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Binoy Kampmark: The Canonisation of Mary MacKillop

Saint Watching in Australia: The Canonisation of Mary MacKillop

The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.
David Hume, ‘Of Miracles’, Essays

In an age where threats of religious fundamentalism and the battle against archaic laws continues, we find, yet again, the Catholic Church in arrears. Feverish talk about ‘barbaric’ Islam takes place in a world parallel to rituals that still hold to the existence of miracles. Then again, no one can accuse this religious circus of being anything but entertaining. Far better than Protestantism, perhaps, which revealed, as H. L. Mencken suggested, that God is a bore.

The Catholic Church, the world’s first highly structured global corporation, specialises in providing dividends to its stock holders in the form of saints. Saints are like shares, and duly rise or fall in popularity depending on the fancy of the spiritual flock at any given moment. But it is always good to replenish the stocks of shares from time to time. The investors, be there small or large, must be kept interested. Superstition must be regulated by central authority. The saint market must be carefully controlled. Credentials are examined in terms of the number of miracles required, though the enthusiasm to recognise saints has never been greater. Guidelines for admission are being policed with less zeal. As Hilary Mantel noted for the Guardian in 2004, ‘Saints are fast-tracked to the top, and there are beatifications by the bucket load.’

The canonisation of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint, brings the miracle market ‘down under’ after the process began 85 years ago. Press descriptions are dramatic. ‘Some openly wept as they knelt at the grave, whispering messages or clutching rosary beads’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Oct 17). Her ‘presence’ is being felt by such individuals as Benjamin Penollar, 72, a leukaemia sufferer who believes that the saint has kept him alive. The small town of Penola in South Australia’s south-east has become a point for eager pilgrims. (Australians won’t have to travel as far a field for their hit of saintly essence.) Six thousand have gathered for canonisation festivities as this goes to press.

Others saints have also figured in the canonisation process. East Timor and Peru will also be rolling out the festivities. It all seems like the qualification process of a high flying sporting tournament. (‘And the winner is…’) The Australian press coverage of the other saints is, however, sketchy. Saints, like grief, tend to be parochial expressions of human sentiment. Worshippers and those in the press are watching the services as they unfold with a mixture of fixation and fanaticism. The website dedicated to the saint features a countdown – a timer to canonisation.

All of this seems naff in a country that prides itself as a pagan outpost on the world’s periphery. Imposing authority on such dissolute peoples might seem to be a flawed cause, though the Catholic Church has been rather formidable in maintaining its hold. The Catholic strain that took hold in Australian soil has proven very rigid, a product of the austere Irish line that repudiates its sensuous Italian equivalent or the syncretism of South American versions. It mixes oppressiveness with a degree of childishness. The childish, being vulnerable, have a habit of approaching the altar for consolation.

Catholics and those keen to get on the antique saint road show will not be too worried. The Mary MacKillop website makes it clear that saints already exist – they simply need to be confirmed. ‘The Church does not make a saint – it recognises a saint.’ Besides, Penola is located in fabulous wine country. And when the saints start marching, the money starts rolling.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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