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What need have we for saints?

By Kim White - posted Thursday, 21 October 2010

Australia has its first Saint. The sentence is odd, for it claims on behalf of all of us a belief that few of us can sincerely hold. She was Australian, but her sanctity was not decided in the halls of our parliament; and if she is any more divine than you or I it is only in the minds of those who believe in the tenets of the Catholic Church.

Yet enthusiasm for Mary MacKillop’s recent canonisation seemingly extends beyond the quarter of Australians who at last census nominated Roman Catholicism as their religion. What are we to make of this?   

Undoubtedly the global status of the Catholic Church plays a part. A centuries-old institution that represents one of the great religious faiths naturally commands the attentions of the media and curious citizens, particularly when it elects to elevate one of our number to a position of excellence.


On such an analysis it seems as though that which is to be celebrated is less the good works carried out by one of our fellow citizens than the fact that a famous and longstanding ecclesiastical body has chosen to honour her. If it were merely the good works of the canonised that we felt proud of we would not wait for someone else to point them out to us, nor would we reserve our greatest jubilation for the occasion of this show of approval. We would praise them and be happy at that.

For Catholics there may be some truth to the logic of finding greatest satisfaction in the Vatican’s acknowledgment of MacKillop’s excellence. They would no doubt deny that it is solely out of pleasure at the Holy See’s approval that they celebrate her works; after all, it is only following the nomination of a Catholic by those of her community that she can be put forward for beatification, much less canonisation.

And it is true that she was an impressive woman deserving of recognition and respect for her moral courage, tenacity, and devotion to imparting dignity and opportunity to those members of her community least touched by good fortune. Yet at the same time, the very urge towards the process of canonisation indicates a belief in the ultimate authority of the Vatican in determining the worth of someone.

If the works themselves exhausted one’s praise one would not seek to have them embroidered with the judgements of some recognised hierarchy for still greater estimation. Such judgements can only really be meaningful to those who acknowledge the judges’ superior perspective, in this case a category confined entirely to Catholics.

To the rest of us, the judgment of the Church of Rome as to the rectitude of something can mean little, except in those moments of vicarious anger or, perhaps, at times approval, when we alternately castigate it for its corruption or congratulate it on its reforms.

In this light it is somewhat puzzling that many members of both the national press and the political class nominate the canonisation as a national achievement. For while it is indisputable that the social legacy of Mary MacKillop is something that we are "a better nation for having been part of" and that hers is a "life to be celebrated, and learned from", it is less clear why her canonisation represents any kind of "milestone" for Australia as a whole.


The metaphor, while perhaps dead in the Orwellian sense, deserves resurrection for what it implies about our willingness to put forward our own citizens as exemplars of both national and broader human virtues.

To reach a milestone is to have progressed to a point previously unreached and the nomination of an Australian as a Saint of the Catholic Church is undoubtedly unprecedented, but why should we feel compelled to withhold the kind of praise deserved by virtuous Australians until some tradition with a richer heritage than ours singles them out for good favour?

Comparisons with unsaintly Australians reveal the strangeness of a celebration that looks ultimately to foreign (and only putatively universal) authorities for permission to celebrate individual acts of historical resonance: one finds Mother MacKillop compared to Weary Dunlop and Caroline Chisolm and is left wondering why these fine people are to be denied a role in the edification of the Australian community so eagerly thrust upon the shoulders of Mother MacKillop?

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About the Author

Kim White is a freelance writer living in Sydney

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