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Illuminating the St Mary's conflict

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Andrew Hamilton |  11 December 2009

Flanagan, Martin et al: Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened Rome. One Day Hill, Melbourne, 2009. ISBN 978 0 9805643 6 5. Online

Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened RomeThe conflict between Archbishop John Bathersby and Fr Peter Kennedy's St Mary's congregation was passionate and public. This valuable book illuminates the dispute, setting it into a human context that is both much smaller and larger than that offered by the media coverage.

The most instructive and moving contributions to the book are studies of people involved. Two interviews of Kennedy by Martin Flanagan serve as book ends. Flanagan catches the contemplative and detached character of Kennedy's personality. These make his understated religious leadership so formidable and so attractive.

Michele Gierck's profiles of a range of people involved in the life of the congregation are also deeply insightful. She allows them to speak for themselves, perhaps more eloquently than they knew they could speak. The stories of people help you see the depth of what is involved in the building and pulling down of communities, the precarious lives that find some mending, the desired connections made, the broken people who find nurturing.

These pieces, together with the autobiographical reflections by people who have known St Mary's, suggest why and how the St Mary's congregation will survive its separation from the Brisbane Catholic church.

The large themes of the story bear wider reflection. Most contributors emphasise the importance of the congregation, expressing disappointment and surprise that it was not consulted during the conflict. This suggests disconnection between the inclusive and self-effacing leadership offered to the community by its two priests, and the place in the Catholic Tradition of the priest as teacher and as responsible to the Bishop for his community.

There may also be a larger tension between the Australian preference for association between equals and the hierarchical structures of the Catholic church. This tension expresses itself occasionally in conflict of the kind experienced at St Mary's but more often in the quiet withdrawal from the Catholic Church by people who identify it with authoritarian ways of relating.

Many contributors also express outrage that blow-ins who came to St Mary's to tape sermons, photograph ceremonies, and denounce it to the Archbishop and to the Vatican were given credit by Church authorities. They see this as noxious as welcoming blowflies to Christmas dinner. Certainly, it is hard to imagine anything more alienating to its members than a school, a society or a church that encourages tell-tales and snitches.

But the contributors return to the break between the St Mary's community and the Brisbane Catholic Church. Much of the comment deals with the underlying tension between the inclusiveness of the community worship and its symbols and the insistence by the Archbishop on the universal symbols of the Catholic Church. I found myself most exercised personally by this question.

I take it as axiomatic that Christian communities should offer hospitality to the hesitant, doubtful, searching and disconcerted. That is a Christian ideal, and also reflects life in any congregation and seasons in the life of most Christians. Congregations that claim to be models of untroubled faith and Christian living simply suffer from lack of self-knowledge.

The merit of St Mary's is that the diversity of the congregation is evident, and that its welcome to those on the margins of the Catholic Church is explicit and is honoured in its practice as well as in its rhetoric. That is why the separation is such a loss for the Brisbane Catholic Church. If one of the traditional identifying qualities of the Catholic Church is holiness, and if energetic and visible reaching out to marginalised people is an essential expression of holiness, to lose people who offer such a conspicuous example of it is to lose much.

The question the book leaves me with is not about the inclusiveness of the community, but about what people are included into. In my understanding, at the heart of Catholic faith has been the conviction that God has acted decisively for all human beings in the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ. The implications of this faith have been spelled out in summary form in the claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that God is trinity.

This fundamental belief shapes relationships in the Church and its teaching. It is expressed through symbols of faith in the church. The language of liturgy and the ways of praying provide a matrix within which doubt, hesitation, wonderment and disconcertment can be held. The shared symbols allow a proper tension between what is received and what is individually believed, lived and struggled with.

The reflections in this book generally focus on the tension between these symbols and creeds, and the belief of individuals or the demands of modernity. That in itself is unproblematic. Peter Kennedy himself wants to preserve a proper silence about God and to insist on the limitations of words and language.

