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Peter Kennedy's first year in exile


This interview with rebel Catholic priest, Peter Kennedy, took place almost exactly 12 months after his departure from St Mary's Parish in South Brisbane. Since leaving, he and his followers have formed a congregation outside the Catholic Church that they call St Mary's-in-Exile. (Continues below)

Trouble had been brewing between Kennedy and the local hierarchy for a number of years. This came to a head in August 2008 when Archbishop John Bathersby sent Kennedy a letter accusing him and his parish of 'practices that separate it from communion with the Roman Catholic Church'.

A number of heated exchanges followed — exacerbated by taking place in the full glare of the media spotlight — culminating in a letter from the archbishop the following February terminating Kennedy's appointment to the parish. Initially Kennedy refused to go, but he and his supporters finally departed from the parish in April 2009, marking a final rupture with the Catholic Church.

On this anniversary of the split, he reflects on the state of his community, how he views his priesthood, whether a return to the Catholic fold might be possible, and the importance to him of the mystical approach to religion.

The interview was recorded for Eureka Street at a conference called Common Dreams, a meeting of religious progressives held over four days at St Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne in mid-April 2010.

This forum is indicative of where Kennedy sees his new spiritual home. As he says in the interview, one of the first groups he connected with after his departure from the Church was the Progressive Spirituality Network in Brisbane, and St Mary's-in-Exile will probably continue to be part of the progressive Christian movement.

This progressive movement has gathered steam in the last ten years or so. It seeks to update Christian beliefs and practice so that they are in line with the modern world, with the latest findings in science, psychology, and sociology. It tends to reinterpret as metaphor, or even deny, the supernatural and miraculous elements of Christianity, including core beliefs like the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection.

It straddles denominational divides, and is probably most clearly seen in its intellectual leaders, the chief one being retired US Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong. Others include English theologian Don Cupitt who inspired the Sea of Faith Network, and theologian and Presbyterian minister from New Zealand, Lloyd Geering.

The Christian organisations widely recognised as pioneering the progressive movement are the Westar Institute and its off-shoot, the Jesus Seminar, both founded and based in America.

In the video, Kennedy refers to a book of essays recently published about him and his falling out with the Church. Called Peter Kennedy: the Man who Threatened Rome, it is no mere hagiography. While most writers — and it includes heavyweights like Paul Collins, Martin Flanagan, Hans Kung and Joan Chittister — are in sympathy with him, there is an excellent chapter by Neil Ormerod, professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, who is critical of Kennedy, and points out very clearly why he can no longer be considered part of the Church.

And that is a pity. As the video shows, he is a man of some eloquence, conviction and charisma, well able to communicate to the broader culture. In these days of shortage of priests, and crisis in the Church on a number of fronts, there is an urgent need for people with his abilities.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Peter Kennedy, St Mary's South Brisbane, John Bathersby



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Existing comments

The Church doesn't need priests like Peter Kennedy was. Whilst the world is full of unfortunates, more get spiritual relief in accepting the traditional 'mysteries' of the Christian religion and the Catholic belief and ritual. Kennedy debased the sacrament both in the performance of the ritual of the Mass as well as the sacredness of the place i.e. the church, where it was held.

philip | 07 May 2010  

Thank you Peter Kirkwood for this report and the accompanying video. What an absolutely marvellous priest is Peter Kennedy and how incredibly sad to read anonymous correspondent Philip's dismissive putdown of him. Preserve us from such dogmatism! It takes me back to the thoroughly outdated style of a textbook in my teenage years, "Bishop Sheehan's Apologetics and Christian Doctrine".
I hope, even privately if he does not have the courage to resist the pressures he was put under at the time, Archbishop Bathersby now sees the cruel wrong he has done to Peter Kennedy and his people at the behest of those - in Australia as well as at the Vatican - with the fortress mindset so contrary to the vision of Pope John XXIII and the Council.

Richard Flynn | 07 May 2010  

Given that he has lost the Catholic faith, Peter Kennedy's departure from the Church is the only proper and logical outcome. Christian history is littered with such people. Kennedy is to be congratulated on his honest, conscientious decision to go. The idea that Pope John XXIII and Vatican II were on about anything resembling what was going on at South Brisbane is sheer fantasy. Read the Pope's encyclicals and statements and read the Council's documents.

