No winners in St Mary's standoff


St Mary's - flickr image by southbrisbaneBrisbane's Archbishop John Bathersby has informed St Mary's South Brisbane parish priest Father Peter Kennedy that he will be replaced, with effect from Saturday 21 February. The archbishop judged that, under Father Kennedy's leadership, the parish has placed itself 'out of communion' with the Catholic Church.

This is a sad event because, at a time of falling and ageing church congregations, St Mary's is one of Australia's most vibrant and deeply engaged parishes, especially in its commitment to social justice. It is also a haven for many who do not feel welcome in other Catholic congregations.

It is also sad that Father Kennedy and the congregation discerned that their best course of action was to decline to accept the directions of the archbishop. The unfortunate consequence of this is an end to their work for inclusiveness at the grass roots of the Church.

Father Kennedy (pictured, centre) told the parishioners on Sunday 8 February that he had decided against setting up another church if he and the parish were expelled from the Catholic Church. Previously he had vowed to do that, and the nearby Trades and Labour Council had even offered space for him to lead the liturgical celebrations of his so-called breakaway church.

In stating that he does not wish to be a 'cult leader', and that he is 'over running a breakaway church', Father Kennedy demonstrated his inclination to maintain the Catholic identity of his own ministry. This sets him in a hard place, for which he deserves sympathy.

The personal focus of the Catholic identity of local congregations from early in the history of the Church has been the Bishop. Bishops have a similar relationship to the Bishop of Rome — the Pope — as do congregations to their bishop.

This implies that the local Bishop has general responsibility for ensuring that what is promoted and practised in local congregations is consistent with the faith and practice of the universal church. Catholic congregations and their parish priests have no option but to accept the responsibility of their bishop and to negotiate the requests he makes of them, or to appeal to the Bishop of Rome.

This of course is not the only understanding of church identity current among Christians. Many churches that came out of the Reformation, particularly, give much more autonomy to the faith of the local congregation. The emphasis they place on the faith of the individual, and on consensus within the congregation, fits more easily with the attitudes of contemporary Western culture.

It is understandable, then, that a congregation with this understanding would be intransigent in the face of a bishop's demands. But it is hard to see how it is consistent with Catholic identity as this has been understood.

The conflict does not seem to leave either side with much room to move. But we might hope that there would be space for conversation and negotiation, even at this late stage.

Father Kennedy's move back from his preparedness to lead a breakaway church offers some hope, and could prove to be a good point for cooling off and for conversation. Negotiation would mean concessions by the congregation on issues that the Bishop regards as central to Catholic identity, and acknowledgment of the good things that have been done in the congregation.

It may also be important to recognise the external aggravations that have made this dispute so intractable and fierce. These include the apparent tolerance of reactionary dissident groups within the Church, compared with the harshness often directed at liberal Catholics. There is also the activity of 'spies' (like those who reported St Mary's to Rome).

These issues are not peripheral. Indeed they are central for those who feel — and are — excluded by the Church. But to focus on them solely loses sight of what is essential to the identity of the Catholic Church as we have known it.

Written in collaboration with Andrew Hamilton

St Mary's Discussion Forum
Archbishop Bathersby's decision on St Mary's, South Brisbane

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: st mary's south brisbane, catholic church, communion, Archbishop John Bathersby, Father Peter Kennedy



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Existing comments

Your article is spot-on, Michael. Isn't it a shame that in situations like this the episcopacy often fails to ask itself the question: 'What would Christ have done?' He had a lesson or two to teach about 'orthodoxy"'.

Laurence Ryan | 16 February 2009  

I enjoy reading your publication which I receive by email. I am a convert to the Catholic Faith and I think it is very sad when a priest gets it wrong.Fr Kennedy needs lots of prayerful support to help him come to understand the enormity of his decisions. I live in Sale in Vic where our Cathedral is also St Mary's.It saddens me to read articles of this nature.

