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Speaking truth to power - 2020 Mary MacKillop oration delivered by Ursula Stephens

“Now is the time for each of us to ask ourselves – do I have Mary McKillop’s courage and conviction to speak truth to power? What does speaking truth to power really mean, and why does it matter?” Ursula Stephens, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services Australia posed these questions to around 180 guests last week at a national conference dinner for Catholic social services.

Ms Stephens delivered the Mary MacKillop Oration at the 2020 national Catholic social services conference dinner – Serving Communities with Courage and Compassion, held in Melbourne from 26-28 February. Titled ‘Mary MacKillop; the authenticity of speaking truth to power’, the oration provided much opportunity to reflect upon Mary MacKillop’s courage, faith and strength in serving both the oppressed, and the oppressors.  

“There is an ancient Greek word for someone who speaks truth to power —parrhesiastes. Mary McKillop provides an excellent example of a parrhesiastes,” stated Ms Stephens.

“Speaking truth to power is dangerous and usually has consequences for the speaker. Such danger didn’t stop Mary McKillop – throughout her life she recognised truth-telling as a duty. What can we learn from her courage and determination? How can we too have the courage to speak truth to power and accept the consequences?” 

I would like to outline the lessons I think I’ve learnt from Mary McKillop. I was very privileged to be in Rome for her canonisation, and that grace-filled, wonderful experience of witnessing the ceremony, then meeting Pope Benedict and him thanking me personally for my faith was life changing.” 

As explained by Ms Stephens, the first lesson is to hold on to your faith. “Faith in God’s will and his love for us is what empowered Mary MacKillop. It gave her, as it can give us, the ability to lift our eyes above the drab landscape of what is, and imagine what could be. Her faith was constant at the beginning and the end of her life’s journey, as it should be for all of us.

“Faith inhabits her every step along the way – it enabled her, as it enables us to keep going, keep hoping, keep believing and keep trying. Faith matters because not only is it your sustenance in hard times – as we know for Mary MacKillop – but it is also your compass. Faith is the ability to perceive what can’t be seen – yet. 

“As organisations, if we were without faith - what would make us any different to any other organisation? Without the principles of Catholic Social Teaching underpinning our very existence, many of us might never do anything of consequence, because we’d lack any reason to dare the uncertainty that always comes when we seek change from the way things have always been.” 

The second lesson from Mary MacKillop’s life, explained Ms Stephens, is the “importance of choosing your own course”. “To walk the path of your own choosing, you must be certain, as Mary was, deep within yourself, that it’s the path you have truly chosen to walk. Along the way there will be many distractions, many voices trying to divert you, many fingers that point in accusation, trying to move you onto a different path. 

“Mary’s McKillop’s third lesson for us is to rise above the limitations of others. Her experience was of others constantly trying to place limitations on her. This is just as much an inevitability for us today – we operate in an environment where guidelines, standards, regulations, rules and practices abound – in public administration, in church practices, in society. We need to respect authority and trust in institutional arrangements, but not to be blind to the interests being served by them.”

Ms Stephens outlined the other lessons: “we must persist against opposition; we must speak up for justice; insist on integrity; and understand your own power and how to use it.”  She said, “Many of the rights and opportunities we take completely for granted were first championed by trailblazers like Mary MacKillop. Her example provides us with a sense of urgency and commitment to do the same. So many of the issues resonate as strongly now as they did then.

“Speaking truth to power is about having a willingness to tell the truth no matter what. We know, don’t we, that telling the truth can make you very unpopular. Mary knew, however, that popularity is not the main thing: integrity is. It is Mary McKillop’s courage and strength, key themes of this conference, that brings us back to the concept of parrhesia.

In closing, Ms Stephens challenged all in the room: “So now is the time for each of us to ask ourselves – do I have Mary MacKillop’s courage and conviction to speak truth to power? To persist and confront those who hold important positions, whether in government, business or religious institutions; to demand a moral response to a problem; to endure criticism of the institutional church and hold on to the truth that is our faith in action.”

Following the oration, congregational leader of the Sisters of St Joseph, Sr Monica Cavanagh provided some closing remarks and reflections.

The full oration will be available in the upcoming conference book. This book will be launched in late 2020 and will contain key materials from the conference, with each lecture, panel discussion, forum or workshop from Serving Our Communities with Courage and Compassion developed into a stand-alone chapter. There will be a number of launches throughout Australia. More information will be provided on the Catholic Social Services Victoria website and to conference participants when available.

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