Sylvester | 07 May 2010  

How easy and rapid is the expulsion of a priest charged with 'practices that separate it from communion with the Roman Catholic Church'. How difficult and slow the expulsion of a priest charged with sexual abuse of children. Surely such abuse should be '[a practice that separates] from communion with the Roman Catholic Church'.

The Church's response in both cases is clearly the institutional one of trying to protect the institution and its good name.

While I prefer the current liturgy rather than the well-reported rituals introduced by Peter Kennedy, I see in Peter's actions a modern equivalence to the Apostles' going into the roads and villages to tell the people about Jesus. Peter opened St Mary's to the thousands disaffected with the formal liturgies and the formal teachings of the Catholic Church. He should not be criticised for his purpose.

Traditionalists may not like the post-modern trends visible in isolated pockets of the Church but it is unrealistic to expect a Pius XII Catholicism or even the present much diluted form of post-Vatican II Catholicism to flourish in post-modern society.

Post-modern catholicity of perspective and respect for interpretation is a threat only to a rigid Church.

Ian Fraser | 07 May 2010  

The astonishing and sad observation which I've made from the comments on this story -- and from many other such feed-back sites -- is that, so often, those who make the harshest comments are rarely, if ever, willing to put their full names to what they say. [Full identification SHOULD be mandatory.] Furthermore, I'd suspect that in this case most, of all of those highly judgemental and hostile comments come from people with no knowledge whatsoever of Fr Kennedy or his congregation/community.

One of the saddest aspects of that story is that NEVER, over the several years in which "complaints" were submitted to the Archbishop did he [the Archbishop] visit St Mary's. Never on a formal pastoral visit to the parish; never a visit of concern to one of his fellow-priests. When the "crisis" began, everything was done by correspondence and [from some that I've been able to see] correspondence of a cold and minatory formality which few secular bureaucrats would think appropriate to write today. It certainly not what I'd have expected from a modern bishop to a priest; it was really about the exercise of power.

As it happens, a few weeks ago I was able to make a visit to "St Mary's-in-exile", my first. It certainly did not look to me like a community -- or a priest, its leader -- who had lost faith: quite the reverse. so those who rush to snap and adverse judgements, should reflect on both their motives and their lack of direct knowledge. And of the truth of the Christianity which they claim to profess: "Judge not.......".

John CARMODY | 07 May 2010  

Ian Fraser - sin does not exclude people from the Church, heresy does.

John Carmody - not all of us anjoy the freedom of action that you have. I am a member of a religious institute and am not permitted to publish under my own name unless I go through a rather drawn-out process which makes participation in online discussions impossible. Am I thereby to be denied a voice?

The really sad thing about the South Brisbane affair is that it took Archbishop Bathersby five years to do anything about the mess.

"Judge not...", indeed. But is not Fr Kennedy judging the Pope, the bishops, "conservative" people in the Church and those of us who agree with them?

Sylvester | 07 May 2010  

Sorry about the poor quality of the audio when speaking from the lectern/pulpit. Do you have an understandable version? or a written transcript?

the face-to-face is excellent, but the other is hopeless.

Jaymz | 07 May 2010  

I just watched the interview, and was faced with a man who spoke wisdom and very much the heart of the gospels. I feel our church has lost its charity before legality. Jesus would be busy in our day dealing with legality again. I see the way forward for our church through the Monastic, the more we 'be still and know God' the more love and openess we develop. We have a tradition of mystics, and our Convents, Abbeys and alike are full of Thomas Merton's and St John of the cross. St Teresa lived silent prayer, making herself more available to the mystery of God. Let's not run to the hills, let's run to our monastics -not necessarily the young legal ones full of zeal, but the old wise ones, that find the same God in gardening as in praying.

Jacky Haberl | 07 May 2010  

As a member of the community i would like to restate that the community did not simply follow Peter. Whilst community members are very supportive of the leadership of Peter Kennedy as a community of people we made our own decisions about where we as a community stand with the institutional hierarchy of the church. The representation of the community as followers is not accurate, the community is filled with intelligent and adult people who are informed, and can make independent decisions about their faith. the fact that the institutional church does not see laity as active participants in the contemporary expression of faith and church is what is offensive.

