Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A "Catholic Moment" in Brisbane

Fr. Peter Kennedy on the steps of St. Mary’s Catholic Church
in South Brisbane.

The following story from Clerical Whispers about St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Brisbane, Australia, reminds me somewhat of the journey of my own faith community back in Minneapolis, the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community, as well as the various so-called “underground churches” and Intentional Eucharist Communities that are springing up throughout Catholicism - from the Netherlands to Rochester, New York.

My one concern (and the significant difference between the situation in Brisbane and that in Minneapolis) is that the events at St. Mary’s seem to be driven by one individual - Fr. Peter Kennedy. Perhaps it’s the media coverage, but it does seem almost like a cult of personality exists around this one individual. Clearly, the community is behind him, but I wonder how much of an input community members have in decision-making and in charting future possibilities and plans for the parish? Is it only ever Fr. Kennedy who publicly speaks for the community (and who alone is photographed on the steps of the church)?

All of which begs the question: what is the theology of priesthood at St. Mary’s? Does the priest remain “head-honcho” (in the words of former Archbishop Harry Flynn of the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese)? Is Fr. Kennedy the final decision-maker despite the progressive developments in other areas of community life at St. Mary’s, e.g., lay preaching, blessing of same-sex unions, etc.? Is there an understanding and embodiment of the “priesthood of the people,” which is a major feature of the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community in Minneapolis?

Since I’m currently in Australia, perhaps I’ll attempt to contact some folks at St. Mary’s for answers to these questions!

One final point: the development within Catholicism that is being embodied by communities like St. Mary’s, reminds me of part of the homily I shared with the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community last October:

[We at the Spirit of St. Stephen’s are Catholics who are] repelled by the idea of living in any type of ghetto. Instead, we are drawn to an authentically catholic Church open to the Spirit; a Church unafraid of journeying, of engagement, of growth and of change. My sense is that the birthing and rising of such a Church is happening right here in this place and in places all across the globe. We’re not “drifting away,” but very intentionally creating Eucharistic communities in the spirit of Jesus and at the growing edge of our tradition.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should concern ourselves too much with questions of who’s in and who’s out of “the Church,” but rather with seeking to discover where “church” is happening; where, in other words, are people being affirmed in their lives of integrity and love; where are people being challenged to be agents of positive transformation in our world; where are they being nourished and renewed by the presence of Christ within and among them. I believe this community is one such place where church is happening.

And I cannot help but think of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s observation that the more the hierarchy stagnates and retreats, the more numerous and freewheeling are the creative initiatives that are springing up at the grassroots.

It’s good to see that “the grassroots” are growing strong in Australia too! And along with fellow blogger Colleen Kochivar-Bakeris, I consider the unfolding events at St. Mary’s in Brisbane and St. Stephen’s in Minneapolis to be “the vanguard of a coming change for Catholicism,” and that collectively these developments represent a significant “Catholic moment.”


St. Mary’s Priest Will Take His Flock With Him
Clerical Whispers
January 10, 2009

Maverick priest Father Peter Kennedy says he will lead a breakaway congregation if Brisbane’s [Roman] Catholic Archbishop forces him to leave St Mary's Church.

There are fears that exclusion from the historic South Brisbane property will be the final act in a long-running dispute that has reached the Vatican.

The dispute has attracted national and international attention because it represents the battle between conservative and less traditional forces within the [Roman] Catholic Church.

There are more Roman Catholics in Australia than any other religious group. Each week, St. Mary’s attracts large congregations while many more orthodox Catholic parishes struggle to fill pews.

In a rare and exclusive interview, Father Kennedy said he was determined to carry on.

“The reality is that, if we are excluded from this church, the Trades and Labor Council have already offered us their place just down the road,” he said.

“I will continue. Our community will continue down there. We get 800 to 900 people coming every week. It’s a vibrant, alive mass with people from all over the city.”

St Mary’s is known for its unconventional Catholic practices - allowing women to preach, blessing homosexual couples and recognising with ritual the traditional sovereignty of the indigenous people of the area.

The latest round in the battle was sparked by a complaint direct to the Vatican in August from an aggrieved church-goer.

Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby [pictured at right] accused the parish of operating outside the accepted practices of the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged Father Kennedy to fall in line or face closure.

