Mary MacKillop is Australia’s first canonised Saint and the patron Saint of the Archdiocese of Brisbane. She is an inspirational figure in Australian history and dedicated her life to compassion, education, and social justice. In 1866 Mary founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and established schools for underprivileged children, especially in remote areas. Her tireless efforts helped transform education in Australia, making it accessible to all. Mary MacKillop’s commitment to helping the less fortunate and advocating for the marginalised left an indelible mark on the nation, earning her sainthood and a lasting legacy of kindness and service.
Every year the Archdiocese of Brisbane celebrates Saint Mary MacKillop on her Solemnity, which falls on August 8. This year 67 schools came to celebrate Mass and a special morning tea at the Cathedral of Saint Stephen along with members of the wider Archdiocese community and local parishioners, filling the Cathedral. The Mass was livestreamed and can be watched below.
- Saint Mary MacKillop Mass Homily (Archbishop Mark Coleridge) - Transcript
Saint Mary MacKillop Mass Homily (Archbishop Mark Coleridge) - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
I’m not normally inclined to quote myself, but I do so here today. Not long ago, I was invited to preach at the funeral of Father Bob Maguire, a well-known Melbourne priest who more than any other, awakened a sense of vocation in me and led me to the seminary. In the course of the homily, I said this Bob was an Aussie original who presented a face of religion that Australians recognise and respond to. He wasn’t a wowser. He was always on the side of the battler. He was about action, not just words. He rolled up his sleeves and got stuff done. He was down to earth, had mud on his boots. He didn’t judge or condemn. He wasn’t tribal but opened his door to all. And not least he had an unrivalled and uncontained sense of humour. Put that profile together and you have the kind of religion that has a chance in this country. Put the opposite profile together and you have the kind of religion that has no chance.
Now, I haven’t heard much of Mary MacKillop’s sense of humour, but it’s hard to imagine her humourless and contemporaries who knew her well spoke of her good humour and her easy laughter. But everything else I said of Bob Maguire could be said without hesitation about Mary MacKillop, another Aussie original. Not a wowser on the side of the battler. Action, not words. Sleeves rolled up and stuff done down to earth with mud on her nuns’ boots. Not judging or condemning. Not tribal, but open to all. The opposite of that profile would be lemon lipped and wowserish religion. Walking away from the battler. All talk no action, no mud on the boots, quick to condemn and humourless. A caricature you say. But that’s how we who are religious can be perceived and even how we can be at times without realising it. In the end, it’s a choice between religion with a human face and religion with an anti-human face. And before all else both Mary MacKillop and Bob Maguire were memorable human beings.
Mary is a canonised saint. And I very much doubt that Bob will ever be that. But he achieved a kind of credibility unusual for religious figures in this country. And Mary did still more. Her credibility reached and reaches still deeper and wider. Which is one thing her canonised and recognises. The way in which Australians responded and respond to both of them. Gives the lie to the oft made claim that this country is a hopelessly secular, spiritual desert. Australians will respond to religion even enthusiastically when it appears among them with the right kind of face. The kind of human face we see in Mary and Bob, the face that reveals God with us.
Early in the last century, the French Catholic writer Charles Péguy, a contemporary of Mary’s, noted a widespread denial of the incarnation. Even among the devout. He called this a mystical disaster. By which he meant that it led people to think that to find their way to the divinity, they had to deny their humanity. Thus, producing religion without a human face. Péguy insisted that to find our way to the real God, we had not to deny our humanity, but to embrace it fully. As God had done in taking flesh, Becoming one of us. Mary certainly embraced her own humanity to the end, and this in turn, enabled her to embrace the humanity of others, especially those who had least. In doing this, she showed the human face of religion, the human face of God, not just to Catholics, but far beyond confessional borders. When she was canonised, the church universally recognised that in seeing Mary, we were seeing something of God.
But that recognition didn’t come quickly in this land. Christianity was a transportee to Australia. An exotic rather than a native. It came with a very European face and garb. When the first Europeans settled here, they found nothing as they expected. The seasons were different. So too the flora and fauna, trees that shed their bark and kept their leaves, birds that laughed and animals that hopped. In early colonial art you can see the artists struggling even to see the land and its creatures. Kangaroos were painted as big rabbits. Only slowly did Australians come to see things as they really are in this land. They eventually acquired Antipodean eyes. As they began to see differently. Australians began to speak differently, to dress differently, to build differently, to live and work differently. They put down roots in the land and spoke less of home as a place on the other side of the world. That was certainly true of those who, like Mary MacKillop, were born here rather than elsewhere. Her parents were Scots. But when I imagine how Mary sounded, I hear an Australian accent rather than the Scottish burr.