Kasryn Walsh | 07 May 2010  

Sorry Sylvester - I would deny you a voice in such a forum and on such matters as these!

Unless your real name is Josef Ratzinger, your excuse for not using your real name would seem very "convenient" and lacking any courage in putting out into the deep.

Or you are following the example of the Bronte sisters in writing under masculine nom-de-plumes because they thought they would not be treated seriously as women.

If you have indeed read - and studied - the Vatican II Council documents, which I find hard to believe, may I suggest you now practise the virtue of tolerance of views dissent to your own. It could be liberating for you!

Richard Flynn | 07 May 2010  


Quid est demonstrandum!

Ian Fraser | 07 May 2010  

I agree with Sylvester 100%. You see, Sylvester is not Trendy, Liberal, Modernist, Progressive, Feminist or Left-wing catholic. He is simply a loyal Catholic. Loyal to the Pope and Loyal to the Magisterium.

Ron Cini | 07 May 2010  

It is still almost beyond my comprehension that Peter Kennedy can deny believe in almost all the tenets and dogma of the Christian Church-not just the Catholic section-and still claim to be a member of a Christian religion.

John Tobin | 07 May 2010  

Richard Flynn - As you are not in my position and know next to nothing about me you are hardly in a position to judge. The fact is I am under a vow of obedience and am therefore obliged to respect the rules of my institute which prevent me from being identified as member of the institute in public utterances unless I go through a rather tedious process. You may regard such an obligation as of no account. I don't.

Far from being "convenient" it is highyl "inconvenient". I am not surprised that you would deny me a voice. People who come from where you are coming from often do deny a voice to others. I have read and studied the documents of Vatican II. They are not reflected in Fr Kennedy statements and activities. I am very happy to tolerate his views, provided he makes it clear that they are not representative of the Catholic Church. In setting up his own show he has done precisely that. What he does or says now is up to him.

Sylvester | 07 May 2010  

In answer to Jaymz's comments about the sound quality of the video, I appreciate the feedback - apologies for the low quality sound while Peter Kennedy is speaking at the podium, and there is no other version. Eureka Street TV videos are made on a shoestring, and their main focus is on content. They attempt to bring to readers/viewers important contemporary thinkers, commentators, movers, shakers and opinion makers in the realm of religion and values.

Because of the meagre resources, inevitably there will be compromises on technical quality, but we will attempt to do the best possible, and seek to be always improving wherever possible. Your comments and feedback will help achieve this.

Peter Kirkwood | 08 May 2010  

A good article and video. The people who run the Vatican have a God that allows them to destroy the innocence of children. Evil happens when God is interpreted wrongly! It takes great courage to change the way you think especially at the top level. We are all called to evolve in unison with the Holy Spirit - to be creators for each other at the expense of oneself. It seems Kennedy is doing his best on a difficult journey.

Trish Martin | 08 May 2010  

The presumption is that all men of good will, including 'the people who run the Vatican', are doing their best on a difficult journey.

Sylvester | 08 May 2010  

Sylvester, firstly thank you for explaining why you don't fully identify yourself. Secondly I apologise for being curt and abstruse in my brief reply to your comment, "Sin does not exclude people from the Church, heresy does."

I believe that the Church cannot expect to flourish in today's society when it excludes as a heretic a priest who, apparently in good faith, deviates from standard liturgy, but on the other hand, until recently, actively covered up what the Church itself teaches is grievous sin, perpetrated by some priests against children.

While Jesus participated in the ritual liturgy of His faith, thereby teaching us to do likewise, I am unaware that He ever cautioned His followers against deviating from that standard liturgy.

However, when it came to harming children - specifically "[being] an obstacle to bring down one ... who has faith in me" Jesus stated that any such person "would be better drowned in the depths of the sea..."

In the particular discussion of excluding Peter Kennedy from the Church but covering up the abuse of children, the Church appears to have turned Jesus' teaching on its head. The Church thereby partially excluded itself from the faith of many people.

Ian Fraser | 08 May 2010  

Dear Ian - thank you. No need to apologise. It is all part of the cut and thrust of debate.

