'Ungodly' questions Down Under over Saint-to-be

By Ecumenical News International
March 10, 2010

Australia - described in the 19th century by a Scottish church minister as "the most Godless place under heaven" - will get its first saint when Sister Mary MacKillop is canonised by Pope Benedict XVI later in the year - writes Kim Cain.

Some Protestant church leaders have, however, raised questions about the need to find "proof of a miracle" in order for her sainthood to be confirmed.

Mary MacKillop, the daughter of a Roman Catholic, Scottish immigrant, at just 24, established the Order of the Sisters of St Joseph in South East Australia in the late 1800s.

A teaching order, known locally as the "brown Joeys" after their brown habits, brought the first educational experiences to many of Australia's rural poor then.

The recognition in 2009 of a second miracle attributed to MacKillop, has ensured she has passed the last stage of the three stages needed for her to be granted sainthood.

Faithful and inspirational, MacKillop had a reputation as a feisty woman who more than once clashed with male clergy in the area. At one point, when she was 29, she was excommunicated for disobedience. After she was readmitted to the church, she clashed with a local bishop who complained about her non-hierarchal style.

But MacKillop persisted in her calling, eventually leaving a legacy of schools for the poor, an orphanage, a refuge for women at risk, and a team of inspirational nuns to carry on the work.

Due to Australia's heritage as a place for Britain to send convicts and an inherent suspicion of religion and clergy by many ordinary people, a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. James Denny, in 1849 claimed Australia to be "the most Godless under heaven".

Even 150 years later, the proposal to canonise an Australian as a saint, has caused widespread discussion in the country's media.

Two non-Catholic church leaders have raised questions of the Vatican's need to find a miracle in order to recognise Sister Mary's saintly work.

John Bodycomb, a Protestant writer and commentator and former dean of students at the Uniting Church's Theological College in Melbourne, wrote that while he has "long admired" MacKillop, "I find (it) questionable that the record of this good and godly woman must be adorned with miracle stories."

Writing in Crosslight, the newspaper of the Uniting Church in Australia, Bodycomb says the need to find miracles of divine intervention raises questions about God and MacKillop, noting, "I am uneasy with a divinity who/that can be manipulated by Mary MacKillop or any other singularly good person.".

Bodycomb told Ecumenical News International he wrote the letter "to get people questioning the utter nonsensical theology that miracles imply". He said did not want the work of MacKillop cheapened.

Bishop Glenn Davies from the Anglican diocese of Sydney says the sanctification of MacKillop raises questions of poor theology and it confuses the process of miracle making, which he believes in.

Writing on the Sydney Anglican Web site, Davies says MacKillop's work is inspirational, however, "It is not the woman but the theology behind this move with which Anglicans would disagree."

"Firstly, to award such a person with sainthood for these achievements and two alleged miracles is to misunderstand what the Bible describes as the qualifications of a saint." Sainthood, he insists it a title for all people who have been forgiven their sins.

Secondly, "The Roman Catholic Church's process of canonisation obscures the importance of God's description of his people and replaces it with a human analysis of miracle working."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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