And when she begins her mission, it too looks very Australian. Rather than an export from Europe. Her religious habit was imported from elsewhere and ill-suited to the climate here. But the work of Mary and her sisters was native rather than exotic like her. It was an Aussie original. That was one of the reasons why Irish born bishops like my predecessor James Quinn, were puzzled, even troubled by Mary and treated her so poorly. First of all, her background wasn’t Irish. That was one strike against her. Secondly, she was Australian born. That was another strike. At the time there were bishops who wouldn’t accept anyone born in Australia for seminary training, but at least they were male. Mary was female and that was a third strike against her. To make matters worse, for some who opposed her, she was a non-Irish Australian born female who wouldn’t do what the bishops wanted. But this changed over the years to the point where the Irish born Cardinal Moran could say after blessing Mary on her deathbed in Sydney. I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint. That was a long way from Bishop Quinn’s expulsion of Mary from Brisbane or Bishop Sheil’s excommunication of her in Adelaide. As with the colonial artists, it took the bishops and others a long time to see Mary as she really was.
In the years following European settlement, Australia was a fearful place. There was fear of distance. With the colony so far from home and the assistance home could offer in an emergency. There was the fear of starvation as early crops failed. There was the fear of the native peoples and their attacks upon settlers. There was a fear that the convicts would rise up against their masters and overthrow them. Anxiety settled early in the Australian psyche. Into this anxiety Mary was born. And in this anxious world, she heard the words of Jesus we have heard in the Gospel today. I am telling you, He says, don’t fret about your life and what you are to eat. Nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Hearing these words, Mary came to a mysterious and powerful trust in God’s providence as she wrote to her mother, Flora, in 1867. You ever taught me to look up to and depend upon divine providence in every trouble. Mary, in turn, taught her sisters this prayer. Divine Providence can provide. Divine Providence did provide. Divine Providence will provide. O Merciful and all Provident God hear our prayers and grant our petitions.
Thanks to Flora. That kind of trust was in Mary’s DNA, and through her, it entered the DNA of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. This explains her extraordinary serenity in the face of all trials and troubles. Her refusal to yield to her fears, however potent and justified they may have seemed. Mary never ceased to hear in the depths of her being the first words of the risen Lord. Peace be with you. By which he means, I have seen the worst. I’ve gone to the very heart of darkness. And I have risen as light. You have nothing to fear. Your fears are a bluff. Hearing his voice. Mary not only entered the peace of Easter, she became that peace. In Saint Paul’s words, the peace of Christ reigned in her heart. And like the jar of meal and the jug of oil, it was never spent or emptied. It flowed ceaselessly from deep within Mary into the lives of countless people, especially the young. Calling them gently but firmly to live beyond fear, to walk out of the darkness, into the light.
That’s why, like all the Saints, Mary MacKillop stands forever as a witness to Easter. Yet she was a witness in a land where we celebrate Easter not in spring, but in autumn. A land where we still sing of the green blade rising, where in fact the brown leaf is falling. Her witness was Antipodean. It looked different than it had in Europe. It was easily misunderstood by those who saw with the eyes of the old world. As she wrote to Pope Pius the ninth in 1873, it is an Australian who writes. And this before Federation, when there were separate British colonies, in three of which Mary had lived. She could recognise what bound the colonies together and what made for a distinctive Australian identity. That’s why she still speaks across borders in ways Australians get. Not just Catholics or even Christians, but a host of others who recognise Mary as one of us.
Yet she’s one of us who belongs to the whole world. That’s what canonisation says. And it’s why Pope Francis focused on her in a recent general audience. In the end, however, Mary belongs not just to us, nor even to the world. She belongs to the God of the human face and the peaceful heart. God with us. She may be the patron of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, to whom we entrust ourselves and all our anxieties today. But the girl from Fitzroy who became Saint Mary of the Cross is by the grace of God for everyone, for everywhere and forever.
- Learn about the Mary MacKillop Bursary Fund
Learn about the Mary MacKillop Bursary FundAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
The Mary MacKillop Brisbane Catholic School Access Fund provides an opportunity for children to be embraced by a supportive and caring Catholic community at a time when life at home is difficult.
Families who apply for a MacKillop Fund Bursary come from all walks of life, with different experiences of extreme hardship, trauma and financial devastation. What they share in common is a deep desire for their child to receive a Catholic education.
For more information or to make a donation, click here.
At the end of Mass, Archbishop Mark Coleridge consecrated the Archdiocese of Brisbane to the protection of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. Below are a few highlights from the day.