The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane John Bathersby has sacked a rebel priest from his unconventional inner suburban church. The priest, Father Peter Kennedy of St Mary's parish in South Brisbane, read out a letter (see full text of letter at the bottom of this post) from the archbishop after 9am Mass this morning which announced that Bathersby will terminate Kennedy's employment on Saturday 21 February unless he resigns beforehand. The bishop questioned the validity of baptisms at the church and attacked the priest’s “instant disclosure” of his letters to the media. To audible groans from the packed congregation, the letter went on to state that he had appointed St Stephen's Cathedral's Dean Ken Howell as interim administrator of St Mary’s Church. The bishop said he would also facilitate Kennedy’s retirement if he so desired, to which the priest responded “I’m too young to retire!”.
The confrontation between the church hierarchy and the parish of St Mary’s has been building over a number of years. The church is known for its commitment to social justice and support of minority groups and its unconventional practices have attracted large congregations. However some conservative Catholics in the area were unhappy with changes to the liturgy, and some non-Catholic artwork in the church. In particular there was furore after a church baptism was loaded onto Youtube causing one Catholic commentator to doubt the baptisms’ validity as they did not follow conventional liturgy.
One disgruntled parishioner took his complaints first to the bishop and then directly to the Vatican. In August 2008 Bathersby delivered an ultimatum to toe the church line or risk being shut down. He said the parish was operating outside practices and policies acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church. He said St Mary’s had “established its own brand of religion” .
Kennedy continued to conduct Masses his way in defiance of the bishop’s orders. He wrote a letter to Bathersby in November stating that parish was in communion with the Catholic Church. The Bishop responded on 22 December saying the parish had not “adequately given proof” of communion and listed five issues it wanted Kennedy to address. It wanted a return to traditional baptismal rites, an end to congregational proclamation of the Eucharist liturgy and a return to traditional priestly vestments, the prevention of sale of a book which doubted Jesus’ divinity, and the instruction of “Trinitarian theology.”
The whole tone of the complaints raised by Bathersby show how completely out of touch the hierarchy is. Today’s packed out Mass at St Mary’s was probably the best attended Catholic rite in Brisbane (even accounting for the media attention about the possible closure). It connects with its people in a way dry divinity and Trinitarian theology simply cannot. The theme of the Mass today was “From little things, big things grow", the Paul Kelly / Kev Carmody protest song about how the Wave Hill Gurindji Strike and its leader Vincent Lingiari sparked off the Aboriginal land right’s movement. The church elders will now be considering how to re-affirm their own land rights in the face of the opposition of Church hierarchy.
The choice of song also shows how deeply embedded the Church is with the local Aboriginal community. Aboriginal activist Sam Watson was instrumental in negotiating a Treaty between the parish and local Aboriginal people last November. This morning Watson also read the welcome to Country at this morning’s Mass and called the church a “very special and sacred place”.
The message would not have been lost on the congregation or the media pack who were there to film the service. Kennedy’s reading from the gospel, Mark 1:29-39 was also appropriate. It did seem today that “the whole city was gathered around the door” of St Mary’s. Yet the future of this thriving parish is very uncertain after the revelation of Bathersby’s menacing and uncompromising letter. What is certain is the desire of the parish to fight the decision. Kennedy's only immediate advice was to "stand strong".
Text of Letter from Bathersby to Kennedy:
Thank You for your letter of 12 January with its invitation to further discuss the situation of St Mary’s South Brisbane. I see no reason to do so. I have repeatedly asked for changes but you and the community have not budged an inch. Moreover, South Brisbane’s instant disclosure of my letters and comments in the media give me no reason to enter into discussion. By all means consult the people of St Mary’s as you wish but ultimately you yourself are the shepherd and leader of its decisions. Time and time again I have spelt out a request for changes at St Mary’s Parish if it is to remain in communion with the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Roman Catholic Church. However time and time again St Mary’s has chosen to go its own way. Therefore reluctantly I make the following decisions.
1. I will terminate your appointment as Administrator of St Mary’s Parish effective Saturday 21, February 2009 unless you were to resign beforehand.
I would like to add, without trying to exert pressure, that if you wish to retire from active service as a priest, the Archdiocese will assist you as it does other Archdiocesan priests who retire.
2. From the 21st February 2009, I will appoint Dean Ken Howell of St Stephen’s Cathedral as Administrator of St Mary’s until a new administrator is appointed.
From Sunday 22 February 2009 regular Masses at 7am and 9am will be celebrated at St Mary’s Church until the matter is reviewed. Other sacraments of the Church will be available and can be arranged with Dean Ken Howell. Church goers attached to St Mary’s are most welcome to continue, as well as those who wish to return to the parish or those who wish to become new parishioners.
3. I sincerely hope that St Mary’s emphasis on social justice will remain. However such matters should be discussed with the new Administrator
4. Because of its name, chosen originally in 1864, I also hope that sound Marian devotion will be promoted at St Mary’s as was normal in the past. I will do whatever I can to facilitate and encourage this devotion.
5. Because there is doubt about the validity of the many baptisms performed at St Mary’s, I will nominate a special day in the near future when baptisms can be performed at St Stephen’s Cathedral and certificates issued to parents concerned about validity, or those who are adult converts. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made it clear in March 2008 that invalid baptisms cannot be dismissed and forgotten. They must be corrected.
6. Peter, you have already claimed in the media that you may lead people who desire to follow you into a breakaway Christian community elsewhere in South Brisbane. I cannot stop you from doing so. However those who follow you should realise that they will not be in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
Peter, making these decisions gives me no satisfaction whatsoever. The separation of Christians is contrary to all that Christ prayed for. Nor does such division promote the Kingdom of God. You have had ample time to make a considered decision. Please God the division that exists in the present time will be healed in the future, probably not in my time. I ask the priests, deacons, religious and people of the Archdiocese of Brisbane to pray for me and for all who belong to the Archdiocese, especially in the community of St Mary’s in its present situation. In this matter I pray also that Mary the mother of Jesus will be our inspiration and guide as we seek her prayerful support for the healing of the Archdiocese of Brisbane and St Mary’s Parish
Sincerely in Christ
Most Rev John A Bathersby DD
Archbishop of Brisbane