Gwen Thomas | 16 February 2009  

'When a priest gets it wrong'? Perhaps Peter Kennedy and his flock have got it right! Or at least as right as the orthodox position anyway. Isn't this an example of where a top-down structure of control is just too inflexible to tolerate diversity and by responding in a heavy-handed way closes itself off to growth and development in knowledge and understanding?

Warwick | 16 February 2009  

I think this is outrageous. Father Kennedy gets suspended, but a bishop who denies the gas chambers is re-instated.

ray Ham | 16 February 2009  

Michael, you're right again. I worshipped at St Mary's in the early nineties and missed it terribly when I had to move away from Brisbane. It was - and I'm sure still is - a model of a Catholic community in many ways. It placed a huge emphasis on excellent liturgy as the source and summit of mission oriented Christian life. It did a lot of things 'wrong' - they aren't perfect - but the truly serious mistake they're now making is to put their pride in the way of conforming with the Archbishop's perfectly proper instructions.

The narrow types who claim the 'orthodox' high ground don't know what true orthodoxy is. Why let them win, depriving the Church of such a wonderful model as St Mary's has been? Please, St Mary's people, reach out, take another painful step towards humility, help to save us all.

Joan Seymour | 16 February 2009  

Well said. It occurs to me that what a wonderful thing it could be if Peter Kennedy could be invited to sit down with the Archbishop and, say, two respected figures such as yourself and Andrew Hamilton and confront the real problem rather than keep on defending in this particular situation two seemingly irreconcilable positions. That they may all be one is surely the paramount consideration.

Denis O'Leary | 16 February 2009  

The universal Church? May well it be, no love therein, bare of heart!

folkie | 16 February 2009  

A knowledgeable insight. However, the person we follow and acknowledge as master manifested none of the characteristics of Roman authority. He was an itinerant preacher, poor, yet he challenged the status quo he sought change. I see much of the gospel values in Fr Kennedy and the St Mary's parish. I see little in fundamentalist orthodoxy. I see little value in retaining a political system that puts orthodoxy above people.

Lindsay Gardner | 16 February 2009  

A unity of diversity? May be it's time for a rethink of the 'rules'. Just because they have been enforced throughout history doesn't make them right. Which is more important Christian or Catholic? Local effective congregation or corporate ego?

Hilary | 16 February 2009  

The church will maintain 'orthodoxy' until the last parish fades away. My three daughters and myself have all left the church because of its intolerance and irrelevance to modern life. Meanwhile the holocaust deniers and right-wingers are welcomed back. The Jesuits were excluded from the body of the church for many years; it could well happen again.

chris gow | 16 February 2009  

Archbishop John has my prayers and my support but the most scandalous aspect of this affair is that Rome takes so much notice of a group of inflexible fundamentalists.

These people have been responsible, in the past,for the archdiocese's loss of the Third Rite of Reconciliation which I loved. Parishoners voted with their feet by attending it in large numbers and the communal aspect of sorrow and forgiveness was so obvious at these sacramental rituals! Now they are denied to us and we are no better for this deprivation. Will St Mary's suffer the same fate?

Terry Oberg | 16 February 2009  

Jesus never heard of Catholicism, or even Christianity for that matter. He preached love, inclusivity and forgiveness. The Church has become the Jewish orthodoxy of Jesus' own time; carrying a great weight of antithesis to Jesus' message

Terry C | 16 February 2009  

What is the Church? A church is inclusive. It can not easily exclude anyone. A church is not a sect. Sects can establish boundaries and say, e.g., you may not belong if you drink alcohol, or are an adulterer, or do not believe in Sabbath observance.

A church is 'broad' and in its membership it includes both Saints and Sinners. In the Catholic tradition both are included if they say 'Yes' to the Creed. When the church excludes others, on doctrine or practice, the church starts to be a Sect.

Of course a Church includes many communities. World wide, the Roman Catholic Church includes communities, for example, with married priests or where polygamy is at least tolerated. It includes communities which are sexist or racist.