I take your point - how is that a Church, some of whose leaders covered up the appallingly immoral behaviour of some of its priests, male and female religious and lay workers, can exclude a man of the obvious conviction and compassion of Fr Kennedy?

It seems to me that the Church has to be concerned at the one and the same time about both right belief and right behaviour. This is danger territory, leaving the Church wide open to not practising what it preaches. Nevertheless, the fact that it falters and fails in its dealings with behaviour does not mean that it has no obligations with regard to belief.

Even if some priests have acted shamefully and have been covered up by superiors that surely does not mean that the Church can be indifferent to or permissive of anything whatsoever that priests teach in its name.

I have followed Fr Kennedy's career for some time and I cannot recognise the Catholic faith in his positions on the nature of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, the sacraments.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the South Brisbane experiment was the knowing disregard of what the Church requires minimally as to the matter and form of the sacrament of baptism.

In that sense, I think Fr Kennedy's exile, as presented by Peter Kirkwood, is self-imposed.

Sylvester | 09 May 2010  

Having heard Peter Kennedy at both Common Dreams and A Readings book launch and read the book I found him sincere, a believer in essentials if not very eloquent. As someone who left the Vatican version of Christian faith I find the calls of heresy from some who obviously care more for the institution than Jesus amusing. Do they ever read the Gospels and reflect, for example, on what the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath might imply. Personally I don't mind some dressing up in liturgy, but would Jesus find birettas and capa magnas and red shoes appalling or just amusing to the obsession with which they are displayed.

Brian Poidevin | 09 May 2010  

Sylvester: To do the best we can means to be open to the propmpting of the Spirit - it calls us to perpetually evolve and change the way we think. Fear-driven ignorance or adherance to one's own image of what is truth is not the work of God. "Have I been with you all this time and still you do not know me?" John 14:9

Trish Martin | 09 May 2010  

Are you suggesting, Trish, that 'the people who run the Vatican' don't try to live that way?

Sylvester | 09 May 2010  

Sylvester: It seems to me that the persons at the top put the Vatican 'image' as a priority - as seen in the trial of Galilleo - it was Vatican power rather than 'truth' which had preceedence. Better to let an innocent person suffer than to re-think Vatican belief systems.

Trish Martin | 10 May 2010  

Trish: I repeat my question - which you have not answered.

The Gallileo case was extremely complex and multi-layered - theologically, culturally, politically, even astronomically. The simplistic Hollywood approach to history will not do. Interestingly, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Holy Office's verdict in the Galileo case was the Protestant establishment of northern Europe. One needs to beware of the stereotype of the "obscurantist, nasty" Vatican against the "truth" and "progress" of modernity.

Sylvester | 10 May 2010  

Sylvester: I am grateful for this oportunity to sharpen my perception of the Vatican identity. I suggest that in the minds of the people at the top - the defence of 'Vatican image' has premium position, over and above any harm that this mindset causes to the people of God.
I think the vow of obedience to the pope to be detrimental to personal accountability. This vow (signed by bishops) is intended to keep the status quo.

How does the Holy Spirit operate when personal responsibility is surrendered to an organisation? Surely the hallowed obedience to God (through openness of mind to the insights of the Holy Spirit) is compromised.

It seems to me that to become a bishop one needs to surrender personal accountability to his own people in favor of Vatican ideals. Consequently the bishop's conscience is dulled in social and moral matters. As a result the innocent and most vulnerable people become victims of an organisational ideal.

Trish Martin | 11 May 2010  

Trish: You make presumptions and generalisations about the contents of the minds of the people 'at the top' which you are not entitled to make. The term 'judgementalism' comes to mind.

Beware of demonising people who, after all, are just like you and the rest of us, trying to carry out difficult tasks in difficult times. Sure, there are doubtless some bad eggs but every organisation has its share of those.

The vow of obedience to the Pope is there to help promote the unity of the Church which is guaranteed, among other ways, by the Petrine ministry established by Chris.

Be reserved about glib invocations of the Holy Spirit. She blows where she wills.

Your understanding of how a bishop relates to his people, one the one hand, and to the Apostolic See, on the other, is dichotomised and over-wrought.

