John Paul II and his chief theologian Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) have been very enthusiastic supporters of such devotions. That seems to be because the veneration of saints and other pre-Vatican II devotional objects have accorded with their view of the Church’s current condition and role – which is certainly not to be a social welfare agency, run along secular lines. Rather, that role has been depicted by them as one engaged with the planting and nurturing of seeds of faith, and with encouraging relatively small but fervent agencies that can be entrusted to keep the faith alive amid the gathering darkness of materialism. The more saints, and the more traditional devotions that can help that process to thrive, the better.

In 1995, Ratzinger spelled this out in his famous ‘mustard seeds’speech :

We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.

Ratzinger added : “Christianity might diminish into a barely discernable presence,” because modern Europeans “do not want to bear the yoke of Christ”. The Catholic Church, he continued, might survive in future only in cysts resembling the kibbutzim of Israel. He compared these cysts to Jesus’ mustard seed, to a faith of such dimensions that it could move mountains – although as this 2005 report in the Asia Times points out, this analogy ( seen by some as being offensive) did not appear in the English translation, “Salt of the Earth”.

Seen in that light though, it is little wonder that so many saints have been certified by the current Pope and by his predecessor. The saints are intended to serve as culture heroes and exemplars for a Church that now sees itself less as a Christian multinational, and more as an underground minority trying to keep its torch of faith alight, under multiple threats. In death, Mary MacKillop still serves that somewhat paranoid vision.