But in the reflections that insist on the need for new words, for respect for the mystery of God, it was not clear whether the decisive investment of God in the life of Jesus Christ was an event for which new words needed to be found, or was part of the old words that needed to be superseded. I did not find any clear assertion that in Jesus Christ God has spoken a decisive word into silence, and that this is the heart of Christian faith.

A large question to be left with. And that is the significance of the dispute and the merit of this book.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

 


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Andrew, I am edified by the unpacking of your thoughts re this failure of Brisbane Church. The perplexity you originally expressed is giving way to empathy and I was impressed with the insite that authoritisam is counter cultural.

Nev Hunt 11 December 2009

Thanks Andrew. I am not really and entirely clear though what you are saying in the second last paragraph re new words / old words. I would really like to hear more from you on that aspect.

Jim Potts 11 December 2009

The separation of the St Mary's community from the Catholic Church was made inevitable by the denial of Fr Kennedy and his followers of foundational Catholic principles, including the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection and the immortality of the human person, and by their defiance of Archbishop Bathersby, the moderator of word and sacrament within the Church of Brisbane. When people cannot live together the only way forward is, alas, to learn to live apart. In establishing a new religious entity in much the same way as other "charismatic" figures who have "threatened Rome" in the past, Fr Kennedy and company have taken an honest course of action. One hopes that any good done by the St Mary's group will continue and that the Archdiocese will be able to rebuild a Catholic community in South Brisbane.

Sylvester 11 December 2009

Surely the conflict at St Mary's is just below the surface in many Parishes--with Parishes closing,no priests coming & an almost dormant hierarchy--Oldies who look back on how we were conned with endless doses of hell/fire & brimstone Liturgical splendour & warnings to be wary of associating with Protestant friends---A younger brigade who are Jesus followers & see him as a self effacing kind gentle & all embracing leader of Gods people----given this mix it is not surprising that congregations can be attracted to this different approach to church

brian 11 December 2009

Thanks for the invitation to clarify what I meant, Jim. I was trying to say that Christians have believed that God was personally involved in Jesus Christ in a unique way and that salvation is through Jesus Christ.

They have believed that this involvement is a reality.

They have also spoken about it in different ways. In the fourth century debates, they said things like, 'The Son of God, consubstantial with the Father in divinity took human flesh and became consubstantial with us in humanity, so enabling our participation in his divine life.' These are old words.

We always need to find new words to complement old words, because the old ones become misleading or we think they offer an explanation.

But the new words need to express the reality that is at the heart of faith. In this case, some new words, while rightly insisting that God works in many different ways in our world, discount the unique relationship of Jesus Christ to God and the centrality of Christ in salvation. In this case the reality is considered simply as a way of speaking, and so malleable. It is not something that needs to be preserved in the new words that we find.

I respect people who see things that way, although I differ from them. And I cannot say whether such a view is widely represented in members of the St Mary's congregation, nor indeed in members of the wider Australian Catholic Church. In the reflections in the book on the need for new words and symbols by sympathisers with the community, though, I did not find insistence on the need to preserve the reality that I understand to lie at the heart of Christian faith.

In saying that, I do not claim that they do not accept this reality, still less criticise them. But it does seem to me a significant omission, given the issues that the book canvases.

Andy Hamilton 11 December 2009

I know one of the books I will be reading over Christmas! Thanks Andy for your review and the wise words you offer along the way.

While I followed with concern the saga of St Mary's and the courageous Fr Kennedy and how the Thought Police (those outrageous 'blow-ins'!) managed to create enough noise to drag Archbishop Bathersby into action that should never have had to be taken.
Echoes of the Third Rite of Reconciliation debacle - which makes it all the more urgent that this "dobbing in to Rome" by local conservative Catholics NOT be allowed to set the agenda every time they choose to target something of which they do not approve. The hierarchy, I believe, have to see that such tactics are countered and named for what they are to Rome which has little or no idea of ANY local church beyond its own myopic and inadequate view that it must be the last word on everything!
No longer should we accept that when "Rome has spoken" there is an end to the matter! And bishops need to start thinking this way too!

