On Sunday Pope Benedict celebrated a canonization Mass of the six newest saints in the church. Over 50,000 gathered as six Catholics were declared saints including Brother Andre Bessette, the French Canadian miracle worker whose life and ministry is so well known to Catholics in Rhode Island.
But also among the six was Mary MacKillop the first Australian declared a saint. Now known as St. Mary of the Cross, MacKillop founded the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Mary MacKillop was born to a very poor Scottish immigrant family in Australia in 1842. The eldest of eight children, from the age of 16 Mary helped to support her family by working as a governess. Mary met a priest named Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, who asked her to help with the religious education of children in the outback. Later, in 1866, she opened the first Saint Joseph's School in a vacant stable in Penola. Young women came to join Mary, and so the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph was begun and their ministry in Australia began to flourish.
She focused particularly on the education of poor children in the Australian outback. Before her death many more schools were established in "bush" areas where hardship and poverty were common. "God loves those best that help the weak to become whole" she once wrote. Today, the "Josephites" are present across Australia and New Zealand, and have extended their ministry to Ireland, Peru, East Timor, Scotland and Brazil.
St. Mary of the Cross encountered much stiff and unprincipled opposition from bishops, clergy and even her own sisters. More remarkably, she was able to forgive her enemies, including those who lied to achieve their ends. She had a genuine and quiet humility of heart, which enabled her to follow the Catholic faith she professed. She was loyal to the local church but appealed to the pope for help and protection and Pope Pius IX supported and vindicated her. As Pope John Paul II reminded the world when he beatified Mary MacKillop in 1995: “In the vastness of the Australian continent, Blessed Mary MacKillop was not daunted by the great desert, the immense expanses of the outback, nor by the spiritual ‘wilderness’ which affected so many of her fellow citizens. Rather she boldly prepared the way of the Lord in the most trying situations.”
The six new saints stand in striking testimony of the work of God in our world. Each of them brought the good news of Jesus Christ to all those they encountered. However, the “Outback Saint,” Mary MacKillop, offers a great example of faith and humility to Catholics who encounter opposition and resistance to their ministry from factions in and out of the church. In a world that can sometimes be viewed as a spiritual wilderness and untamed outback, St. Mary of the Cross offers hope that persistence and faithfulness can triumph in the end. We join with all of Australia in rejoicing in the first saint of that continent. St. Mary of the Cross, pray for us!