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St Mary of the Cross

· Cardinal George Pell's reflection on the Canonization Mass, 17 October ·

More than 8,000 Australians in St Peter's Square and hundreds and thousands around the world, saw a great moment in our history yesterday. Pope Benedict XVI presided over the Canonisation of our first Saint, a woman, St Mary of the Cross.

It was a moment for us to be humble and also a moment to be proud. As a young country with a minority of Catholic population, Australia has done well, despite the unfinished business of effectively righting the wrongs done to the original inhabitants, our aboriginal brothers and sisters.

We are also very fortunate to receive our first Saint so early in our history. Humble because here was a woman who suffered much and was treated very badly on occasions by her fellow Australians. Proud because our first Saint had an extraordinary depth of faith and hope, which she used to persevere through every challenge.

Mary MacKillop respected and loved people even at their worst because she could look beyond their wrong doings, their mistakes, to see in them the dignity of the human person, the hidden Christ. She resolved difficulties with undiminished respect, charity and truth. Mary MacKillop is known to have spoken of an inner peace that no degree of pain could take from her.

Looking at all those people who gathered in St Peter's reminded me of the time when I was young and foolish and used to say Australians were not bad enough to need a Saint. Fortunately I have improved, and changed my mind, at least on this issue. We all need Saints. Catholics need Mary MacKillop as one of their own. All Australia recognise Mary MacKillop as one of their own.

It is not easy to become a Saint despite what some critics claim, misunderstand or simply refuse to acknowledge. It takes hard work to follow Christ's teachings heroically across a lifetime. The Vatican conducts a detailed examination of the evidence over many years. It is not a popularity contest or a talent quest. Saints are not made, they are recognised for their lifetime of holiness. Saints are presented with the challenges of their time, answer them and promote religious renewal. In Mary's case, she brought education and religious instruction to many poor youngsters, especially in the bush.

Mary MacKillop stands at the heart of Catholic tradition. She was unusual in her faith and prayer, in her ability to inspire others to join her, her ability to forgive as well as her loyalty to her fellow sisters and the Church leadership which did not always treat her well. She looked to Rome and the Pope for protection and she received it.

I wonder how many would have the strength to face what Mary did and still remain faithful. Excommunicated by an ill-advised and spectacularly unwise Bishop, treated badly by another Bishop, accused of immorality, financial irresponsibility and antagonism towards priests, she remained faithful to Christ, loyal to the priests and obedient to the Bishops.

Mary MacKillop was certainly no weakling, even though she suffered ill health for many years. She stood her ground but always charitably and calmly. She wanted to do what God wanted and succeeded brilliantly which is why God blessed her efforts with so much fruit. Her strong faith gave her the tenacity to stick to her plans, to refuse to abandon her principles.

I think the reason why Mary MacKillop is so widely accepted by Catholics and non-Catholics alike is that she was so obviously very good but also very normal, not at all eccentric or pretentious. We claim her strengths and qualities as typically Australian.

Following this historic event I hope our young people especially will see a great deal to be admired in Mary and follow her courage and determination, faith, hope and love. She persevered in the face of adversity, resisted injustice resolutely, forgave those who treated her unfairly and followed a life of faith and prayer. That is an inspiration to us and will remain so for all succeeding generations of Australians.

Mary would say, “never see a need without doing something about it”. I hope all generations to come will remember those words because they are the words of a holy woman.

Finally, during the centuries old ceremony yesterday, I recalled the simple words of Cardinal Patrick Moran in Sydney in August 1909 when her visited a dying Mother Mary of the Cross. He said to the Sisters: “Her death will bring many blessings, not only on yourselves, and your congregation, but on the whole Australian Church”. And he added as he left the convent: “I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a Saint”. Indeed he had.

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