Sylvester | 11 May 2010  

Sylvester: I can assure you that my comments concerning the Holy Spirit are not 'glib' - its seems you bypass the Spirit's role in our lives. The gospel readings this week tell you the very importance of the Advocate: Wed - John 16:8 "and when he comes he will prove you wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment." For me the role of the Spirit is to 'convince' us that there is always a bigger picture and Jesus told his discilples that he must go away in order for them to receive the Advocate (John 16:7). Unless we personally open our minds to the Spirit we are limited by cultural and institutional attitudes.
Scripture says: "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" Romans 12:2.
You are quick to apply the term 'judgementalsim' to my comments - let me say that I am not in judegment of the Vatican - rather I see a wrong and feel obliged to point it out because of the untold harm and suffering the Vatican attitude has allowed to happen.

Trish Martin | 14 May 2010  

Below is a letter I wrote to Archbishop Bathersby a few weeks ago which I think you may find interesting

Your Grace,

I wrote about a dozen letters to you a year ago when St Mary's community was so much in the news and now, a year later, I would like to give you a personal update on this community which once worshiped at St Marys.

Certainly the homeless are no longer able to shelter in our grounds and the low ceiling at the TLC is a little claustrophobic - nothing like the soaring height in the old church - but we have come to appreciate the opportunity to look beyond the physical space where we gather and we do experience the presence of Christ among us. Ourselves experiencing this homelessness has itself taught us even greater empathy with the marginalised.

What we have really appreciated is the freedom we have felt to express our beliefs and especially our doubts. As a community we have felt that we can be authentic followers of the Christian tradition - no longer constrained by views imposed from an outside “authority.” We are fully adult human beings and are encouraged to think for ourselves. Though we appreciate the challenges thrown out by Peter and Terry we are certainly not lemmings following our leaders over the cliff. They are frequently challenged by those in the community.

Today I was reminded of this quote from Vatican II's “Constitution on the Church” which clearly states “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, that through all their Christian activities they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the marvels of him who has called them out of darkness into his wonderful light” (Lumen Gentium 10). Do you agree that this means that the vocation that the church offers to the faithful is not a secondary role as clients of clerical ministries, but a Spirit-filled participation as pioneers in the church’s role as herald of the kingdom of God.?

I agree with this quote from an article on the Catholica website: “The fundamental problem with clerical condescension is that it appeals to and reinforces a passive clericalism on the part of the laity who are used to being put down and quite unused to being reminded of, or commissioned for, an apostolic role.” Yes I know there are some wonderful lay people working with the main stream church but do they really feel free to question (and in so doing deepen) their faith?

I had always tried to be a “Good Catholic” but after really experiencing God's presence for the first time in 1970 my spiritual life changed radically. I realised the necessity of listening to God,.and experienced a wonderful confidence to speak out. Both qualities I hope you may have recognised in the many letters I sent to you before we moved from the old church.

I do believe that we at St Marys-in-exile have made and will make many mistakes but we are firmly in the tradition of the great mystics of the church and if we continue (individually and as a group) to listen to the Spirit we will have made a contribution, however small, that only we can make to the coming of the Kingdom.

Yours in Christ,

Patricia Ryan

Patricia Ryan | 21 May 2010  

Peter Kennedy is a simple but not unintelligent man on a life long quest for spiritual truth. He is not a scoundrel, lier, thief or pederast.

What possible use could the Roman Catholic Church have for a man like him or he for it?

David Wickert | 28 May 2010  

If a person believes that women are inferior to men and should be subjugated to them, but insists that s/he is a feminist, is s/he?

If a person believes that Jesus did not actually exist, that the "Jesus Myth" was invented by those who called themselves his disciples, and that Jesus' divinity is the epitome of that "Myth", but insists that s/he is a Catholic, is s/he? Peter Kennedy has, in my hearing, made exactly these claims (or rather accepted them after reading the book by that title written by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy). And as much as I admire Peter's sincerity, conviction and charisma, I just don't understand why he now insists on crying "foul" when his bishop says that holding such views is incompatible with being Catholic.
Actually, I heard Peter say a couple of years before all this happened that he did not consider himself a "Catholic" anymore, and spoke of the huge relief of not being "part of all that".

I find all this profoundly sad.

Jonah | 18 June 2010  

i am so happy to be free of the church and an atheist.

ben | 02 June 2011