Saint or sinner ... who makes a better Aussie icon?
As I attended the celebrations for the canonisation of St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop in Melbourne, there was a man shouting for the recognition of Ned Kelly as the real saint of Australia.
Though one could laugh this off, these cries (upon reflection) brought to light a stark contrast - between the narrative of the Catholic Church and the mythology of modern Australia.
Australians continue to venerate Ned Kelly as the exemplar of the Aussie battler whose rebelliousness, courage and egalitarianism supposedly characterise our history and identity.
Yet, what if we hold up Ned Kelly before the life of someone like Mary MacKillop, what would we see? Would we see a humble, holy woman who served the poor through great trials and hardships and an upstart, male criminal who is celebrated for his rebellious, anti-authoritarianism?
Ned Kelly’s story is complex and perhaps, like Mary, is also the story of an underdog victim. The anthropological philosopher, René Girard, argues that human culture is built on scapegoating – that human unity is built over against others, usually in victimizing, warring or bullying.
He comments that one of the remarkable features of Judeo-Christian societies (like Australia) is that instead of only celebrating the victor and denouncing the victims in their folktales and myths, they actually can sometimes bring to light the story of the victim. This rings true with the Australian fondness for the story of the “underdog” (though it can also contrast to our cutting down of the “tall poppy”).
Yet, as Ned Kelly faced his own hardships with violence, Mary MacKillop showed a non-violent resistance to her own victimisation. With loving forgiveness, she faced her persecutors (some Church hierarchy), and with humble perseverance, she continued in the midst of her hardships.
While some voices question the relevance of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation (and the role of the Church) in Australian society, it may actually have much to say to and about us. The irony of Mary MacKillop (in comparison to Ned Kelly) in terms of Australian folklore is revealing – in how the victim is justified and how the victim faces persecution – particularly as the Catholic narrative is surprisingly appealing and humane (and includes a celebration of the feminine).
This presents an interesting question to the Australian identity. What role models do we present to our people? How do they deal with hardship and persecution? How should we deal with authority and victimisation? St. Mary MacKillop didn’t reject authority or hardship. She did not become resentful or play tit-for-tat.
She humbly confronted persecution with forgiveness. Why? Seemingly because of her love and faith in God – in a God who revealed himself as loving forgiveness for humans as he was persecuted himself.
However, Mary’s was not a slavish faith that accepted any beating or hurt because God sent them. Nor did she just accept injustice and do nothing about it.
Instead, Mary’s faith helped her to see that the hurt and violence that humans do to each other is often inexplicable because it has deep roots in our identity and that it requires deeper healing than short-term fixes: “Try at least to excuse what you cannot understand and bear in mind that you only have to answer for your own faults ... bear with one another, forgiving and forgetting ... be not hasty in judging one another” (St. Mary MacKillop).
In other words, the way out of violence and hurt is not through violent retribution or rebellion, but loving perseverance that remembers one’s own imperfections and seeks to build others up, even when they want to tear you down. She is reminiscent of other great spiritual leaders of non-violence.
St. Mary MacKillop is now being claimed as the “first” Australian saint. This is an interesting development, particularly as she contrasts to some of the figures that currently populate the canon of Australian heroes and “saints”.
Yet, Mary is canonised not because she was a great Australian, or even a great women, but because she was a holy and good human being. Mary MacKillop is a Christian saint because she was (and is) a holy, good person.
This is something we can all recognise: the good person who uses her freedom and gifts for the good of others. The public interest in St. Mary is even more intriguing when we view her in this respect: she didn’t do “whatever she wanted” (as postmodernism recommends, with its self-satisfying celebrity cult), but she did good for others (as a celibate, vowed and loving woman). She saw a need and she did something about it.
St. Mary MacKillop was no anti-authoritarian rebel or celebrity do-gooder, but a humble, loving woman serving God, particularly in the poorest.
She not only seems a worthy person of admiration but may even be subversive of the many mythical or celebrity figures that are constantly placed before us in the nationalist and media narratives of our day for our emulation and worship.
Like other non-violent figures, she may show us a way to deal with suffering, oppression and persecution for Australians.
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