The parishioners responded to the accusations but – in a follow-up letter to Father Kennedy, dated December 22 – Archbishop Bathersby said: “St Mary’s has not yet adequately given proof of its communion with the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Archbishop is expected to make a definitive statement on the fate of the parish later this month. With D-day fast approaching, Father Kennedy [pictured at left] is preparing for the worst.

“We don’t know what the Archbishop will do,” he said.

“But he’s not very hopeful. He did say he would set in train a formal process. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he will throw us out of here.

“Most of the people who come here are what we call ‘recovering Catholics’.

“They've left their traditional parishes. If St Mary’s closes down, they won’t go back.”

Father Kennedy said that at the end of the World War II, 50 per cent of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday, but “now, in this particular diocese, 13 per cent go to Mass every Sunday.”

“If the church doesn't come to terms with the fact that the church has to operate within a liberal democracy, while it continues to act like a monarchy where all power is invested in the leadership of the Pope, then there’s no hope, we’ll be down to 3 per cent.”

Asked what Jesus Christ would make of the controversy, Father Kennedy replied: “Well, Jesus always stood with the poor, the broken and the oppressed. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. And he certainly wasn’t a Catholic and he didn’t start the Catholic Church. He didn’t start any church.

“Jesus railed against the religious authority of his day, the people who liked to be in the important places, with status and power and all that.”

Father Kennedy described the Catholic church as being “caught in doctrine and dogma still.”

”I understand where the Archbishop is coming from,” he said. “We have a different concept of ‘church.’ Nevertheless, because he does what Rome says should be done, he expects me to do what he says should be done. I can’t do that because I would be doing violence to my conscience; to my understanding of what the church is about.”

Father Kennedy said leadership selection in the Catholic Church was “a very incestuous process and it starts from Rome,” adding it would never change “until the people regain the right to elect their bishops.”

Brisbane’s indigenous community has rallied behind St Mary’s.

For almost 30 years the church has been a refuge for South Brisbane’s homeless, excluded and underprivileged, particularly through the work of Micah, a social justice group that works in collaboration with the St Mary’s Catholic Community.

“This community has been a place where indigenous people could come and feel safe,” Father Kennedy said.

Recommended Off-site Links:
St. Mary’s Community South Brisbane
Church’s Progression at Crossroads - Courier Mail (January 11, 2009).
Parish Rejects Church Practices are “Improper” - ABC News (August 25, 2008).
The Progressive Catholic Voice’s video documentary, The Spirit of St. Stephen’s: Celebrating the Past and Envisioning the Future of a Catholic Community in Transition: Introduction and Part 1: The Early Years.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
Dispatches from the Periphery
The “Underground Church”
A New Expression of Catholicism
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome
The Declaration of Utrecht

Image 1: Photographer unknown.
Image 2:
St. Mary’s Community South Brisbane.
Image 3: David Hunt.
Image 4: Steve Pohlner.

Image 5: Bandido of Oz.


Anonymous said...

Whenever I see signs or comments like "everyone, without exception is welcome" it makes me wonder. What is a priest shows up wearing a roman collar and preaching the love of Jesus Christ.

How many of these supposed welcoming people will shun him?

My personal experience is that such communities always feed on ego- whether it is the ego of a strong priest or some other leader or group of leaders.

Such individuals rarely have the interest of the broader church in mind. Instead, they cater to one group or another who they suppose are excluded.

Finding a particular group, calling them victims and encouraging their outrage will never achieve any result beyond ghettoizing and developing ratehr exclusive pocket churches like this one and yours back in Minneapolis.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael

I think the concern about Peter Kennedy being at the centre of the controversy in Brisbane is largely created by the way the media are choosing to report the story. There was a really good report about the developing issues between St Mary's and the Archbishop on ABC's Religion report. This included lots of different voices. Those interested can read (probably in this order):


Michael J. Bayly said...

Colin, thanks for those links. They're much appreciated.

Denis, thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective.

I think you raise some valid concerns and questions.

I'm sorry your experience of places like St. Mary's and the Spirit of St. Stephen's was so negative. I guess you now know how many of the folks at places like these feel when at more "traditional" parishes, which, believe me, can be just as "feed on ego" and dominated by "a strong priest or some other leader or group of leaders."

I wonder if it's possible to have a single style of worship/community that caters for all? Is it even something we should be aiming for?

Is it not possible to have unity in diversity? Why can't the Catholic (universal) Church be big enough for a St. Mary's and a parish that someone like yourself, Denis, feels welcome and valued in? Wouldn't such a range be healthy and reflective of the universal church, of the diversity that's out there? I would imagine the Christian fundamentals of compassion and justice-making would be evident in all these different parishes. Isn't that what it's all about?

