Book review: The Virtues of Saint Mary of the Cross, Mary MacKillop

Young people praying
Youth leaders pray at Mary MacKillop Chapel in North Sydney and the saints’ tomb in February 2019. PHOTO: Abbel Gaspi

The Virtues of Saint Mary of the Cross, Mary MacKillop 1842-1909

By Fr Paul Gardiner SJ St Pauls Publications, 2019. 160 pages

This book by the late Fr Paul Gardiner SJ (1924-2017) was presented to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 1989, and is now publicly available for the first time. It provides an excellent character portrait of St Mary MacKillop.

Although it is a quick read, it is packed with hidden treasures, truly showing why Mother Mary MacKillop was worthy of sainthood as much as any other of our favourite saints.

When reflecting upon her extraordinary life, it is easy to recall her many marvellous achievements, including her instrumental role in establishing a great system of education and founding new institutions, serving the poor, her silence and humility in the face of persecution and endurance amid suffering. But herein lies a more difficult question to ponder: In the words of Fr Paul Gardiner, What was Mother Mary like?

Following Fr Gardiner’s appointment as the official Postulator for Mother Mary’s cause in 1984 and his completion of a 1,600 biography of her life – it is this very complex character analysis of who Australia’s great Saint really was that Fr Gardiner delves into in his book.

“A building may look sound and beautiful, but only a severe storm or earth-tremor will test its foundations,” writes Fr Peter Joseph in the book’s Foreword, “Mary MacKillop was obviously a kindly lady, but we would never have known the depths of her kindness had she never met certain nasty people to whom she always responded with gentleness and love, even when they continued to reciprocate with bitterness.”

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Throughout Mother Mary MacKillop’s life of great suffering and hardship, she deeply exemplified the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

“It was ‘the soul’, the life of Christ in the Son of God, that came first; ‘the work’, the love and service of others, came second, and had meaning only as an expression of the first,” Fr Gardiner writes.

“This union with God was the secret of the inner peace which Mother Mary maintained even at the worst of times.

“She always stressed the positive, reminding her Sisters of the value of kindness, unity, harmony, peace, the forgiving of faults, obedience, humility, and confidence in God.”

Fr Paul Gardiner SJ. PHOTO: File photo, date unknown.

Today, as the priesthood is being attacked on all fronts, both from within and without, Mother Mary’s profound ability to turn to prayer serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of standing by the Church and praying for vocations as “the harvest is great but the labourers are few” (Matt 9:37).

As an early Josephite Sister Sabina recalled at the Process of Canonisation: “On one occasion when a public trial of a priest was in the news, Mother Mary had us praying incessantly that the prestige of the priesthood and the glory of God would be upheld.”

Like Mother Mary of the Cross, may we too pray for God to not only send more labourers of our faith, but to shield His flock in the religious life as they work for His glory and the salvation of souls.

Amid today’s crisis of faith, it is Mother Mary’s unwavering faith, life of service and endless love for God and others that we too must seek to emulate.  And what was the source of it all? In the words of her spiritual director, Fr Francis Clune CP, at the Process of Canonisation, “Continuous union with God. My first impression was that she was wrapped up in God. As far as a human being could, she was in union with God.”

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In the words of Mother Mary of the Cross: “Let not your crosses … make you unhappy. Look upon them as stepping-stones to an eternity of happiness, and value them as the most precious presents from a good and loving God.” (28 February 1890)

For the Church in Australia today, Saint Mary MacKillop is a witness of what it means to live a life of heroic virtue, selflessness and total surrender to God.

“With this burning appeal of the Sacred Heart came such a rushing of longing desire on my part to be Its lover and Its own true child,” wrote Mother Mary in a circular letter as the feast of the Sacred Heart approached – two years before her death.

“Its love makes suffering sweet, Its love makes the world a desert. When storms rage, when persecutions or dangers threaten, I quietly creep into Its deep abyss; and securely sheltered there, my soul is in peace.”