Farewell faithful friend of Mary MacKillop: A priest who saw a need, and who did something about it

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Father Paul Gardiner SJ OAM 1924-2017

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

Best known for his thorough and dedicated role as a postulator in the official documentation of the life of Saint Mary MacKillop, Fr Paul Gardiner SJ died peacefully on the 18 March at 2.30am at the age of 93 in his beloved Penola, South Australia.

Fr Peter Joseph, parish priest of St Dominic’s, Flemington, editor, theological lecturer and fellow scholar, visited Fr Gardiner, his close friend and old Riverview College Latin teacher for one last time, just a few weeks before his death.

Fr Peter Joseph spoke with admiration and fondness of his last conversations with Fr Paul whom he anointed, “Although he was fading physically, he was still mentally very alert.”

“He was still reading Homer in Greek and Cicero in Latin for recreation up until a few weeks ago. He was also reading St Basil the Great in Greek.”

They spoke about the beauty and rhythm of the Latin prayers and anointing of the senses which are part of the old rite of Extreme Unction. “He was a remarkable linguist and scholar … You can see this,” says Fr Joseph, “in the way Fr Gardiner compiled all the documents, letters and papers for the official biography of Saint Mary of the Cross, Mary MacKillop.”

“Fr Gardiner translated all the Latin, Italian, German and French texts which he compiled brilliantly into the three-volume document (1600 pages) which was presented to the Holy See in December 1989.”

Fr Peter Joseph was referring to the Fr Gardiner’s massive work in compiling the historical evidence of Mother Mary Mackillop’s life of virtue and holiness, and the five year period (1984-89) over which he wrote up the Positio Super Virtutibus (the official deposition) as Postulator in this leg of the journey towards her Canonisation in Rome on 17 October 2010.

This process began many years before, when the Jesuit Provincial of the time, Fr Paul Duffy SJ, had recommended Fr Gardiner to the Sisters of St Joseph. Fr Gardiner was daunted by the prospect of the task, but told Fr Joseph in typically wry way. “Well I consulted a few people… I consulted God… and then I consulted Fr Tom O’Donovan!”

Sister Maria Casey of the Sisters of St Joseph, who inherited the role of Postulator from Fr Gardiner, then prepared the disposition (the positio) of the miracles ascribed to her Founder’s intercession, paid tribute to the “youthful nonagenarian”. She recognised the invaluable richness of his scholarship and his experience in teaching, chaplaincy and service to the Church which he brought to Mother Mary’s Cause: “Beatification was the first major step in the canonisation process, so Paul continued the remote preparation for that final step having been faithful to that immense task for 24 years.”

Over the years, Fr Gardiner reflected deeply and intimately on the person and life of Australia’s first saint. He was encouraged by Pope John Paul II (now declared as Saint himself) to consider how important it was for Australia to have a saint who, as Fr Gardiner thought of it, walked its red soil, felt it scorching sun and looked up at its Cross and its great sky.

Apart from her great “anchor of faith” which Fr Paul treasured until the end, Mother Mary MacKillop was, he said, “a living embodiment of God’s Word, that each of us is a Child of God.”

He treasured what he called the “association of place” with her holiness. During the course of the preparation of the positio: “I visited almost every place on earth where Mary has been, from the southern tip of New Zealand, to the north of Scotland.”

Following her diary accounts, he prayed in all her favourite churches in Rome.

It is not therefore surprising that he did not retire from Saint Mary MacKillop, but in 1999, became the chaplain and part of the information and welcoming team to the pilgrims and visitors to the Mary MacKillop Centre in Penola, South Australia.

Local Penola historian and music teacher, Margaret Muller and her husband, Peter, were close friends of Fr Paul, and were with him during the last days and hours of his life in a nursing home in Penola. Margaret, some seven years before his peaceful death, realised that such a humble but outstanding man, who had done so much towards the canonisation process, deserved a biography of his own.

Margaret’s biography of Fr Paul, entitled A Long Journey was released in Penola in 2016 (email [email protected] for copies).

Fr Peter Joseph remembered him, as “a delightful man, always reflective, always ready to listen. He was a great son of St Ignatius. A great, faithful and learned traditional Jesuit, who lived the spirit of discernment and wisdom of the founder.”

An abridged and newly edited version of the large positio is published by Mangunyah Press as The Life of St Mary of the Cross, Mary MacKillop, 1842-1909, is available from The Mustard Seed Bookshop. Fr Gardiner also wrote and published a shorter biography Mary MacKillop: An Extraordinary Australian (2007), which is also available.