Wednesday, 23 December 2009
Hail, Mary! (Mary MacKillop, That Is...)
Hail, Mary! Mary MacKillop, that is, who is soon to be the first Australian to be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church and officially declared a saint.
It would be well-nigh impossible to find an Australian who knows her story who would have a bad thing to say about Mary MacKillop, since she devoted her life to serving under-privileged children in ‘the outback’ and later homeless and battered women in the city slums, and founded a religious order to expand and continue that work, which it has done over the now one hundred years since Mary’s death, becoming legendary in itself (the ‘brown joeys’, as they are known). Add to that self-less life the colourful episode of her excommunication from the church for insubordination to her bishop – indeed some say she will be the only canonised saint to have been once excommunicated - and you can see why she appeals to Australians, whose national character has an ambivalent attitude towards authority seemingly built in to it dating back to convict days. Not only was her religion intensely practical in its outworking, but Mary also illustrates an Australian trait, which may be broadly labelled "egalitarianism", or more colloquially, a "fair go" for all.
Mary also lived or travelled through enough localities in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland that almost everyone can claim her has their own saint. Indeed, her father his buried but ten kilometres down the highway from where I write this, and Hamilton, the closest town to this old manse, forms part of the ‘Mary MacKillop Trail’ around which modern day ‘grey nomad’ pilgrims peregrinate, albeit with a caravan on the back of their car rather than a knapsack on their own back (but still, penitential enough, I reckon, six weeks or so on a pilgrimage in a caravan with your other half, worth a few years off your time in purgatory, I’m sure!)
I predict that even the fact that Mary MacKillop was Roman Catholic will not prevent an almost universal acclamation in response to her canonisation from Australian Christians in present-day, almost totally post-sectarian Australia, which is a far cry from the land Mother Mary trekked around in her coarse brown habit and white linen wimple, where an almost Northern Irish style sectarianism reigned in most quarters and did so until well within living memory. Indeed, the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, and her acceptance by non-Roman Catholic Australians, may finally signal that the Catholics have won that particular culture war. On the other hand, it may just signify that de-moralised Protestants surrendered many years ago.
What is a Lutheran to make of all of this? As the people of my previous parish used to tell me, as Lutherans, their Protestant credentials were never quite accepted by their Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist neighbours. “German Catholics” they were often called, perhaps more because they were isolationist like the Irish, marrying only their own kind, rather than because they were suspected of crypto-Romanism. But these Protestant neighbours were perhaps more perceptive than they realised, for the Lutheran attitude towards Roman Catholicism has always been ambivalent, retaining many obviously Roman elements, like crucifixes for example, and a service order based on the medieval Latin Mass complete with Gregorian chant, that Protestants of the Reformed stripe, once dominant in this land, unambiguously eschewed.
Add to these merely external elements a charitable evaluation of the possibility of Roman Catholic idolaters being saved even while remaining in Catholicism, and one can perhaps understand WASP suspicions about Lutherans. As Luther said, Rome had God’s Word and the dominical sacraments, and where those means of grace were one was sure to find true Christians, something a Presbyterian might well be loathe to admit about the Roman Catholic Church (there is still at least one Presbyterian church body in Australia in which Roman Catholic converts are ‘re-baptised”).
A Lutheran, however, need have no qualms about acknowledging the possibility that Mary MacKillop was a true Christian and as such entered heaven through the merits of Christ, and that she may serve as a fine example of a person in whom "faith was active in works of love” done for her neighbour.
But, at the same time, a Lutheran cannot ignore the fact that Mary owed her allegiance to the Pope, whom our confessional writings refer to as the Antichrist, because he anathematised the Gospel and taught his subjects that works as well as faith counted towards salvation. So, if Mary was a true Christian, Lutherans must contend, it was because, by a felicitous inconsistency, she in practice denied the official teaching of the Pope and trusted in the merits of Christ alone for salvation.
As the old Lutheran joke, once offered in retort to Roman claims that the Lutheran doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness was a legal fiction, goes: A human being justified by faith and works? Now that’s a legal fiction!
So, hail Mary, but praise Jesus!