Monday, October 18, 2010

A national saint?

It's an interesting example of Australian parochialism, that our media virtually ignored the five other people canonised with Mary Mackillop in Rome over the weekend. Canada, for example, also received a new saint: Brother Andre Bessett. He is Canada's 11th saint, but the first Canadian born male saint. (As historian Robin McLachlan commented, 'the rise of so many Canadians to sainthood was assisted by some very helpful First Nations folk: 8 of the first 10 were martyrs and didn't require miracles for canonisation.')

Its also startling that the media coverage of MacKillop's life, legacy and canonisation has been so saturating. As a rough measure of the difference in quantity of response, Google searches on "Mary MacKillop" and "Andre Bessette" reveal ten times as many hits for Mary. Even discounting all the Mary MacKillop schools and similar, it is a remarkable difference.

A Canadian now living in Australia, Dr McLachlan speculates that 'there is a very wide and generous embracing of Mary MacKillop by the Australian people, when compared with the subdued Canadian response to Brother Andre. Perhaps the differing responses reflects the place of Mary and Alfred in the nationalism of their respective countries? Mary's story touches on some well established themes in the Australian national mythology, as in bush and battlers, while Alfred - by all accounts a very decent chap - has a story that sits squarely on the fracture line in Canadian nationalism, namely the divide between English and French speaking Canadians...'

McLachlan's suggestion reminds me of what our unbelieving* prime minister, Julia Gillard, said about Mackillop during the election campaign:
Mary MacKillop was a pioneering woman who embodied the very best of our values and the best of the Australian spirit. Hers was a life of devotion and sacrifice. But also a life of adventure, determination and resilience. This is a saint who rides horseback for days under the searing Australian sun, just to visit a few isolated Sisters, who has grit under her fingernails and sweat on her brow. Her life resounds with stories that are at once inspiring, challenging and sometimes even just a little amusing. In many ways, Mary MacKillop embodies the spirit of Australian egalitarianism.
Gilliard firmly located Mackillop in a nationalist tradition of pioneering the bush, sticking by your mates, valuing the fair go - a tradition which, by the way, typcially leaves little room for Christian faith. It will be interesting to see if, as the attention occassioned by the canonisation dies down, Mackillop endures as a national icon - and if so, how much her story will be made to fit exisiting narratives about national identity, or come to redefine it.

Pic: from the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart wesbite, via The Wild Reed.
* Gilliard usually describes herself as of no belief - but I have also her her characterised by others as a post- nonconformist, in recognition of her Welsh origins and sunday school education in the Baptist church.

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