Faith is about much more than 'I believe', but, I think everyone at St. Mary's would give their assent to the Creed. They would all say 'I believe' to its articles.

Yet, when I stand in church and everyone there says 'I believe in the resurection of the dead', I know that no two of them believe the same in their proclamation.

My point is that a Church is wonderfully tolerarnt of a wide range of doctrinal and practice variations.

Gerry Costigan | 16 February 2009  

'No Winners...' Indeed! Thanks Eureka for a fine and fair summary of the issues involved. I was a priest for 19 years. I resigned 29 years ago due to my frustration with many inconsistencies in the way the official church was managing itself and it's people. Since then I have been disappointed that the official Church seems no more 'in touch' with real life and empowering people than it was then.

One shining exception for me has been Peter Kennedy, his priest-assistant, Terry Fitzpatrick and parishioners of St Mary's, South Brisbane. On the occasions I visited St Mary's I observed the mindful and practical leadership Peter was providing and the warm and positive response from the many loyal parishioners. These occasions were the closest I have come in 30 years to experiencing fully the ideals of interactive worship, relevance to daily life and inclusiveness that were supposed to flow from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960's.

Full marks to Peter Kennedy for maintaining his integrity by simply walking away from a 'no win' situation. That makes him a winner in my opinion.

Michaell Bartlett | 16 February 2009  

This is a well balanced article, well thought out and well written. There is always the portrayal of the individual against the big institution or corporation that we enjoy. The fact is that the bishop is the symbol of unity; what is happening in this unfortunate affair reflects too people who do not put great value on the liturgy or symbols that hold the Catholic Church together. They are operating from a different set of symbols based in our contemporary culture.

Gary Walker | 16 February 2009  

A couple of comments on Michael's article and the postings on it.

Broad brush characterisations of this conflict are not helpful to understanding. Rebellious priest, trendy congregation, tyrannical bishop, corporate church, gentle Jesus against brutal church, are weapon-words. We can assume that the people involved in this dispute are conscientious and good. We can discuss whether what they think and do is in fact rightly based.

It seems clear that the conflict at St Mary's is about institutional relationships within the Catholic Church. In particular, about the relationship between a congregation with its parish priest and their bishop. The bishop has asked of the parish priest and congregation practices and assurances that he believes to be necessary for them to express their unity in faith with the Catholic Church, but which they do not feel able to give.

The key question is whether the acceptance by a congregation and parish priest of the bishop's responsibility for the symbols and practices of faith is necessary for it to stay in communion with the Catholic Church. I believe that it is. Why?

Central to Catholic faith is the belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and lives and acts in his body, the church, in its structures as well as in the hearts of believers. That shared faith and life are demanding, and are always likely to be turned into something more comfortable. Ensuring communal unity in faith and life is the responsibility of the bishop of each church, and the bishops together with the Bishop of Rome.

Ultimately, then, when push comes to shove, when a congregation and parish priest refuse to accept the bishop's authority over symbols and practices that he regards as central to the faith of the church, they are no longer in communion with the universal church.

It is not ascribing blame to find that result sad, and to hope that the good people involved in the dispute can find a way to keep talking and reestablish communion. Everyone stands to lose too much if the breach of communion is institutionalised.

andy hamilton | 16 February 2009  

thought provoking article. all the best to the good people of st. mary's. it seems to be sad times when such a pastoral man as fr. kennedy and such a seemingly vibrant parish as st mary's are being threatened when on the other side of the world a well known anti semite and holocaust denier is being welcomed back into the church of jesus. hard to understand.

debbie clarke | 16 February 2009  

On a Sunday when the Gospel preached called for acceptance of the outcast, the leper in our society it was heartbreakingly ironic for the Church here in Brisbane with St Mary's in our thoughts. And for those of us from the Catholic left there is now the worry, whose parish will it be next? My own parish priest is married with a family (there are three in the Catholic archdiocese of Brisbane all with Papal approval)- will he be next? Or Father J. for offering the 3rd right or Father T. for preaching compassion for all including those who are gay? When will I be shown the door?

