December 1, 2008 - 5:33AM
Today is D-day for the renegade St Mary's Catholic Church in South Brisbane either to toe the Vatican line or face possible excommunication.
The church's popular but unconventional priest, Father Peter Kennedy, is digging in his heels and has vowed to stay put in a "non-violent response" to the threat.
Brisbane Catholic Archbishop John Bathersby has demanded the parish cease its unapproved services, including giving communion to divorced and gay people, allowing priests to wear non-traditional vestments and baptising babies using unorthodox wording*.
Father Kennedy and a fellow St Mary's priest, Father Terry Fitzpatrick, are also accused of breaking the rules by blessing anyone who asked and allowing members of the congregation, including women, to present parts of the service.
Archbishop Bathersby has yet to spell out what disciplinary action he may take on St Mary's but one possibility is to have the Vatican eject it from the Catholic Church.
In a letter to Father Kennedy last month, the archbishop said his request for the church to change its ways had been ignored.
"Games are still being played as they were in the past," he said.
"I am prepared to wait until December 1 but no longer. After that I will begin a formal process to address the situation."
A spokesman for the archbishop said last week that he did not know what punishment the church was considering.
Father Kennedy has refused to comment but told Fairfax Media last month that the parish would not budge because "that's where the work is".
"I'm saying we just don't go," Father Kennedy said. "A non-violent response is to stay here because that's where we're needed."
The relatively young congregation of about 700 includes local Aborigines, the homeless and the formerly disillusioned who have returned to the flock after experiencing the St Mary's brand of Catholicism.
A weekend Mass usually attracts about 250.
Father Kennedy said only about 13 per cent of Catholics regularly attended other church services.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said St Mary's had helped her while homeless and encouraged her back to the faith she had abandoned for many years.
"I left the church because of what I considered to be hypocritical and un-Christian behaviour of priests and the Catholic hierarchy," she said.
"They weren't practising what they preached.
"If the archbishop closes St Mary's the congregation will continue to thrive because it is more than just a building.
"It's a supportive community."
Archbishop Bathersby's spokesman said there had been not only "organised letters of support" for St Mary's but also "complaints about its practice, not from outsiders, but from South Brisbane people genuinely concerned about St Mary's and its future".
Father Kennedy will deliver his formal response today. "Our argument isn't with the archbishop but with Rome," he said. "We can't win against them.
"The Vatican is leaning on [Archbishop Bathersby] to act and making it very difficult for him."
* Note: According to a more negative article on Catholic Online, St. Mary's has continued to use the inclusive language Trinitarian formula 'Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier' that was explicitely banned by the Vatican.
Photos: 1. Fr. Peter Kennedy; 2. Fr. Terry Fitzpatrick and parishioner
Excommunicate the parishAlison Cotes
The Courier Mail
December 03, 2008 11:00pm
Just as Mary MacKillop for many years was rejected by the church for daring to question the authority of her bishop, Brisbane's St Mary's church is reflecting the true face of a caring society.
Why shouldn't the Vatican close the Roman Catholic parish of St Mary's and excommunicate its priests?
After all, both priests – Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick – have flouted the rules of the diocese by allowing the laity to join in the prayer of consecration, holding commitment services for homosexual couples, and allowing a non-Christian statue to be placed in the church by a Buddhist meditation group.
Why, last Sunday there was even a reconciliation and Aboriginal smoking ritual where the traditional sovereignty of the indigenous peoples of the area was acknowledged and a peace treaty signed.
I don't know whether these actions legally constitute heresy in these enlightened days, but to some members of the Roman Catholic Church they do, and complaints have been made to the hierarchy by at least one disgruntled attendee.
The complaints have gone as far as the Vatican, and Archbishop John Bathersby has been drawn into the debate with a letter to Peter Kennedy, not threatening to close the church, he insists, but claiming St Mary's will close itself down by following practices that separate it from the Roman Catholic Church.
A very Jesuitical argument, and one authority under threat often uses. But Bathersby has been put in an impossible position, caught between the intransigence of the Vatican and the equal determination of the parish of St Mary's to continue its modern, often radical practices.
In the eyes of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the overall objection is not so much to individual acts of defiance but that, in Bathersby's words, the parish has become congregational in governance and culture – in other words, centred on people rather than priest.
And therein lies the dilemma. The Roman Catholic Church, like many entrenched religious institutions, has for hundreds of years been absorbed in its own doctrines and dogmas, and is often in danger of losing sight of the real reason for its existence – to mirror the all-encompassing love of its founder, Jesus of Nazareth.
It's not a recent debate. Australia's Mary MacKillop for many years was rejected by the church for daring to question the authority of her bishop and, much earlier, Dostoevsky wrote about the issue in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
He had Jesus coming back to Earth during the Inquisition, and threatened with imprisonment and death because, by preaching peace and healing, he was undermining the authority of the church founded in his name.
Outside St Mary's flies a banner proclaiming the words of Pope Benedict XVI, "Everyone has a place in the church".
Every person without exception should be able to feel at home and never rejected. And by welcoming women's groups, gay people, indigenous people and victims of abuse from within and outside the church, St Mary's would seem to be doing that.
But rules are rules, and church orthodoxy can never change. Such an attitude is in direct contradiction of the words of that beloved Pope John XXIII in his final testament to the church he headed. "It is not the Gospel that changes; it is we who begin to understand it better. The moment has arrived when we must recognise the sign of the times, seize the opportunity and look, and look far ahead."
And what does the Gospel show us?
That Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes, and accepted them as his friends. He broke the Sabbath laws. He pardoned a woman taken in adultery, accepted a drink from a Samaritan prostitute, and healed a bleeding woman who was violating him by touching his garments.
He was inclusive, ecumenical, all-embracing and all-accepting and, if he were alive today, he too would probably be rebuked by the authorities and threatened with excommunication.
And like Peter Kennedy and the congregation at St Mary's, he would understand the Gospel doesn't change, but that we must understand it better by recognising in it the sign of the times.
So, if the church hierarchy can't do that, as it seems incapable of doing, then perhaps St Mary's is a truer representation of the Gospel than all the popes and archbishops in their finery.
The showdown is about to begin, and the only question is who will be the winner, in legal and in moral terms.
Alison Cotes is a Brisbane writer and theological commentator.
In the interest of equal time, here is Archbishop Bathersby's August 2008 letter to the faithful explaining why he initiated this process against St. Mary's. My only question is: Whose attitude better reflects the spirit of Jesus as we know Him through the gospels???