On Saints and Sainthood

 
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With the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in October 2010, Australia has its first official saint—Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop. Catholics rejoice in the recognition, and there’s pride from many non-Catholic Australians that one of our own has received such recognition.

Her story is one of dogged determination to make a difference. And it was, at times, against great odds—including opposition from those within her Catholic Church. She was a pioneering woman with a passion to help the poor.

MacKillop, who died in 1909, co-founded a religious order, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (known affectionately as the “Brown Joeys” because of their brown habits), which now has about 850 nuns working in Australia and New Zealand; and Ireland, Peru, East Timor, Scotland and Brazil. And whatever your faith, hers is an inspirational story.

The oldest of eight children to Alexander and Flora MacKillop, immigrants from the Scottish Highlands, Mary Helen MacKillop was born in Melbourne in 1842. Mostly she was home-schooled by her father, but it was an interrupted schooling, as her family moved regularly—18 times in 15 years.

Her father came to Australia to seek his fortune but couldn’t hold down a job, so the family lived in poverty and were occasionally homeless. MacKillop wrote, ‘‘My life as a child was one of sorrows, my home, when I had it, a most unhappy one.’’

When she was aged 10, her father went back to Scotland. While he was gone, her family was forced out of their home and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Some 17 months later he was back, but he was no more dependable.

At the age of 14, she became the family breadwinner as a shop assistant, factory worker, teacher and governess. While working as a governess in Penola, South Australia, she came under the influence of the local parish priest, Julian Woods.

She’d already decided on a religious life and imagined settling into a cloistered order in Europe. Woods encouraged her to dream of founding a religious society dedicated to the health, welfare and education of the poor. It would be called The Institute of St Joseph.

Its beginnings were humble. The school began in a disused stable in Penola, in 1866. She was 25 and, joined by two of her sisters, they ran a school beginning with 33 students, an orphanage and a refuge for the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and people just out of prison or simply down on their luck. They lived on charity, with every penny they raised going to the school, orphanage and refuge.

Her work grew quickly within South Australia (70 Sisters working in 21 schools by 1869) and then beyond. As it grew, a tussle ensued, with bishops and priests attempting to bring the institute under their control. She refused to buckle under the pressure.

The response was dramatic. In 1871 she was excommunicated for defying authority. For five months she was unable to partake of the Catholic sacraments. During this time most of the Josephite schools and refuges closed, and the sisterhood all but disbanded.

Despite this, she wrote that she “was intensely happy, and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before.”

After the excommunication was rescinded, she took her cause to the Vatican—and won. She was permitted to develop the Josephites further. While there, the pope, Pius IX, referred to her as “the excommunicated one.”

the path to sainthood

In the beginning of Christianity, to gain the status of sainthood you had to be a martyr. After the fifth century you had to have died, but not necessarily from a martyr’s death.

By the twelfth century the number of saints declared was getting so out of hand the pope stepped in to take control. Any widely recognised saint had to go through a process that led to a papal pronouncement of sainthood. And there had to be evidence that the individual was responsible for at least two miracles.

According to the Bible, life beyond the grave does not exist (Ecclesiastes 9:5). But with the Catholic understanding that you can pray to saints and potential saints, a miracle after death is possible. However, there are stringent guidelines for confirmation of a miracle. Vatican doctors not only interview patients who make the claim of a miracle, but also medical staff who cared for them.

For MacKillop, the Vatican believes that two women—one in 1961 who was cured from leukaemia; the other more recently (1993) from inoperable brain and lung cancer—have been cured because of prayers to her.

the call to be everyday saints

Few gain recognition of sainthood like this. For Protestants, it isn’t part of their tradition. However the Bible calls all followers of Jesus to be “saints.” Everyday saints, if you like.

Saints? Some of the older translations of the Bible use the word in 1 Corinthians 1:2 where the apostle Paul uses the term to refer to the people in the church at Corinth. Newer translations use terms such as “sanctified ones” or “holy people.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul says he writes to the church of God in Corinth, “you who have been called by God to be his own holy people” (italics added).

Then there’s this startling comment: “He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2, NLT).