Can't we agree that we're still working through certain issues, like women's ordination and homosexuality? And that we should trust the Spirit, present throughout the Church, to guide us as together we seek to discern the presence of God in the lives and relationships of all?

If you're going to accuse communities like St. Mary's of "going it alone" with regard to such matters, the same accusation could be leveled at the Vatican. After all, it fails to consult the collective experience and wisdom of the faithful when it comes to issues of gender and sexual orientation.

Also, I don't think the problem is a lack of concern about the broader church, but rather how "church" - locally and beyond is understood. It seems to me that for many so-called traditionalists, the "broader church" is comprised simply of the Vatican, whereas for the folks at places like St. Mary's, the church is wherever the Good News of Jesus is being embodied and lived (see the quote from my homily in the original post).

Finally, I'd like to share with you the following from a previous Wild Reed post about the research of Kathleen Kautzer on communities like St. Mary's - communities that she calls "underground churches." In this particular excerpt, Kautzer looks at the disadvantages and advantages of such communities.

Kautzer acknowledges that the underground church communities are labeled “schismatic” by the Vatican. Others dismiss the movement as being like a modern-day Protestant Reformation. “It is in a way,” says Kautzer, “but the difference is that people aren’t creating new denominations. They’re saying, We are Catholic, but we’re just going to do it without Vatican approval.”

There are, of course, some potential pitfalls – including the ongoing struggle for funding and membership, and the potential for cult-like and/or unqualified leadership. However, it’s not as if qualified leadership is guaranteed by reliance on the Vatican, notes Kautzer. In addition, the Vatican itself encourages cult-like organizations, for example, Opus Dei. Many of these organizations, says Kautzer, are documented in Gordon Urquhart’s book,
The Pope’s Armada: Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious and Powerful New Sects in the Church.

Advantages of the underground church include not being restricted by Vatican pronouncements – many of which reflect a narrow and impoverished theology, especially around issues of gender and sexuality. As a result, the underground church, says Kautzer, “challenges dualistic categories that separate laity/clergy, men/women, celibate/married, the sacred and the profane, thereby embodying the notion of the priesthood of all believers and the sacred dimension of reality.”



Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
While many of your points seem valid. My experience, at St Stephen's specifically but also at similar places throughout the nation is that there is a certain pride in being different.

There is also an unfortunate distrust of outsiders which makes basic Christian hospitality (welcoming the stranger) almost non existent.

You make a valid point that diversity of worship- from one congregation to the next- should be valued. And the current situation in this Archdiocese will likely be less tolerant of such variety than ever before.

Christ challenges each of us to "die to self." Communities that fail to challenge their members to do that- whereever they fall on the theological spectrum- will, and probably should, ultimately fail.

Anonymous said...

"Is it not possible to have unity in diversity?" I think it is, as long as there is some kind of doctrinal integrity. Something which I rarely see addressed here is the question of doctrine. Just what does it mean to be Catholic? Is there a doctrinal threshhold that one needs to meet, in order to be Catholic? It seems to me that there is so much doctrinal "fuzziness" among so many of the people that are frequently touted here, like Garry Wills. We're quick to dismiss and criticize what we don't like in the Catholic Church, but rarely state what we do believe in, as far as doctrine goes. Are you still a Catholic if you don't believe in Transubstantiation, papal infallibility, or the Marian dogmas? Are Lutherans Catholic? Episcopalians? It seems to me that anyone can hang up a shingle and label it Catholic....but is it???

Carmel Glover said...

Questions were raised about how 'welcoming' the St Mary's community actually is. Denis said:

"Whenever I see signs or comments like "everyone, without exception is welcome" it makes me wonder. What is a priest shows up wearing a roman collar and preaching the love of Jesus Christ.

How many of these supposed welcoming people will shun him?"

(Denis uses sweeping generalisations ... I wonder how many such communities he has actually visited.)

None, would be my answer. The St Mary's community (mostly middle class conservatively dressing people - of ALL ages, where professionals mix with street people) can handle drunks shouting obscenities without batting an eyelid (on one such occasion I saw a member of the congregation get up, put her arm around the drunk, and escort him to a seat near her), so a priest in a roman collar would present no problem. Of course, they might find it unusual, because it's not too easy these days to find priests in Brisbane who wear Roman collars.