Jerry | 16 February 2009  

From an outsider point of view it is hard to judge without knowing the facts. Fr. Kennedy is being reported as saying he was disappointed that he was not given a hearing, that it was an arbitrary decision.

His argument has been that Christ too ran contrary to the religious authorities of the day.

Behind the dispute appears to be the quest for democratic change. The lesson appears to be carry out Jesus' mission but do it quietly.

Gerald O'allaghan | 16 February 2009  

St Mary's Community has always been different to other parishes, but it has taken more than 20 years to get to the place it is now. Surely the Archbishop is being unreasonable to expect the community to conform within a six month timeframe when the changes have been gradual. ( I know this from experience as an ex parishioner who goes back on occasion when I need a lift.)

Anna | 16 February 2009  

I agree with Michael's assessment of the ecclesiology of the situation. But something must be done about the 'temple police'. And they are on the march elsewhere in Australia, especially wherever a Parish community offers a welcome to groups who are marginalised by society in general and by Church authorities in particular.

They have already begun their campaign in Sydney and, unfortunately, local bishops and the Vatican, will condone their activities by giving credence to their 'complaints'.

Fr Roy O'Neill MSC | 17 February 2009  

If choosing not to say Mass tricked out like a cheesy operatic emperor, and referring to the Trinity as Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer rather than as Father/Son/Holy Ghost are grounds for heterodoxy, Heaven help us.

John | 17 February 2009  

As an Anglican I can have sympathy with the issues. On the one hand there is the importance of sound doctrine. on the other there is always room for experimentation. We Anglicans also have rebels but there is always room for honest discussion done in the context of good faith rather than arrogance. Each generation needs "prophets" who can "stir the pot".

john ozanne | 17 February 2009  

I just ask what does it mean - there are many rooms in my father's house?

John Dallimore | 17 February 2009  

It's unfortunate that Catholics outside the parish of St Mary's are not privy to the real reasons for the excommunication of Father Kennedy. Is he excommunicated? I would think that a Bishop has no moral authority to excommunicate any person from the church which Christ inspired. Has anyone suggested that Father Peter and the parishioners of St Mary's no longer have faith in Jesus Christ, no longer claim to be his disciples? Surely this is the truth on which excommunication rests? And surely if the differences between the parish community and the Bishop are essentially matters of discipline then there can be no consideration of excommunication? Does the church support capital punishment?

This kind of immoral disciplinary action suggests expulsion from Catholic schools for bringing drugs to school or some other major offence. I can't ignore the suspicion that this whole matter has no more credibility than the actions of two faced politicians. Williamson yes. Kennedy No. What is going on here?

bernard edwards | 17 February 2009  

St Mary's is not a large parish by Brisbane standards, nor is it the only parish committed to social justice but that is not the point.

Vatican II simply does not allow this parish to go it alone to question the divinity of Christ, to change the sacraments etc. When we are in full communion we share together signs of that full communion.

One cannot assert full communion by emphatically stating it. Communion in faith and sacraments is something received from and affirmed by the community with which one claims to be in full communion. If it were that easy to enter full communion among all Christians by just saying so, we could bring the ecumenical movement to a happy conclusion tomorrow. Restoring full communion from the partial one we have now.

The question is can a Catholic diocese be in full communion with a community which does not recognise the validity of its sacraments, its liturgy, its structure, its central beliefs such as the full humanity and divinity of Christ? St Mary's by refusing to commit to these very Catholic things has become something other than Catholic.

What real options does Bathersby have in this situation?

Peter | 17 February 2009  

Micahel says 'Catholic congregations and their parish priests have no option but to accept the responsibility of their bishop and to negotiate the requests he makes of them, or to appeal to the Bishop of Rome'.

