During the celebration of World Youth Day in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI brought to light Australia’s one and only recognized saint, St. Mary MacKillop, and highlighted her example of holiness that has inspired many throughout the past 100 years.
In particular Pope Benedict mentioned how “her perseverance in the face of adversity, her plea for justice on behalf of those unfairly treated and her practical example of holiness have become a source of inspiration for all Australians.”
As we look back on another World Youth Day, it is fitting to reflect on St. Mary MacKillop’s ability to minister to those on the “fringes” of society and treat everyone, regardless of race or social status, with great dignity.
Born in Melbourne in 1842, Mary Helen MacKillop became a trailblazer in the outback of Australia. She was drawn to the religious life at a young age, but there did not exist any women’s religious order in Australia. With the help of a local priest, she founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart with the intention of ministering to the needs of poor children and performing other works of charity.
She is famous for the motto “Never see a need without doing something about it,” and took it very seriously. MacKillop saw around her the desperate needs of local children and sought to establish schools and orphanages to help them. One of the hallmarks of her institutions was that she opened her doors to everyone, regardless of status or income. She saw each student as a child of God, deserving of the utmost respect.
Saint John Paul II gave a perfect summary of her ministry of mercy during her beatification in 1995.
“With gentleness, courage and compassion, she was a herald of the Good News among the isolated ‘battlers’ and the urban slum-dwellers. Mother Mary of the Cross knew that behind the ignorance, misery and suffering which she encountered there were people, men and women, young and old, yearning for God and his righteousness. She knew, because she was a true child of her time and place: the daughter of immigrants who had to struggle at all times to build a life for themselves in their new surroundings. Her story reminds us of the need to welcome people, to reach out to the lonely, the bereft, the disadvantaged. To strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness means to strive to see Christ in the stranger, to meet him in them and to help them to meet him in each one of us!”
Her example of holiness and care for others spread like wildfire and by 1891 there were 300 sisters in her newly established congregation, working in nine dioceses in Australia and New Zealand. The work her community of sisters accomplished became the foundation and model for Catholic education and charitable works in the “bush” of Australia.
Saint Mary MacKillop is a woman we can all strive to imitate during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. She teaches us that we need to not only pray for change, but also be a part of the solution. One could say she is a perfect example of Pope Francis’ call to be a Church “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.”
MacKillop was not afraid of the struggles involved with helping the disadvantaged or getting “dirty” in her ministry of mercy. Instead, she embraced it and sought to imitate Christ’s love of the poor, seeking concrete ways to make the world a better place.
Saint Mary MacKillop, pray for us!