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
January 10, 2009
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.