But what sort of 'due process' is there in an appeal to Rome when the order came from Rome in the first place? Neither John Bathersby nor Peter Kennedy nor the members of St Mary's have any options. And there's the rub. How does the Church justify such a concentrated top down authoritarian structure in the 21st century?

Warwick | 18 February 2009  

It is interesting to note that many commentators on St Mary's seem to be unaware of the facts. They should read the Archbishop's letter of December 22nd which accuses the parishes leaders of many things by hearsay and unsubstantiated assumptions. Fr Peter Kennedy agreed to conform to the words for the sacrament of baptism which the Archbishop requested. The only remaining issue is that the congregation speaks the words of the consecration at the Eucharist with the priest. The Archbishop has been repeatedly invited to our church to join us and to discuss the issues and has ignored our invitations.

Some commentators, such as Peter, who seems to appear on every blog on this topic, are misrepresenting St Marys willingness to compromise. Our community is a Catholic community. We are thinking now about what kind of Catholic church will welcome us? Where will we go to mass? Where will our children be married? Where will we bury our dead? We all feel excluded from the Church along with Fr. Kennedy. I have been a parishioner at St Marys for 10 years and my heart is breaking about the destruction of our community.

Gabrielle | 18 February 2009  

It is interesting to note that many commentators on St Mary's seem to be unaware of the facts. They should read the Archbishop's letter of December 22nd which accuses the parishes leaders of many things by hearsay and unsubstantiated assumptions.

Fr Peter Kennedy agreed to conform to the words for the sacrament of baptism which the Archbishop requested. The only remaining issue is that the congregation speaks the words of the consecration at the Eucharist with the priest. The Archbishop has been repeatedly invited to our church to join us and to discuss the issues and has ignored our invitations.

Some commentators are misrepresenting St Marys willingness to compromise. Our community is a Catholic community. We are thinking now about what kind of Catholic church will welcome us? Where will we go to mass? Where will our children be married? Where will we bury our dead?

We all feel excluded from the Church along with Fr. Kennedy. I have been a parishioner at St Marys for 10 years and my heart is breaking about the destruction of our community.

Gabrielle | 18 February 2009  

Who can forget Fr Ted Kennedy of the parish of Redfern Sydney? Supreme irony that two priests bearing the same name practised the same welcoming and inclusive style in the saying of Mass and were similarly silenced.

Ann Bristow | 19 February 2009  

I stand corrected if what I am about to state is not true.

Father Kennedy has indicated that he does not believe in a number of core christian beliefs including the virgin birth of Christ.

John Tobin | 20 February 2009  

Fr Kennedy practically denies Christ is God. The reality is that he, like St Mary's parish, ceased being Catholic - or even Christian - a long time ago. The Archbishop's actions didn't go far enough. Kennedy should have been excommunicated.

George Christensen | 20 February 2009  

To me fiction (being imagined) tells more truth than fact can, and with this outlook I see the St Mary's dispute as being in the same nature as Rumpole of the Bailey. Thus the Bishop takes the place of the unremarkable Sam Ballard ("Soapy Sam"), while Fr Kennedy is the awe-inspiring Horace Rumpole. Hence, as stated by "It is not hard to come away from their encounters with the view that Horace ... is in fact the one with the truly Christian view of charity"

Conrad | 20 February 2009  

So Peter Kennedy should have been excommunicated George? How would you suggest that be done? By the Archbishop's executive fiat? Or after and subject to some kind of due process before an independent tribunal which seeks the truth?

In the real world, what has gone on in Brisbane diocese would be seen for what it is - an appallingly unjust process.

Warwick | 20 February 2009  

This is apparently not the first time the current Pope has tried to sack Kennedy. The first time (at least 20 years ago) the previous Archbishop refused to sack Kennedy, and so now there is a new Archbishop who has Pell (the Cardinal for Australia) and Ratzinger as his bosses. Unfortunately the current Archbishop has made himself the meat in the sandwich between Ratzinger and Pell. And Kennedy's popularity will only increase in this poorly managed process.