Any holiness we have is thus a gift from God. It’s found in relationship with Him, through Jesus. Listen, “God has united you with Christ Jesus. . . . [he] made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin” (1 Corinthians 1:30, NLT).

Those who are in Jesus are holy because of Him. In Him we are saints. Not because of what we have done, but what Jesus has done for us. His holiness makes us saints because in Jesus we’re accounted holy.

Of course, what we’re accounted with and the struggles we still have in our lives are two different things. This is why there are continual calls for growth in the Christian life and calls to obedience. “You must live as God’s obedient children,” writes the apostle Peter. He warns us not to slip back into our “old ways of living to satisfy your own desires” when we didn’t know any better. “You must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (1 Peter 1:14, 15, NLT).

Look around any church. Here are the saints—people of God in relationship with Him. They are His holy ones. These are flesh and blood, breathing, eating, sleeping and marrying people. They raise families, work, dream and plan for the future. They have successes and failures—in their daily life and in their Christian life.

Some saints will naturally have a high profile—the apostles Paul and Peter, for instance. They did great things for God, and we need to remember their deeds. However, most saints are those we never hear about—an unheralded part of the body of Christ doing their bit for God. Everyday saints. All Christians are called to be everyday saints.

be an everyday saint

Extend help wherever and whenever you can. It can be as simple as giving up your seat to an elderly person on a crowded bus.

  • Stand up for justice. Join the likes of Amnesty International and write letters in support of human rights and the powerless.
  • Volunteer your time with a charity.
  • Dispense mercy when you can, and seek it on behalf of others.
  • Spend time with God every day to reflect and listen.

flawed saints

We can be encouraged when we look at the list of those commended for their faith in Hebrews chapter 11. These saints are flawed saints.

Noah built the ark for God. Yet the final scene in Noah’s story finds him ashamedly drunk. Abraham is commended for his faith, for believing that God will provide a son. Yet Abraham attempted to provide a son for himself. Moses believed he was to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Yet he murdered a man and fled the scene.

This is not to belittle these stalwarts, but to realise that God’s saints aren’t people without problems in their lives. These are people able to do great things for God despite themselves, despite their flaws.

We who do less heroic deeds for God are similar. When Paul writes to the church at Corinth he may call them saints (“holy people”), yet his letter condemns strongly what is happening in their church. They have issues they need to deal with.

While there is a case for picking ourselves up, with Jesus there’s an understanding that humanity is fallen in such a way that we can never really make it by ourselves. Our salvation and any holiness we have, is completely and totally found in Him, and only in Him.

Of course, there are changes in a person’s life when they follow God, for obedience and Christian growth is a part of the Christian development. There are powerful stories of people who have overcome through the power of God. But whatever our experience we never get to the point where we don’t need a Saviour.

The Christian life has been described as a “constant battle and a march,” with no rest from the “warfare.” Real saints know this reality.

The saints of Hebrews chapter 11 had their weaknesses, but note their major strength: They heard the call of God and acted upon it.

Abraham: called to leave his homeland to live like a gypsy for God, to enter a strange land, to become the father of a new nation—God’s nation.

Joseph: a loved son and a despised brother taken to a pagan land where his firmness to God and principles made him a ruler and saviour of his people—of God’s people.

Moses: reluctant leader of the Exodus: reluctant, but fearless with God. Exasperated beyond measure by those he led, but willing to give his life for his people—for God’s people.

God gives the call. God equips His saints. They take up the challenge. A consistent, daily walk with God is what makes saints—and indicates that the individual is in a relationship with God. This is what makes an everyday saint.

Let’s rejoice with those who celebrate the elevation of Mary MacKillop to sainthood. But let’s also take up the deeper and personal challenge to be one of God’s true, everyday saints.


Information for Mary MacKillop’s life is taken from various sources, the main source and source of quotes was Terry Smith’s, “Injustice brought the fiery Scot out in Mary,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 20, 2009. Scripture quotations marked NLT taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

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Bruce Manners is pastor of College Church on the Avondale College campus in Cooranbong (south of Newcastle), NSW, Australia. A former editor of Signs of the Times, he has been published in a variety of (mainly) Christian magazines.