Richard Flynn 11 December 2009

Just in time for Christmas too, how very thoughtful.

I don't know what the spiritual smorgasbord of St Mary's was, but despite the deep and meaningful tears of anguish, I know it wasn't catholic.

Peter Kennedy has made his choice, so let's leave it at that, but personally, I think I'll be asking Santa for Bryce Courtney's latest instead.

Nathan Socci 11 December 2009

Anything written by Father Andrew Hamilton S.J. commands respect and needs to be carefully read. Now I have not read the new book on Father Peter Kennedy reviewed here and I have an immediate problem with the title of the review and with the sub-title of the book.

Whether or not more light has been thrown on the St Mary's dispute must be a matter for readers of this book to decide for themselves and the same goes for the alleged 'threat'to Rome.

What is surely not in doubt is that Father Kennedy as Administrator of the St Mary's Parish, for reasons which seemed good to him, led a community which became increasingly controversial through being at odds with the Archbishop.

As I understand it the reason for the trouble was that Father Kennedy and those he claimed to lead and represent did not, in the words of the first Eucharistic Prayer in the Mass
'hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles'.

Does the book shed light on this issue. If it does I would consider it worth buying and reading but if not I am already fairly familiar with and indeed share some of the views about Rome and the Vatican put forward by Paul Collins,Hans Kung, Veronica Brady et al.

Denis O'Leary 11 December 2009

Anything written by Father Andrew Hamilton SJ commands respect and needs to be carefully read. Now I have not read the new book on Father Peter Kennedy reviewed here and I have an immediate problem with the title of the review and with the subtitle of the book.

Whether or not more light has been thrown on the St Mary's dispute must be a matter for readers of this book to decide for themselves and the same goes for the alleged 'threat' to Rome.

What is surely not in doubt is that Father Kennedy as Administrator of the St Mary's Parish, for reasons which seemed good to him, led a community which became increasingly controversial through being at odds with the Archbishop.

As I understand it the reason for the trouble was that Father Kennedy and those he claimed to lead and represent did not, in the words of the first Eucharistic Prayer in the Mass
"hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles".

Does the book shed light on this issue. If it does I would consider it worth buying and reading but if not I am already fairly familiar with and indeed share some of the views about Rome and the Vatican put forward by Paul Collins, Hans Kung, Veronica Brady et al.

Denis O'Leary 11 December 2009

I would not waste my money on this book as Martin Flanagan's writings are far more about his opinion than facts.

Having watched the Australian Story program on ABC1 about Fr.Kennedy and the St.Mary's parishoners,they came across as little more than a mutual admiration society.

Peter Golding 11 December 2009

I found this article interesting but too subtle for me. I'm not sure exactly what Andrew is saying. Does the book answer the large question? What does Andrew really think?

Perhaps it is appropriate that churches like Kennedy's stand adjacent to Rome's so that we can see and appreciate the difference. Maybe we will see a schism and a Roman Catholic Church and a Catholic Church in my lifetime.

Carol 12 December 2009

Andrew has nailed it with his comments here. He has our Peter to a T. However I do not share his disquiet because he sees that the community is unsure of what it is that we are being included into. We know we are on a mystical journey, it is by its very nature unknown (but exciting) and we are on it together.

For me there are no absolutes - just questions to be considered. And while we are reading, talking and thinking about our mystical journey we are (very imortantly) working actively towards doing our bit for the reign of justice and love. That is we do what we can while we philosophise.

Marg Ortiz 12 December 2009

Marg

You say that you (we) are on a mystical journey. I see the clarity of your position.

I have read the book and find that after reading it, I feel that Peter's position seems to have become less controversial (to 'religious zealots'). However, I have no evidence yet to back up this feeling.

Of course, I assume that for many of us, possibly on the same 'mystical journey' as you are, it is little or no relevance whether or not Peter has official approval, or is condemned as a heretic.

I do not see Peter being considered a heretic as being anything to worry about. So was Galileo considered a heretic.



telfer cronos 12 December 2009

Thanks Andrew. I am not a member of the South Brisbane parish but I did attend mass there a number of times years ago before the present conflict began. I also have friends who have been part of the community during the past year. The saddest part of the whole episode to me has been the blow-ins from distant places who have attended liturgies at St Mary's simply to spy and criticise.

Fr Kennnedy et al did not want to leave the church - these people (especially one) came to South Brisbane to kick them out. Now, a church which was packed with people communing with God sacramentally three times a weekend is now empty. As Richard points out, this is a repeat of the third rite fiasco when the catholic hierachy listened to a small group of whingers - with the result that churches which used to be full before Christmas and Easter of people wanting to experience sacramental reconciliation, are now empty again.

If the hierachy listen to the unrepresentative few, rather than the faithful majority then they will successfully empty the churches - especially of young people. I love the church and I would hate to see that happen.

David 13 December 2009

There's lots of empathy in this article. But in this age of tolerance, somehow it can be directed only to one side. Those who object to Fr Kennedy's practices and theology must surely be "blow-ins" and "tell tales", not principled whistleblowers. Nothing, apparently, can justify their response.

Yet, (as if it matters!) the chief "blow-in", I understand, is not a blow-in at all: he preceded Fr Kennedy as a parishioner at St Mary's, and left only when, under the latter's guidance, it veered markedly from regular Catholic practice.

So should he have stayed, remaining mute and sheep-like while, (eg) baptismal formulae which he discovered were suspect were being used?

Of course! Who really believes all that old stuff about precision with sacramental matter and form, and baptism being necessary for salvation? Didn't it all go out with Vatican II? Doesn't everyone go to heaven?

The religion of the people in this book (Selby Spong, Kung, Brady...) is not mine. None of these people can recite the creed with a straight face.

I'm closer to Arius than to Fr Kennedy. At least the ancient heretic had no doubts that Jesus was real. He would be raising an eyebrow at this lot.


Hugh 13 December 2009

There's lots of empathy in this article. But in this age of tolerance, somehow it can be directed only to one side. Those who object to Fr Kennedy's practices and theology must surely be "blow-ins" and "tell tales", not principled whistleblowers. Nothing, apparently, can justify their response.

Yet, (as if it matters!) the chief "blow-in", I understand, is not a blow-in at all: he preceded Fr Kennedy as a parishioner at St Mary's, and left only when, under the latter's guidance, it veered markedly from regular Catholic practice.

So should he have stayed, remaining mute and sheep-like while, (eg) baptismal formulae which he discovered were suspect were being used?

Of course! Who really believes all that old stuff about precision with sacramental matter and form, and baptism being necessary for salvation? Didn't it all go out with Vatican II? Doesn't everyone go to heaven?

The religion of the people in this book (Selby Spong, Kung, Brady...) is not mine. None of these people can recite the creed with a straight face.

I'm closer to Arius than to Fr Kennedy. At least the ancient heretic had no doubts that Jesus was real. He would be raising an eyebrow at this lot.

Hugh 13 December 2009

Interesting ...snitch or tell-tale... more of it I say. Transprency in all things. Guilt (knowing you are doing the wrong thing) is one reason why people hide from being exposed. The Church Universal and local must be open in all things.

The Mass is established and has various formulas to follow, and members have specific roles to fill, otherwise it is not a mass. There is nothing wrong with a prayer service or a spiritual gathering ...all are good and wonderful things ... but they are not a mass.

And remember snitching and tell-taling exposes abuse. Do those who expose abuse not require our undivided support?

mick 14 December 2009

Respect to Fr Peter Kennedy and his community, but where is the reciprocal respect to us who have been hurt in his description of our Church. The Church is me and many others around the world who try, just as hard as Fr Peter and his community to make the Church a living reality, as it has been for two thousand years, of Christ's love and mercy.
More humility from Fr Peter and his community could have avoided the outcome which we all have to live with and which adds to the woundedness of the Church.

