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James Martin, S.J.July 09, 2009

Yes, you read that headline correctly. 

Mother Mary McKillop, the foundress of the Australian-based Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, was, in 1871, officially excommunicated by her local bishop, on the grounds that she "'she had incited the sisters to disobedience and defiance."  That same church leader, Bishop Sheil, had earlier invited her to work in Adelaide, where she and her sisters would eventually set up schools, a women's shelter and an orphanage, among their many works.  But McKillop's independent spirit was a threat to Bishop Sheil, who had her booted out of the church.  Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke with Pope Benedict XVI about McKillop's possible canonization, in a conversation reported in the Brisbane Times here.  Just last year, the pope visited McKillop's tomb in Sydney during his visit to Australia for World Youth Day.  Prime Minister Rudd said that the visit "left a deep impression on the Holy Father." 

In April of this year, in an extraordinary gesture, Bishop's Sheil's successor, the current archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, made a public apology to the Sisters for their foundress's excommunication.  Standing before her statue, said that he was "profoundly ashamed of the Bishop's actions in driving the Sisters out onto the streets."  McKillop was beatified (the next-to-last step for canonization) by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

The idea of a holy woman who had been at loggerheads with the hierarchy--and was even excommunicated--is not new in the annals of the saints.  The most recently named American saint, Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, was once locked into a room in a rectory by her bishop, who was infuriated by her (similarly) independent spirit.   Around the time of her canonization in 2006, I recounted her story in an op-ed piece in The New York Times here, called "Saints That Weren't."  (Their title, not mine.) 

It was a tough article for some Catholics to read, and I got letters by the dozens (literally).  Half of them praised me for reminding Catholics that being in trouble with the church hierarchy is no barrier for holiness; and the other half expressed fury (again, literally) that I was suggesting that being in conflict with the church was a requirement for holiness.  (I was arguing only the former--and from history.) 

The canonization of trouble-makers shows that the Vatican typically has a clearer understanding of holiness than do some contemporary Catholics, who sometimes conflate holiness with being unthinking, uncritical or blindly obedient.  But popes have often canonized saints who were held in contempt by some church leaders of their time.  Here, for example, is part of the hair-raising tale of Mother Guerin's run-in with Bishop de la Hailandiere:

"At the time, the idea of an independent woman deciding where and when to open schools offended Célestine de la Hailandière, the Catholic bishop of Vincennes, Ind. In 1844, when Mother Guérin was away from her convent raising money, the bishop ordered her congregation to elect a new superior, in a bid to eject her from the very order of nuns that she had founded.  The independent-minded sisters simply re-elected Mother Guérin. Infuriated, Bishop Hailandière told the future saint that she was forbidden from setting foot in her own convent, since he, the bishop, considered himself its sole proprietor.  Three years later, Bishop Hailandière demanded that Mother Guérin resign. When she refused, the bishop told her congregation that she was no longer superior, that she was ordered to leave Indiana, and that she was forbidden from communicating with her sisters. Her sisters replied that they were not willing to obey a dictator. The situation worsened until, just a few weeks later, Bishop Hailandière was suddenly replaced by the Vatican. From then on, the Sisters of Providence flourished. Today its 465 members work in 10 states, the District of Columbia, China and Taiwan."

Musty stories of dead nuns?  Not so fast.  These stories have profound implications not simply for Catholics in general, but perhaps for those American religious women who are the current focus of the Vatican's investigation--an Apostolic Visitation that is to examine their "quality of life."  Some of these sisters, and perhaps even a few congregations, may one day find themselves on the receiving end of some criticism, when the final report is released in a few months, or years.  They may take heart in the story of Blessed Mary McKillop and St. Theodore Guerin. 

And others.  Even some of the most universally beloved saints have sometimes found themselves in conflict with the church: St. Joan of Arc, the patroness of France, was burned at the stake as a heretic by church authorities; St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, was locked in jail for a time by the Inquisition; and St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes, was initially rejected by her local pastor, who refused to believe in her reports of visions.   On a somewhat less exalted level, think of modern-day theologians like John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, who were either officially silenced or restricted in their teaching and writing, and then later "rehabilitated," and in the case of Congar and de Lubac named cardinals.  (Robert McClory has an eye-opening book on the topic called Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church.)

Mother McKillop was beatified in 1995.  From the sounds of Prime Minister's Rudd's comments, and the implied message of the pope's visit to her tomb, she will soon become a saint--perhaps the patron saint of troublemakers.