Furlong | 22 February 2009  

Out of this mess God will bring good.Prayer and pennance by us all will bring forth new fruit.Sometimes a bit of pruning is needed especially if there is a danger to the continuing strength of the Faith

Fiat | 23 February 2009  

What saddens me most of all is the lack of dialogue. The Church will dialogue for years on some matters but there seems to be no wish to find resources for dialoguing with a whole congregation. One would think that respectful prayerful dialogue would be one area that the Church could excell.

Anne Schmid | 23 February 2009  

Remember the wonderful joy of World Youth Day? Why not a Parish mission using the saturation approach of World Youth Day to do a reaffirmation of the Church's teaching and liturgy?
Sometimes people are acting in error through ignorance rather than malice and Jesus did say "Father forgive them They know not what they do.I suspect in many ways this may be what has happened at Saint Mary's.Good people can make mistakes especially when they are very busy and little time is spent in silent prayer and reflection.

Mary | 23 February 2009  

May I put aside for the moment the theological issues and focus just on the management issues. Anne touches on these when she despairs the lack of dialogue.

There is an old saying that one can't govern without the consent of the governed; the same is true about management. Different forms of management gain that consent in different ways.

The top down authoritarian 'do as I say' type gains consent by fear; fear of dismissal, fear of punishment. In other types of management, the consent is gained by reason and argument.

It seems to me that the church's hierarchy knows all about the first style and nothing about the second. The whole idea of the Archbishop suggesting mediation AFTER he has acted in an authoritarian way beggars belief. To put it in the vernacular, 'he just doesn't get it!'

It's the same problem that was so obvious when George Pell mismanaged the recent sexual abuse issue. It seems that Bathersby, like Pell, is operating in another world to that in which his St Mary's parishoners, and most of the rest of us, are living.

By saying this i am not seeking to impute evil intent, rather I am flabbergasted at their lack of understanding of others and their appalling lack of fundamental management skills.

Warwick | 23 February 2009  

I find Fr Hamilton's post by far the most lucid on this issue. If Fr Kennedy and his parishioners cannot accept the bishop's directives on what is required to be in communion with the universal church, then they have put themselves in that position.

It is not a matter of tolerance and welcome, nor how vibrant the community is. It's about whether the community finds joy, wonder, vibrance and challenge in the Church's beliefs and teachings.

I assent heart and mind to the Church's teaching on the Virgin birth. I believe it. I also believe that the Church teaches the truth on matters of morality. Hence I condemn Fr Kennedy's reported blessing of homosexual unions.

If Fr Kennedy and his parishioners, reject the central teachings of the ancient Church, they should form a new church of their own.

Patrick James | 23 February 2009  

As someone who is a Catholic (meaning universal), but NOT a Roman Catholic, I am really saddened by the Archbishop's decision, and the truly appalling behaviour of Opus Dei. My wife and I often attend St Mary's, so any of you who have opinions, but have not attended, might do well to reconsider your position, given that around 2,000 people a week attend St Mary's, and come from all over South-East Queensland.

This priest, whom so many seek to pillory, has done nothing wrong. Nothing at all.
He engages with other religions, reaching out and working with them, because contrary to popular opinion, Roman Catholics are not the only ones who have a place in Heaven.
And he lets women speak. Indeed, what happens there it is so much more powerful than in any Roman church I have been.

As one of the correspondents has said ... What would Jesus have done ? I suspect He would have done as He did in the Temple, and ignored those who place conformity with the laws and ritual ceremonial practices ahead of what they are there for. Sorry, but 2,000 people a week, some travelling hundreds of kilometers, can't all be wrong.

Fr Peter and Fr Terry's ministry will continue down the road, at the Trades and Labour Council Building, now referred to as the TLC, or Totally Lapsed Catholics. I suspect the building will not be big enough.

David Jones | 02 April 2009  

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