Fr Peter and his community were able to operate for many years, within the Church. Any reflection of the events of this year must honestly analyse what Fr Peter and the community did that squandered that.
The Catholic Church is large enough to be a home for the Fr Peter's that exist and have existed in every age of the Church. Sometimes though, the truth is that they don't want to live with the family, they can't or won't see their identity as being part of the family.
Parents in every generation know what I'm talking about. For the protection of the family it's best that the individual leave and set up home for themselves.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW 14 December 2009

An excellent piece, Andrew, highlighting the 'blowflies' who buzzed around the feast.

Hugh's and Mick's comments recast this as honest whistle-blowing, describing the main spy as a 'former parishioner' rather than a serial troublemaker who travels from parish to parish taking surreptitious recordings, promoting fundamentalism regardless of the human cost. Troublingly, the church structures ultimately rewarded this behaviour.

Regardless of one's opinion of St Mary's, anyone who cares about the future Australian Catholic church should have great concern about this process. Ironically, Mick advocates 'transparency in all things', despite supporting a process involving secretly recorded audio and video, edited in private, sent without request, analysed behind closed doors in Rome by unnamed persons, and never shown to Fr Kennedy or his parishioners. No official representative of the Brisbane Archdiocese even claimed to have ever attended a single St Mary's mass.
No opportunity for even a basic presentation of evidence on both sides, no chance to refute any accusations. The serious but vaguely presented accusations in the Archbishop's correspondence do not even approach reasonable evidence, yet 12 months later, they remain the entirety of all documentation offered to Fr Kennedy.

After the decision had already been reached, two comments Fr Kennedy made in the media (and he never preached these from the pulpit) about doubting specific tenets of his faith, were enough to convince many that the outcome must have been just, so never mind the shamefully flawed process.
Let me handball one of Mick's sentences back to him: The Church Universal and local must be open in all things.

Justin Coleman 14 December 2009

Justin, if "fundamentalism" means believing in the Church's divinely instituted authority to regulate the sacraments, I'll happily wear the badge.

And if the local hierarchy persists in dragging its feet, then I say, "Long live the whistleblowers."

People have a right to receive Christ's sacraments safe from the tinkerings and whims of opinionated clergy. Rome's ruling on the baptismal formulae show that it's Fr Kennedy who is the dangerous troublemaker and the whistleblowers who are the heroes.

Fr Kennedy (rightly) praises Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day in his 2009 "Encounter" interview.

Mother Theresa was staunchly opposed to altar girls, personally appealing to Pope John Paul II not to allow them.

Dorothy Day was shocked when a trendy priest in the 1960's celebrated a "home" Mass with a coffee cup from the kitchen as a chalice. Immediately afterward she took the cup, dug a hole in the garden, and reverently buried it there.

Hmmm, I wonder what these two worthy icons of social justice would think of Fr Kennedy's antics ...

Are Fr Kennedy's public admissions about his "faith" fair dinkum? Well then, if he's a Catholic, I most certainly am not!

Clearly he and I worship on different mountains.

Hugh 14 December 2009

Words absolutely fail me. How can there be so much praise by Catholics - lay and ordained for a priest and his followers who apparently deny "foundational Catholic principles, including the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection and the immortality of the human person". This is so opposed to Catholic and traditional Protestant belief that the only thing was for Fr Kennedy and his followers to leave the Catholic Church and join, or start their own sect. The same goes for their other beliefs and practices.

Taunton 21 December 2009

In how many Catholic Churches are the forms honored but the realities of the living faith denied? When people seek a leader in their religious life, they are drawn to one who lives the faith, not one who only goes through the prescribed motions. If the motions are all that's needed, any automaton or video depiction would do as well as a live priest.

I choose the leader who stands with me side by side rather than ahead and above and that's a man like Father Peter Kennedy.

reddog 29 December 2009

Even Jesus, when alive, had doubts and questions about aspects of His faith. How can anyone expect His followers not to doubt and question aspects of their own faith? Without doubt arising, without questioning faith, nothin new can be learnt nor can errors be corrected. A life of unquestioning obedience can be lived, and "heretics" punished, but it is not a life of living faith in a living God. Forcing others to believe as you believe is to subvert God, in my opinion. By assuming to "defend" God, we assume that God can not defend Himself. I am not a Christian, and certainly not a Catholic of any shade, and I am sure there are those who will use that "admission" to deny my whole argument, but I think the point is that this issue goes beyond faith and belief to the heart of Humanity itself and our relationship with God. I attempt to do unto others as I would have God do unto me; offer infinite forgiveness and guidance, without presumption and judgement.