James Martin, SJ


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14 years 11 months ago
Thanks, Fr Martin, for an excellent article.  If I had just known, for example, about Teresa Maxis's confrontations with Church Authority well over 150 years ago, I would have held my head higher as I tried to tell pastors of the past 60 years that the Church wasn't exactly following the lead of Jesus. I told them and a few hundred others, but never felt backed up by Catholics near and dear to me.  Truth to tell, I'm oh so proud of our predessors who questioned, who tried to get many truths clarified. Those wonderful sisters may not have been challenging anything the Church said openly; however, they were speaking with strength and wisdom,  something people, even today, don't think women possess.
14 years 11 months ago
I did not find the New York Times article tough at all. It is certainly true that Mother Guerin and Mother MacKillop came into conflict with their respective bishops. But neither publicly, or privately, challenged Church teaching. They would not be saints if they had. Saintliness always includes love of the Church and her teachings.
14 years 11 months ago
Interesting article.  But, Father, please do not lead us to conflate the holiness of blind obedience with being unthinking or uncritical.  To use one of your own examples, I always believed that one of the pilars of the spirituality of St. Ignatius (and that of the Compania de Jesus in general) was an uncompromising obedience to the Church (through the Pope), which is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ.  It is His Church.  Wouldn't we have a better understanding of the point you are trying to make in this article if we had the complete picture as to why St. Ignatius was jailed on different ocassions (at least once by the same Dominicans who gave us St. Thomas Aquinas no less) and what he did in return?  St. Ignatius was jailed because he was evangelizing while he was not yet qualified as a Theologian.  Did he criticize the Church?  No.  Rather, his holy obdience led him to become finally become qualified as a Theologian.  We would not have the Jesuits if St. Ignatius was merely a thinking and a critical person without his holy obedience.
14 years 11 months ago

Dear Dan,
That is true, but Catholic thinking includes the idea of the bishop's exercise of authority as a form of "teaching."  Either way, these saints found themselves in conflict with the local authority of the church.  That is indisputable.
Dear Mr. Lakeonovich,
Actually, as I made clear above, that's precisely what I was not stating!  But clearly, to repeat again, even those who were trying to be obedient to the church found themselves at times in conflict with church leaders.  Surely we can agree on that.

James Martin, SJ

14 years 11 months ago
A very fine article, Father Jim. Thank you for your insightful writing about the many Catholic sisters and nuns who have given their lives to the Gospel and our Catholic faith. Like you, I also thought about Mother Mary McKillop and Saint Theodore Guerin in the context of the Apostolic Visitation which I addressed a bit on A Nun's Life blog today.
14 years 11 months ago
Fr. Martin:
A very good article. Thank you. While these sisters were often belittled by their bishops, they nonetheless remained faithful to the Magesterium of the Church. In no way, did they seek to change church teachings. They did not advocate ''moving beyond Jesus and the Church.'' They did not advocate changing the church's teaching on the priesthood or on human sexuality. They were faithful daughters of the church who ran into difficult bishops.
Many who challenge the bishops today are not faithful to the church's magesterium. Many reject what we believe.
That is the difference between then and now.
14 years 11 months ago
To be clear, Bishop Hailandière had already offered to resign before the word came from Rome about his successor.  Hailandière gets somewhat of a bad rap, but he was certainly a very difficult man to deal with.  Fr. Sorin had the same problems the Mother Theodore did, although not to the extent that she did.
At the same time, Hailandière's predecessor, Servant of God Simon Brutè was at least partially satisfied with the idea of Hailandière being his successor, although Brutè wanted a Jesuit and the Society would not release his choice (Nicholas Petit SJ).
The Sisters of Providence probably believed at one time that their foundress would never be canonized because of Mother Theodore's "resistance" to Hailandière's domination.
14 years 11 months ago
We are not surprised by these events, for afterall, WWJD.
14 years 11 months ago
Bad popes, bad bishops, bad priests, bad laymen and women are nothing new in the history of the Church.  The saints always distinguished between the underlying sacramental nature of the Church, on the one hand, and her members, on the other.    
14 years 11 months ago
Wonderful article! Thanks for a clear view of these pioneer women who shaped the Catholic school and health system in the US. Similarly maligned was Almaide Duchemin, known in religion as Sister Theresa Maxis, a founding member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence(1829- first Religious community of women of color in the US) and the co-foundress, with a Redemptorist priest,  of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (1845).  Unfortunately, Theresa, a forward-thinking prayerful woman, was also hindered by some bishops from her ministry by her color. Her story is another testament to the enduring grace of God!  The Church is composed of many humans, and despite the humanness of these bishops, God continued ( and does today!) work through these great women!  I am happy to see that these women, who were inspired by the Spirit to serve God and God's people, are receiving the credit they deserve.

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