Influence of St Mary MacKillop continues to inspire at conference
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Influence of St Mary MacKillop continues to inspire at conference

Monday 17 October 2011

By Margaret Allen

The conference St Mary MacKillop – Her influence on Catholic social services, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow – marked the first anniversary almost to the day of the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Australia’s first saint. Catholic Social Services Victoria hosted the conference in conjunction with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Melbourne, Australian Catholic University, MacKillop Family Services and the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

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Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO, opened the conference with his keynote address on the timely topic: “What Difference Does It Make To Catholic Social Services That Mary Is Now A Saint? ” He reflected on his experiences of being present in Rome at the canonisation and was very touched by the Aboriginal presence and their participation in the liturgy and acknowledged,  “ Mary MacKillop would have been well pleased.”  It emerged in the course of the conference that justice for Aboriginal people was a passion throughout Mary’s life and work.

Fr Frank Brennan highlighted the prayer which was said before the Mass of Mary’s canonisation: “God of all blessings, you revealed in Mary MacKillop a woman sensitive to the rights and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, race or creed. Help us to value each person. Help us to respect the different cultures, faiths and peoples. May we learn from Mary to overcome prejudice and fear. ”

At the end of his address, Fr Frank exhorted those present to “ stay hungry for justice; be happy to be invited to the Lord’s banquet. Stay foolish for love; give thanks for the wisdom and insight of the tradition offered through the church which occasionally canonises one of our own giving us grounded hope whatever the shortcomings of the Age and our leaders.” His lecture set the theme for the conference, raising many challenging questions and on Friday, when the conference resumed - leaders, teachers and contributors in Catholic social services were eager to engage more deeply with the life and work of Australia’s first saint and to explore her influence. The conference program flowed with a plethora of presentations, which were each in their own right: informative, moving, and full of richness. This was a forum where learning, inspiration and deep sharing about Mary MacKillop’s far-reaching influence found its voice and where her guiding spirit for the future was assured.

The acknowledgement of land and fire ceremony by Vicki Clark, Director, Aboriginal Catholic Mission, was most stirring and the guests listened with open hearts to the stories Vicki told about her ancestors and of both their struggles to overcome prejudice and of their resilience in seeking justice and equity. 

Sr Mary Davis rsj prepared both a beautiful opening and closing liturgy for the conference and all joined with her in praying to our generous God “to companion us wherever there is an edge of need.”  The prayerful opening reflection centred on the context of the conference - yesterday, today and tomorrow - and all the guests raised their voices singing this prayerful hymn:
Mary your voice calls
Down the years.
A message of hope it brings:
“Lead simple lives of service.
Depend on God in all things.”

Sr Katrina Brill rsj confirmed four significant points pertaining to Mary in her presentation,  “ Exploring St Mary MacKillop’s Priorities, Focus and Resilience,” which all present could relate to: Mary developed a personal empathy with people; Mary was resourceful and practical; Mary not only provided a ‘hand-out but a hand-up,’ and Mary was a large hearted woman. In short, Sr Katrina reminded all that Mary was very human; she was vulnerable and often showed “perseverance in the face of adversity.” Overall, Sr Katrina espoused that it was Mary’s deep “faith” in the love of God that Mary recognized as  “whispers in our hearts, ” which continually sustained her. 

Sr Joan Healy rsj painted a vivid picture of the Melbourne that Mary knew during the post Gold Rush era when the depression was rife and the adverse effects on impoverished families were dire, in her presentation entitled: “Mary MacKillop’s Melbourne – From Then ‘Til Now.” Mary knew what it was to grow up in and live in  “a community of care” and Sr Joan attested that such warm and extended Celtic hospitality assisted in sewing the seeds for Mary’s desire to do justice and that due to this graced upbringing, her consciousness of God was shaped by the people in her life. Sr Joan recognized that Mary had a vision similar to the CSSV, which pledges; “to stand with and serve the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised and work for a just, equitable and compassionate society.” Sr Joan posed the question: “How can the spirit of Mary be earthed in this time?” She emphasised that this invitation involves embracing an attitude of “not being fearful” and adopting a conviction of “letting go” to bring about change. Sr Joan reminded all gathered: “ As for Church leaders and Congregational leaders may they remain conscious of the precious tradition that they hold; the Gospel is radical. ”

Conference attendees had the opportunity to gather in response groups to discuss their thoughts and reflections following the morning talks. It was evident during the reporting back session, that Mary’s influence had shone a beaming light on the challenging work of those present. Above all, many took heart from being reminded about Mary’s own human story and from the realization that Mary’s fervent desire for “social justice” drove much of what Mary accomplished in her lifetime. It was acknowledged that this is not easy work but, that much encouragement could be inspired from the words of Mary, “in our unity, is our strength.”

Following lunch, conference attendees had the valued opportunity to attend workshops which were led by experts in the field and which examined how Mary’s heritage would guide or inspire work today in specific areas. There were five workshops in all: Fr Joe Caddy, CEO, CatholicCare, Melbourne: Seeking Out The Most Marginalised: Refugees, Prisoners; Melissa Brickell, Snaicc: Working in Partnership With Indigenous Australians; Jamie Davis, International Programs Manager, Caritas Australia: International Engagement – Moving Beyond Boundaries; Jenny Glare, Manager, MacKillop Family Services: Remembering our Heritage and Living with the Legacy: Our Ongoing Commitment to Forgotten Australians and Fr Max Vodola, Lecturer in Church History: The Implications of Australia’s First Saint: a Theological Perspective.

A panel session was the final focus of the conference which engaged and invited conference guests to listen to the very individual and moving stories which were related by each panel member. The discussion following left no doubt that both Mary MacKillop’s influence and the Josephite charism for social justice are a vibrant and a desired hope pulsating for the now as well as the future. Genevieve Exton, Jonathan Zarb, Alan Curtain, Julie Edwards and Paul Linossier each gave considered and tender voice to the spirit and inspiration of Mary in their own lives and work.

Filled with “a sense of optimism and celebration,” Patrice Scales, a director of CatholicCare Victoria Tasmania, summed up the conference by inviting all present to confidently: “go forward and be troublesome like Mary, as there is much work to be done.” She also emphasised the virtues which sustained Mary: “ faith, hope and courage.”

It was a fitting end to the conference to enjoy pre-dinner refreshments at the Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre, which was then followed by a relaxed dinner enjoyed by all. Michael McGirr, Head of Faith and Mission, St Kevin’s College, gave an engaging and entertaining speech which mirrored a constant and strong theme of the conference: “Mary MacKillop is not seen as a saint from afar.”

Margaret Allen was the CSSV conference organiser.

Conference papers and materials are available on the conference website: