Australia’s Mary MacKillop receives Church celebrity treatment
VATICAN CITY – Mary MacKillop , who became Australia’s first certified saint on Sunday, was given celebrity treatment as were the other four honoured with her in St Peter’s square. The colourful ceremony was an archaic form of celebrity promotion which acquires new force with television.
In the Middle Ages saints were celebrities like rock stars today. But now the very concept of holiness is hazy while that of celebrity is promoted on all sides by the media. MacKillop’s celebrity is not the kind enjoyed by people such as Madonna, Posh Spice or Roman Polanski. It is based on her friendship with God which resulted in her good works carried out without any aim for gain worldly fame.
Saints are heroes but not like those admired for great achievements which cannot bear close scrutiny of the means employed. Such heroes are supermen or wonder women whereas saints, but not the plaster ones, are authentically human. Major saints oppose the world rather than conquer it, they subvert established injustice.
The best hope of Mary MacKillop making an impact on those not already taken with her is to dramatise the spiritual sources, and the stages, of her development. However there seems a reluctance to attempt this task which is difficult because many no longer can make sense of spiritual concepts such as divine grace. Instead, the comments made when she was beatified suggested that the Order of Josephite nuns she co-founded had won an international competition or she was simply a you-beaut Australian, useful incidentally for promoting Penola wines of which 117 cases were donated for use during the four days of canonisation celebrations which attracted over 6000 Australian pilgrims.
Canonisation asserts that the person concerned has a worldwide relevance, in this case that Mary (Saint Mary of the Cross ) is worthy of emulation not only in Australia.
Many who praise Mary do not link her spirituality convincingly with her social work. Yet surely this is the key to her outreach to all the poor and needy including aborigines: her spiritual maturity helped her see them not simply as deserving of charity but as worthy of solidarity. In other words, her spirituality was not just a growth in intimacy with God but involved social justice. In this she was ahead of her time.
In the early church many saints were made at the local level, sometimes by acclamation or because of credence given to anecdotal traditions. There were few defences against inaccurate hearsay or charlatans. In fact some decades ago, the Vatican de-sainted some legendary “saints” such as Christopher.
In the 13th century Rome centralised the process by deciding that only popes could certify sainthood. In the 17th century it introduced rigorous, lengthy trial procedures for candidates, involving lawyers, historians, doctors, theologians and back-up staff . It was a responsible way of deciding who would be canonised, that is included in the canon of the liturgical calendar. It does not mean they are the only saints but the only ones certified by the Catholic Church.
To be certified, the candidate has to have led a life of outstanding virtue and, through his or her intercession, to have brought about an inexplicable medical cure (miracle ) during the first stage of the process leading to beatification and another after it takes place.
The results have been fascinating both because of those who have been made saints and those who haven’t. Some have been kept waiting in the wings for decades or even five centuries as in the case of Queen Isabella I of Spain. (The Pole Stanislaw Soltys, who was canonised along with Mary MacKillop and four other nuns, died in 1489, before Isabella ).
Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador who spoke-up for the poor under an oppressive regime and, as a consequence, in 1980 was shot dead while celebrating Mass, seemed an obvious martyr-saint but his case is proceeding more slowly than that of the Spaniard Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the Opus Dei movement, who was canonised in 2002.
Choices are often highly controversial: Pope Pius XII, who is about to be beatified, is a sore point with those Jews who accuse him of ignoring the Shoah. The German Jewish philosopher Edith Stein, who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun before being gassed at Auschwitz, was canonised by John Paul II despite Jewish protests that she had been killed because she was Jewish rather than as a Catholic. Alcide De Gaspari ,the Italian Prime Minister 1947-53, and the French Robert Schuman, who was a co-founder of the European Union, are in the sainthood pipe-line. If they go the whole way, controversy is assured.
Saints came marchin’ in with John Paul II who in 1983 simplified and speeded the procedure.. During his 26 year pontificate he canonised 483 saints and beatified 1340 people, more than all his predecessors combined since new procedures were introduced in the 17th century. He was encouraging Catholics to take to heart Leon Bloy’s “There is but one sadness…and that is for us not to be saints.”
The numbers were boosted by group canonisations of those martyred under anti-Christian regimes: for instance 212 martyrs of the Spanish civil war, scores from Hitler’s Germany and Communist Eastern Europe, 103 of Korea, 117 of Vietnam. John Paul wanted to give every nation a saint and increase the number of lay saints and sainted married couples to offset the shoals of saints from religious orders. Religious orders are advantaged by being able to raise the substantial funds needed to pay for the protracted process and by acting as concerted groups, particularly for their founders.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned against devaluating the sainthood currency. As Pope Benedict XVI, he has sharpened the distinction between beatification (the penultimate phase which approves the cult of the person concerned but only in a restricted area) and canonisation, by deciding that he would participate in canonisations but not beatifications. He waived his waive his own rule, however, by beatifying the Anglican convert John Henry Newman during his English trip last month..
The canonisation process does a not-altogether-satisfactory job of bringing out the distinctive aspects of candidates because it dissects their lives to identify their virtues. In other words, a danger of the meticulous procedures is that bureaucratic requirements swamp charisma, the juridical approach obscures the workings of divine grace, the poetry of ardent lives.
The procedures tend to produce precise rather than exciting narrations of candidates’ attempts to incarnate the Gospel message. But compelling narrations are needed to ensure that the celebrity Mary MacKillop and the other new saints achieved in mid-October has an enduring impact. This will not occur if she is made into an icon and her story airbrushed. To do justice to this seeker of justice, perhaps the French novelist Georges Bernanos or her contemporary Leo Tolstoy would be needed.