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