St Mary MacKillop and ‘the grace of forgiveness’

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St Mary of the Cross MacKillop

It is not unusual to come across someone who has been wounded by the institutional Church, either through an unjust action of a priest, or a misuse of authority by a prelate, or an unfair dismissal from a diocesan position.

There are countless grievances that people can experience within the family of the Church. Maybe the patron saint for such people should be Mary MacKillop.

In an age of autocratic bishops and few opportunities for women to influence the shape of the Church, this extraordinary woman prevailed in the vision the Lord had given her.

Opposition to her work came mainly from the Church hierarchy. But she was undaunted, not in any rebellious way, but simply through faith, humility and courage.

The account of her unfair excommunication by Bishop Sheil of Adelaide is riveting reading. She was accused of inciting the sisters to rebellion against the bishop’s authority, and of challenging his power to alter the Rule of the emerging congregation which she had founded.

The first accusation was never proven. The second was not true either.

Mary did acknowledge the bishop’s right to change the Rule, but because of the seriousness of the changes proposed, she insisted that the sisters had the right to decide whether to leave the institute or to take vows under what would have been, in effect, a new Rule.

The way Mary received her extreme penalty underlines the truth that mercy and forgiveness are graces from on high. The bishop complete with mitre and crozier, stood in the chapel, with Mary kneeling humbly before him.

He solemnly pronounced the excommunication for the reasons of disobedience and rebellion, and accused Mary of infecting the convent with spiritual pride and worldly wickedness. This is her description of how she felt:

“I really felt like one in a dream. I seemed not to realise the presence of the bishop and priests; I know I did not see them; but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget.”

Consistently, at this time of crisis, and in many other times when accusations and condemnations were levelled against her, Mary showed the grace of forgiveness, deciding not to malign her accusers, but to love those who persecuted her. At the time of her excommunication, which was no doubt her greatest testing, she wrote to her mother not to speak against her detractors. She simply said, “The dear old bishop has made a terrible mistake.”

She saw her sufferings at the hands of Church authorities as somehow within the provident love of God, who had allowed it to happen, so he could bring greater good out of it all.

Her later vindication proved that this was indeed God’s hidden purpose.

This is an extract from Fr Ken Barker’s book His Name is Mercy.