A saint for the abused

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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.

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