The day it was announced that a postulator had been appointed for the cause of Eileen O’Connor, I had coffee with a very good friend of mine. He asked me whether I thought that Eileen was the saint we needed for Australia right now. It was a good question. On the one hand, we know and trust that God gives us what and who we need at any particular time, but on the other hand, it is worth considering what it might be that He is particularly trying to tell us by placing Eileen before us that this time.
I hadn’t known any of Eileen’s story prior to last month. My initial impression of her was that she was something like St Therese of Lisieux, a pious young woman who died early after a battle with illness. I must confess (on this Divine Mercy Sunday) that I’ve never had a great devotion to St Therese. I’ve tried to be friends with her, I really have, but have never managed to get through the Story of a Soul no matter how many times I resolved to do so. I feared Eileen would be the same.
But in the days leading up to the announcement, I had the privilege of visiting Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and hearing about Eileen’s life from the wonderful Jocelyn Hedley, who literally wrote the book on Eileen.
After that visit, I am convinced that Eileen is the saint we need now, in 2018 in Australia. There is no question in my mind. For different reasons, Eileen is the saint that non-Catholic Australia needs, and she is also the saint that the Church needs.
Let’s look first at why Eileen is the saint Australia needs.
At this time, our society is so caught up in appearances. We idolise the beautiful and the fit and the healthy. The Instagram generation is quite used to taking 100 selfies before choosing the one that makes them look just “perfect” enough, and posting that online in an attempt to seek affirmation from others. At just 115 centimetres tall, with a back bent at an 80-degree angle and a face often revealing much of the physical pain she was in, Eileen was constantly ill and would not be considered fit or beautiful by today’s standards. To modern Australia, she is a reminder that who we are goes far beyond our physical appearances.
It’s not just about appearances, it’s also about suffering.
Last year, euthanasia and assisted suicide were legalised in Victoria. The ACT and Western Australia are each looking to follow suit. The ideology behind the push for euthanasia and assisted suicide is that a person in great suffering has no quality of life, and therefore should be entitled to choose death. Eileen was given this very option. When she was 19 years old, Eileen received an apparition of Our Lady, who offered her three propositions: dying and going to Heaven; being restored to health, or continuing to suffer for the work of Our Lady. Faced with the choice of death, health or suffering, Eileen freely chose suffering. She chose the suffering for a particular reason: to assist the priestly mission of her local priest, Father Edward McGrath msc.
And this brings us to why Eileen is also the saint that the Church needs.
Eileen did not just bear her suffering, she chose to bear it for a particular intention: the vocation of Father Edward McGrath. In turn, he ministered to her in her illness and collaborated with her in the work they felt called to undertake.
Both Eileen and Father McGrath had disadvantaged backgrounds, and so felt great empathy for those plunged into poverty by illness. Their joint mission was to establish a ministry of compassionate service to the sick poor in their own homes in honour of Our Lady.
The Church in Australia right now needs their witness and their intercession.
With the priesthood too often the subject of attack and derision, from some outside and, tragically, some within the Church, the story of a lay woman offering her sufferings for the vocation of a priest is a wonderful reminder to us of the importance of the priesthood. How much richer would the Church be if more of us offered our sufferings for the priests we know?
And at a time when so many voices, again from both within and outside the Church, say that everything would be better if we just had lay people in charge of all our ministries and the role of the priest restricted to not much more than a dispenser-of-Sacraments, the example of co-operation between a priest and a laywoman, ordered toward the service of others, is an image of the Church at its best and a good example for us to follow.
God knows we need that right now. That’s why, I think, in His goodness, God has given us Eileen (and Father McGrath) at this time. I know their prayers will be of great benefit to the Church in Australia in 2018.