A saint for the abused
For the first thousand years of Christian history saints were created by popular demand. If that was still the case Mary MacKillop would have got there decades ago. But about a thousand years ago, when saints were popping up from one end of Christendom to the other, the Church took charge. If the currency of saints was to have any value it had to have control over the supply. It created a complex system of criteria for sainthood. First, you had to have actually existed. Quite a few saints had just been local legends. They were local heroes and in a way that tradition continues today. Another crucial prerequisite was not one but two miracles. Catholics are often referred to as Roman Catholics by Protestants and the Pope is seen as an ecclesiastical Roman Emperor. It’s worth considering this anti-Roman connection when we see Protestants decrying the veneration of saints as a form of idolatory. The ancient Romans had hundreds of gods. Gods for regions and even households. They were venerated with special devotions. Statues and images were prayed to in homes and in temples. Sound familiar?
The list of about 3000 Catholic saints has one for almost every region, purpose, profession and ailment. The patron saint of Australia is St Francis Xavier. If you’ve lost something, pray to St Anthony of Padua. If you’re losing your mind, pray to St Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill and mental health workers. If everything’s hopeless, try St Jude.
So what will Mary be patron saint of? A Jesuit priest in the US last month suggested she be made the patron of children abused by the clergy. He wrote this after ABC TV’s revealed that just three years after the Bishop of Adelaide had approved her order some Josephite nuns at Kapunda reported a child-abusing priest, Father Keating. But he had a close friend in the hierarchy of the church. This whistleblowing incident led to a chain of events that resulted in Mary MacKillop being excommunicated and 47 nuns renouncing their vows. This version of events was deemed accurate by the Josephites just weeks before the canonisation. But the official church site “Road to Sainthood” simply says she was “wrongfully excommunicated in 1871 and reinstated in 1872”, staying with the line that it was because she refused to bow to the authority of the bishops.
Before I conclude, I should declare two things that shape my views. First, my great cousin Sister Annette Henschke was one of the pioneering nuns to join the Sisters of St Joseph in 1874. Like Mary she was renowned for standing up to the bishop of the day. Second, I went to a school where a Jesuit Brother abused young boys and a lay teacher inappropriately touched his pupils. One left the state and the order and now lives in Sydney. The other is dead but had a school prize named in his honour until it was removed recently.
But the Josephites loved children in the proper sense and paid the price for that. The male hierarchy protected the pedophile and punished the order. Father Keating went back to Ireland in 1871 and what a legacy lives on. A damning report late last year revealed four present day Irish archbishops routinely protected abusers. It’s an all-too-common story.
You can only wonder how different things would have been if Mary and her sisters had been running the Church.
It will be a miracle if Mary MacKillop is made patron saint of abused children and whistleblowers, so let’s make it happen by popular demand. I think St Mary and her wonderful Joeys would love that.