The other issue was whether there is a Peter Kennedy cult. There certainly isn't (though the Archbishop and the media have done their utmost to create one). Peter is a very private, reserved man who does his best to fade into the background. Ironically, his very attempt to merge with the rest of the congregation has resulted in his emergence as a charismatic leader. I remember a poem, or song, from childhood which spoke of "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild". That's Peter, until (like Jesus himself) there is just cause for anger (viz. Jesus driving the traders from the temple). The media has focussed on Peter Kennedy because he is an excellent spokesperson - calm, unruffled, anything but egotistical, and because "rebel priest" has more draw than "rebel community". Unlike the Pope, Peter never has a 'final veto' on anything. The thing that has angered Peter most, and resulted in his remaining as leader (instead of retiring as he originally intended) is that Archbishop Bathersby, who has never set foot in St Mary's, refused to communicate with the community, but only with him.

A little about me: I am not a 'regular' at St Mary's. I have attended maybe 4 or 5 times a year over the past 20 years. It has 'spoiled' me for other churches, which seem shallow and sterile by comparison (at least those I have experienced). The liturgies are meaningful, the music splendid, the homilies pertinent to the message of the gospel and relevant to the lives of modern people, the atmosphere palpably loving. Numerous people I've spoken to have said that it is the most 'Christian' environment they have encountered. It is the epitome of what Vatican II aimed for. I lived in Rome shortly after the Council, and knew many Australian seminarians studying at Propaganda Fide (most of whom left before taking their vows, so scandalised were they by what they encountered in the Vatican). We were so hopeful of the promise of Vatican II ... only in St Mary's have I seen that promise realised.

So of course it must be crushed.

People who hanker after the old conservative, dogmatic form of Catholicism, of course would see things differently. But which do you think Christ would prefer if he were to return in person ... a place where his simple commandment to love God and love one another is observed fully, with little concern for doctrinal 'correctness', or the Archbishop's mansion where the rules are followed?

I support your suggestion that the church should be big enough to cater for a diversity of approaches. Alas, this is something the hierarchy strongly resists.

Perhaps the stand taken by the people of St Mary's (and, it would seem, St Stephen's) will encourage others to do the same, and one day maybe Christians will take back their church from the grasp of a hierarchy interested only in power and conformity.

A week ago, after the final directive by the Archbishop that Peter Kennedy must leave St Mary's, I decided that I no longer wanted to be called a Catholic. I will, however, be proud to become a member of St Mary's in Exile, and I intend to take a much more active part than I did at St Mary's.

These are interesting times.



Anonymous said...

Good on you Carmel. You make some great points. In a nutshell, Father Peter is being outsed because there are a lot of neanderthal Catholics out there who still think homosexuality etc is wrong, that ordination is a 'man's job', who believe in hierarchy etc etc. It's about time the Catholic church got with the times and stopped hypocritically preaching 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' when clearly anyone who falls outside of what is deemed acceptable is shunned, and in this case, outsed.

Why has the archbishop not bothered to speak to the community? Is the priest the only one worthy of dialogue as he's part of the Catholic hierarchy?

The Catholic church has good intentions but needs to move into the modern era. Such stupidity like "that condoms do not stop the spread of AIDS" should be unacceptable - particularly from 'the next closest person to God himself' - aka, the pope.

Good on Father Peter for what he's been doing. The people who want him out are most likely brainwashed conservatives, afraid of anyone who challenges the status quo. I mean, heaven forbid a church who welcomes drunks, prostitutes, gays, women performing blessings etc! We wouldn't want that in a good conservative Catholic church now would we??

Also, in reference to a previous comment about encouraging 'a particular group's outrage' - well wouldn't any church group whose respected leader was about to uprooted be 'outraged'? What if somebody decided to shun a priest in a church for being too neanderthal in mentality, too bowing to the status quo, and too hypocritically 'tolerant' and the community liked him? Would they not have a right to be outraged? Then again, perhaps they should just swallow the decision 'in the name of the church' and its neanderthal rules.

A bit about me - I was raised as a Catholic but due to all the BS in the church aka hierarchical structure and backwardness (ie the pope's comment mentioned above) I'm certainly no longer one. Christian values and wonderful but there is a lot that's wrong in the CAtholic church. If I were going to attend a church service, however, it'd only be one like St Mary's I'd consider attending.