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The Modern Saint – we can connect to their narrative

16 October 2010

Divine intervention in a modern world

Sydney Morning Herald
Jacqueline Maley
16 October 2010

Mary MacKillop has broken beyond the veil of religion, writes Jacqueline Maley.

Mary MacKillop never slayed a dragon. She never led the French into battle and she didn’t drive any snakes from any islands.She was a school teacher who suffered debilitating period pain and died, overweight and sickly, in a cottage in North Sydney, having done many good works. Mary’s ”normalness” endears her to Australians but it also heightens the contrast between the mediaeval version of sainthood – full of martyrdoms, stigmata and heroics in battle – and its modern incarnation.

Once upon a time saints, their clothes and even their body parts were worshipped with a fervour many Protestants consider paganesque. Now saints are recognised following a long juridical process in which evidence of miracles is solemnly examined, as though even God’s works need to ”stand up” to some form of contemporary scientific inquiry.

The church may have modernised the process, but how have saints themselves been modernised? And how does sainthood sit within contemporary Australia? Dr Laura Beth Bugg, a lecturer in religion and sociology at the University of Sydney, says the MacKillop phenomenon shows that for all our avowed secularism, Australians still look to religion for a sense of meaning. MacKillop, or any modern saint, represents a tangible human link to God in a world where you sometimes have to search hard for God’s traces. ”People connect with the personal narrative of Mary MacKillop and her sense of social justice, even if they don’t connect to her religion,” she says. ”Which is ironic, because she would understand her values as explicitly emerging from a religious identity.”

MacKillop has also been co-opted by patriots. She is described as a home-grown hero, in terms similar to the great national myths – her qualities a combination of the brave Anzacs and the gutsy early settlers. Much is made of her supposed anti-authoritarianism, when in fact she worked the hierarchy of the church to her advantage. She went over the head of her bishop to seek dispensation for the autonomy of her order direct from the Vatican. She has even been described as embodying the ”larrikin” national spirit, when really she was humble, quiet and modest.

Yet MacKillop’s story, of colonial hardship, the poverty of the early settlers, her belief that all children should have an education, tells Australians something about their own unique history. In a time of bad press for the global church, giving Catholics in far-flung countries a saint to call their own is a good way to maintain their connection to the distant mother-church.

”The saints are a very nice and interesting way that people can connect on a personal level with what can be a very large and impersonal organisation,” Dr Bugg says. The cultural practices that have sprung up around saint veneration – the saint-day parades of Latin America and the relic museums of Europe – weave local customs into Catholicism. Dr Bugg believes this tolerance of cultural diversity is one of the reasons the Catholic Church has not had a schism like the Protestant churches.

Not everyone approves of saintly veneration, however. Glenn Davies, the Anglican bishop of North Sydney, says while MacKillop is a ”notable Australian”, ”we mustn’t use categories of honour which go against the Bible”. Following the Reformation, Protestants rejected the mediaeval practice of venerating saints and their relics. They considered it corrupt and superstitious. ”The real problem with the miracles is they are absolute inventions,” Bishop Davies says.

”There is nothing in the Bible about people being recognised as saints on the basis of miracles, so there is no real verification there.” The process of ”verifying” which act God did to whom and through which intermediary is ”bizarre”, he says. ”From a Protestant point of view they should never have been praying to Mary MacKillop, anyway.” Catholics say they don’t pray to saints directly: they pray to God through them. Saints help with particular causes; God is a generalist.

”It’s not a question of idolatry,” says Professor Anne Hunt, executive dean of theology and philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. ”[The saints] inspire us and encourage us to try to emulate them. One thing they all have in common is an extraordinary intimacy with God. They call us to that as well.”

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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