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Homily for Feast of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop

Disruptive Mary may have been....But through her there moved the disruptions of the Holy Spirit, and for that again we thank God today.
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I have been reading Shakespeare for years; and when I do, I’m often left wondering where he got all this. The language has such power and beauty and ease that something seems to pass through Shakespeare. The words seem to come from somewhere else, so transcendent do they seem. I have the same sense with a composer like Mozart: where did he get all this, where did it come from? The music seems to come from somewhere else. The same might be said of Michelangelo, standing beneath the prodigies he has left on the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It all seems to come from somewhere else. You ask not only, How did he do it? but, How did he even think of doing it? Where did it all come from?
Mary MacKillop is not a poet, a composer or a painter: but I have the same sense with her. Something seems to pass through her – to the point where you ask, Where did it all come from? How did Mary happen? The answer we give today and which the Church gave when she was canonised is that it all came from God. The Holy Spirit moved through Mary MacKillop and still does. She may look conventional enough in the portraits, sporting what was the religious habit of the time. But in fact she’s as unconventional as Shakespeare, Mozart or Michelangelo – as wonderfully disruptive and as enduringly creative.

The Spirit that was given to her and moved through her was a marvellous thing, but it took Mary to some dark places. That’s part of the Spirit’s disruption. One of those dark places was Brisbane, where she clashed mightily with my predecessor James Quinn who lies in his tomb here and whom Mary described as “a terrible man”, by which she meant not that Bishop Quinn was in any way a bad man, just that he had a terrible effect on her. In one of her letters, she wrote of Brisbane: “No words can tell what a time of suspense and trouble we have had here”.
Bishop Quinn accused Mary of being young (which she was), sentimental (which she wasn’t), colonial, in other words Australian-born (which she was), of non-Irish stock (which was true), female (which she was), daughter of a bankrupt colonial seminarian (which she was), a former excommunicate (which she was), a strong personality (which was true), obstinate (which she could be), ambitious (which she wasn’t), Adelaide-based (which she was), Jesuit-influenced (which she was) and, worst of all because true, a friend of Roger Vaughan, the English Benedictine Archbishop of Sydney, who Quinn was sure was out to get him. The one thing Bishop Quinn never said of Mary was that she had about her something of the saint, which Cardinal Moran did say when she died. And in the end that’s the one thing that matters.

The blow-up between James Quinn and Mary MacKillop wasn’t just a clash of personalities. It was far more than that. It was a clash of understanding of what the mission of the Church required in this time and in this place. The issue of course was diocesan or central government of the Sisters – whether the Bishop or the Mother General should call the shots. Not surprisingly, Quinn insisted on the first, and Mary (with the support of Rome) preferred the second. Inevitably it all blew up and the Sisters left Brisbane for some years. But Mary and her Sisters eventually returned to Brisbane and have been here ever since, thank God.

Bishop Quinn had new wine on his hands but he kept trying to put it in old wineskins. Mary also understood that the wine was new, very new in Australia – and that this called for new wineskins. That’s exactly what she sought to provide in the Constitutions of her Institute which Quinn rejected out of hand but which the Holy See endorsed. The strategy for which Quinn argued passionately may have worked in the old world, but it wouldn’t work in the new world that Mary and Rome understood better than did Quinn. Disruptive Mary may have been, and that’s certainly how Quinn saw her. But through her there moved the disruptions of the Holy Spirit, and for that again we thank God today.

The Church in Australia now is faced with a need to find new wineskins. That’s why the Bishops have decided that it’s time for a Plenary Council, the journey to which has already begun. This decision and the journey we are on to the Council and beyond is the work of the Holy Spirit – and so there will be disruptions and we will be led to some dark places. But today I invite you to join me in entrusting the journey to the Plenary Council and beyond to the intercession of St Mary MacKillop, who must surely be interested in where we are now and where we need to go in the future.

We also look to Mary as a sure guide on the way. In this woman of the Spirit, we see three things which will light our path. No matter what darkness she entered or how uncertain she was at times, Mary never wavered in her belief that the work of her Institute was the work of the Holy Spirit. She never doubted that hers was a call from God. Nor did she ever waver from her sense of duty – that there were certain things which she simply had to do, even if she didn’t want to do them, even when she found them painful. And the third thing that never wavered in Mary was her trust in God’s providence. However bereft and endangered she and her Institute may have been at times, Mary trusted that God would provide – and provide God did. At the end of her life she could look back in wonder at how God had provided against all the odds.

As we look to the future, we no less than Mary need to stand firm in our sense of God’s call that has come to us, even the call to the Plenary Council. We need to stand firm in our sense of duty – beyond personal preference and our own comfort zone. The duty is what flows from God’s call, a call which will lead us as it did Mary to go where we would “rather not go”, as Jesus says to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel (21:18). And we need to stand firm in our sense of God’s providence, trusting that the one who has called us will not disappoint but will provide for us in ways we can’t foresee or don’t expect.
Ours is a culture obsessed with personal autonomy. But Mary would have none of that. In her sense of call, duty and providence, she shows herself a woman who surrendered her autonomy to another – not to any human being but to the God who decided to move through her. That’s why we look to St Mary MacKillop today, asking where it all came from, how it all happened – and answering that it was, as she said, “instituted by God”.

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