Faith Talk: There's something about Mary
Pilgrims paying their respects and miracles aside, the focus of the coverage of MacKillop's canonisation has overwhelming been on the celebration of her admirable (some might say "saintly"!) character traits: her tenacity, fierce independence, sense of justice, humility, courage and devotion to her life's calling (her "vocation" in Catholic speak).
In this sense, Saint MacKillop provides us with a model for Christianity In Practise 101 at a time when the Catholic Church is increasingly distant and removed from secular life, as much as it is a target for derision. Inasmuch as her saintly status is based on her posthumous intercession with God, her worldly status makes her an intercessory for church and society; an accessible deity.
Those now familiar with MacKillop's life story, conveyed in part to us through her prolific letter writing and journal entries, will know of her trials: her debilitating illness (she was often unable to get out of bed to go to mass), accusations of alcoholism (she took a tipple of brandy to ease her pain) and her temporary excommunication from the church in 1871 over a "constitutional dispute" (which may have had something to do with her outing of a sexually abusive priest).
At that time she wrote, "When I was asked to kneel before the Bishop, I felt lonely and bewildered ... I do not know how long I knelt there facing the Bishop and four priests with all my Sisters standing around. I knew they were there but saw no-one and I think I was trying to pray ... I shall never forget the sensation of the calm, beautiful presence of God."
Even for an atheist Prime Minister there is something to revere in MacKillop, with Julia Gillard calling her "a role model and a guide" in a column for The Sun-Herald, while feminists rightly champion her bold stance against the powers-that-be in the Vatican and her valiant desire to protect children.
But we can't reduce MacKillop's triumphs to human virtue, nor to uniquely Australian character: she would be the first to admit her whole existence was underpinned by her faith in God.
"I do indeed feel such a grateful love of God when He denies me my natural desires - even when they sometimes seem best, " she wrote. "I do so long to love God, and be grateful to Him when He denies me anything I expect."
MacKillop never claimed to be faultless but she saw that operating apart from God's will did her and others no favours. That's a challenge for us all. Of course, we're not all called to become nuns, but a life of service, of Christianity in action, and the comfort and joy of the presence of God in one's life, is not exclusive to religious types. It just comes at a cost.
Amidst the celebrations for our first saint, perhaps what is being lost is the narrative on which the whole Christian faith is based: of Jesus Christ's sacrificial intercession here on earth in atonement for our imperfections, and the fundamental requirement of Christians to love the Lord their God first and foremost (not a saint, not our children, not ourselves).
As a wise woman (a living saint in my eyes) preached at my church on Sunday, faith gives life goals, purpose and destination: "When we put our faith in the Lord Jesus, our lives change completely. But that is only the beginning of the journey... Faith isn't just for some special people, a few elite saints. It is for all of God's people."
Good readings on MacKillop:
The problem with having a vernacular saint by Scott Stephens
MacKillop inspires modern women by Miranda Devine
Girl With a Satchel