Fred Monro 31 December 2009

I was ordained 3 years ago. The second level of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is the priesthood. No bishop can minister to all of the faithful in his diocese, so priests act, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as "co-workers of the bishops." They exercise their powers lawfully only in communion with their bishop, and so they promise obedience to their bishop at the time of their ordination. Sorry Father Kennedy, you blew it!

Gerard 08 January 2010

When we were waiting on the outcome of the stand off between Fr Kennedy and Archbishop Bathersby I wrote about a dozen different letters to the Archbishop trying to explain why we were so committed to being authentic followers of Jesus and why we found the community at St Marys helped us to come to a deeper understanding of our faith. To take for example the question of the Trinity. When I wrote about this to the Archbishop I hoped that if he found my reasoning and faith falling short he may have replied that though he disagreed he was not an expert in this aspect of theology but perhaps I could discuss it with Fr X. Unfortunately the only reply I received from Wynberg was congratulations on celebrating our Golden Wedding in January 2009 – a note at the end of my letter had told him that we had lived all of those 50 years as committed Christians and Catholics.

This is what I wrote recently for the quarterly parish magazine
The Trinity
- personal reflection by Patricia Ryan)


In the early 1980s as the RCIA was introduced to the Kenmore parish I became the catechist for one of the small groups. The Trinity was one of the dogmas I had to ponder on and pray about before I felt I could discuss it with those considering becoming Catholic.

I knew God as Creator and as Love and I had certainly invited the Holy Spirit to help my belief and understanding but Father, Son and Holy Spirit seemed too male oriented, (Two men and a bird as one friend described it) and did nothing for my faith understanding. Father I know was an image that was very difficult for those who had suffered abuse from their fathers and though Abba brings God closer there is nothing in the Trinity, as usually described, that suggests the mothering role; Son certainly suggests generation from and subservience to; and the Holy Spirit was often something of a shadowy figure.

It was then that I realised that we too are trinities. According to scripture we were made in the image and likeness of God and realising this all began to make sense. We are have three aspects that affect our lives – our physical being, our emotions and our reason. God described himself to Moses as “I AM” - this was Being itself of which our being is a pale reflection. God is LOVE (our emotional side) and God is TRUTH (well that's where we hope our reasoning takes us). We are like God but in us the three aspects reflect only dimly the Being Love and Truth that are found in the infinity that is God and we only rarely get the balance right.

Now the Trinitarian nature of God made sense and had much to say to me about my understanding of God, myself, others and indeed all creation. God the Father, the I am, Creator of all; God the Son - Love, Infinite Love for each of us and for all of creation, (Jesus as the Second person of this Trinity requires further discussion) and The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth that Jesus promised to send to his followers after his death.

I have since realised too that this understanding of Trinity means that the arguments over the Generation of the Son and Spirit which was the major reason (or excuse?) for the separation of Eastern and Roman Catholicism are now completely irrelevant. Being. Love and Truth have always been as much a part of the nature of God as my physicality, emotions, and reason have always been an integral part of who I am.

For me the realisation dawned that we had to endeavour to pursue each of our three aspects to the fullest for it is only in the Infinite that the three become one. My Being is not just my body but includes my relationship to the source of all - God, and the rest of creation; Love must be the overriding emotion if I follow Christ, Love of God, Love of self, Love of others and indeed of all creation; and Truth must be sought with an open mind so that eventually we arrive at an understanding that more nearly approaches Ultimate Reality.

May each of our small trinities become closer images of our God and may our community in seeking the fullness of the Trinity become more fully the Living Body of Christ.

Patricia Ryan 09 January 2010

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