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The Rocky Road to Holiness

St. Mary MacKillop allowed God to steer her through opposition and polish her into holiness

By: Patricia Treece

The Rocky Road to Holiness: St. Mary MacKillop allowed God to steer her through opposition and polish her into holiness by Patricia Treece

Australian Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) said once to her mother: “I learned everything from you.”

Beyond that single statement, Mary’s heroic virtue and deep insights into God’s ways remain swathed in divine mystery. She kept no journal. She had no confessor who outlived her and wrote of her inner life.

But if the roots remain hidden, there is no shortage of evidence that Mary saw life from an uncommon point of view. Even from age sixteen, when she worked as a teacher to support her entire family of ten— including her devout but hopelessly improvident father—she believed, above all, that God would bring good for her out of anything he permitted. And because she believed this with all her heart, she never let trials embitter her or turn her into a grim, dour woman.

“I cannot tell you what a beautiful thing the will of God seems to me,” Mary once wrote. And most of the time—even the holy have tough days—she lived that peacefully and joyously.

Blessed Are the Wronged. The daughter of Scottish immigrants, Mary MacKillop had a pioneering spirit that served her well in her mission of bringing free Christian education to the children of the farmers, miners, and railway workers who were settling new areas of Australia. She “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,” said John Paul II at her beatification in 1995. “Rather, she boldly prepared the way of the Lord in the most trying situations.”

It was through a trying situation, in fact, that God led Mary into the work he was calling her to do. She had been teaching for a decade when, one day, the school superintendent came to test the pupils in her absence. Without anyone’s knowing about it, a fellow teacher presented Mary’s students as his, and his as hers. “Her” students performed so poorly that Mary was fired.

Rather than seek revenge, Mary took this treachery as a sign that she should follow Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, a priest who wanted to launch a new religious order. She accepted his invitation, becoming not just its first sister but also its Mother Superior.

This new order—the Josephites (Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart)—had the simple, noncontroversial mission of reaching and teaching the poorest children in the country. It grew quickly, and soon many other sisters were joining Mary. They and their leader would hardly seem to merit anyone’s wrath. Yet time and time again, God permitted Mary’s goodness to be tested by determined adversaries. Being wronged—sometimes by decent or even good people—and reacting with heroic virtue became a theme of her road to holiness.

“A Terrible Mistake.” Consider a day in 1871, just four years after the Josephites’ founding, when Mary was twenty-nine. Now aptly named Mary of the Cross, she knelt on a bare convent floor, wearing a brown habit of the most durable material available. The local bishop had just come in with several of his priests, and the baby-faced Mother Superior was positioned for his blessing.

Instead, Mary was summoned to the convent chapel. There, she knelt again before the frail and failing bishop, now formally decked in his robes and miter, crosier in hand. He had been kind and supportive of Mary, but now, because he had been led to believe false reports, he was expelling her from the Josephites, and excommunicating her to boot.

Mary didn’t fall into the false humility that would have made her think she deserved this treatment. “The dear old bishop has made a terrible mistake,” she wrote her mother. But she was neither devastated nor furious.

As Mary saw it, the mistake offered her a privileged sharing in Christ’s cross for God’s good and redemptive purposes—for herself and others. And since God, in his great love, had permitted it, she found no reason to think badly of anyone involved—they just were his instruments, after all. Later, Mary wrote of feeling “like one in a dream,” at peace during that terrible moment: I seemed not to realize 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 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.

Five months later, just six days before he died, the bishop realized that he had been duped into believing lies about Mary. He admitted his mistake and restored her status. That was made easier because she had never spoken a word against him or treated him as an adversary. Even when a newspaper trumpeted the injustices she had suffered, Mary was far from rejoicing that “her side” had won; she could only express sadness that her vindication came at the cost of undermining the bishop’s authority.

Dealing with the Difficult. Over and over, Mary showed such goodness and good sense that anyone caught in difficult relationships can learn from her example. She never went looking for suffering. And when people held opinions that were harmful and unjust, she spoke out in defense of the truth.

But for Mary, truth did not include humiliating others or putting them in their place. “She was content to point out the factual errors in what was alleged against her,” says the priest who compiled the information for her canonization process.

Some of the difficulties arose when local clergy tried to take control of the Josephites who were teaching in their areas. It was a natural reaction in a way. The order, after all, was new and untested; its Rule was not yet approved; and the Sisters, young local women, had received less formal training than those in established religious orders.

In order to work out the problems and preserve the order’s unity and freedom to carry out its mission, Mary made the long trip by ship to Rome. There she presented the original Rule that she and the other sisters had vowed to follow. She spoke with great forbearance of critics and freely acknowledged the young order’s faults and mistakes of inexperience. At the same time, she was frank about the Josephites’ needing protection from interference by local clergy. Pope Pius IX and other Vatican authorities were impressed by Mary. Though they required some changes to the Rule, the new order was made self-governing under Rome.

Unfortunately, Mary also found herself in the painful position of having to speak the truth to Fr. Woods, the order’s devout and brilliant cofounder. In spite of his high morals and ideals, it seems that overwork and exhaustion eventually clouded his judgment. For one thing, two of the sisters were faking visions, and Fr. Woods could not see past their deception. Mary advised him that these “mystics” were false, but he refused to let her dismiss or even discipline them. In the end, based on various reports of his unbalanced actions, Rome removed Fr. Woods as director of the Josephites. Hurt and angry, he blamed Mary and charged her with betraying the order by accepting changes to the Rule. She never let his bad-mouthing and persistent refusal to see her become reasons to consider him a foe. Even as his oddities made him an unwelcome figure in the church, she led the order in recognizing and honoring him as their founder.

Keeper of the Vision. By grace and personal decision, whatever the storms in her life, Mary was known for kindness and an encouraging good cheer. In an era when women were often seen as incompetent without male leadership, she persevered in the mission God had given her. And when she was lambasted for being female, young, obstinate, and an ignorant “colonial,” she was not a bit crushed by any of this personal abuse. Mary MacKillop knew who she was in God’s eyes, and all the rest was irrelevant.

Mary’s repeated testing let the Holy Spirit guide her growth into a woman strong enough to protect the infant order, its members, and all those they served. Fr. Donald once wrote her in regard to another priest who was giving her trouble: “You would be more than a match for fifty of him.”

Count It All Joy. Mary MacKillop relied on God to steer and champion her through all the opposition she encountered. By her example of forgiveness, forthrightness, and calm trust, she set her order on a firm foundation and brought the gospel to people who had never heard it.

Mary understood that the difficulties she met with—from people who were downright blind, spiritually limited, or just a product of their times—were all grist for God’s mill, polishing her into holiness. And so her life invites us to “consider it all joy,” knowing that God will use our own trials to build the perfect perseverance that leads to the joy that never ends (James 1:2-4).

Patricia Treece specializes in writing about saints from the modern era. She lives in Portland, Oregon.