Toowoomba’s Catholic community expressed shock at the sacking of Bishop William Morris after a five-year Vatican investigation. But Father Peter Kennedy, of South Brisbane church St Mary’s in Exile, wasn’t surprised.
Sacked from the church in 2009 for “unorthodox practices”, Father Kennedy continues to front his congregation at the Trades and Labour Council building courtesy of the Queensland Council of Unions.
He, along with many others in the St Mary’s community, is responsible for Micah Projects, now one of Australia’s most respected homelessness projects.
Before their expulsion from the church, St Mary’s entered into a Treaty with Brisbane’s Aboriginal community, gave communion to married priests and the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex community, and had women playing leading roles in the mass.
For this, Father Kennedy was expelled and replaced. But when he left, 80% of the St Mary’s community went with him.
Readers can watch the new documentary about the controversy, “The Trouble With St Mary’s”, on the ABC’s Compass program website.
Green Left Weekly’s Ewan Saunders asked Father Kennedy about the sacking of Bishop Morris, the story of St Mary’s in Exile, and where the Catholic church is headed.
What was your personal response to the removal of Bishop Morris?
It wasn’t one of disbelief, it was predictable. Predictable because Bill [Morris] is a man of the people, and whereas the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in the ’60s said the church is a people of God, it is very much the clerical church.
So the people have no voice, the people never have any voice, about the election of their bishops for example. And in this particular case, the people were not consulted.
The hierarchy of the Catholic church will never consult the people — they just impose.
When, for example, we were a couple of years ago having strife with our archbishop, he said to me: “I obey the pope, you should obey me, and they, being the people, should obey you.”
So there’s that hierarchical line of command. So the people, I say they’re there to “pray, pay and obey”.
Now this story must have opened some old wounds for you. Why were you forced out of the church?
You know it didn’t reopen old wounds.
We have a film … shown on [ABC’s] Compass program … and a question I’m asked at the end is “how did I feel about being thrown out of the Catholic church?” And I said, “it’s the best thing that ever happened” and when I was asked why, [I said], “simply because you could exercise your conscience”.
You didn’t have to pretend to fall into line with the teachings of the Catholic church, which are often, if I can say it, based on nonsense.
So personally I have to say that what happened to me, and hopefully what happened with the community at large, was an opportunity at freedom and liberation.
Do you think there’s a battle brewing within the Catholic church between those forces of reform and conservatism, or is the crackdown on people like yourself and Bishop Morris a strong message to others not to rock the boat?
I think what you said at the end there is probably true, but you know you don’t have to be very avant-garde to be described as radical in the Catholic church.
It is the most conservative, fundamentalist church, particularly under this Pope, because he was very significant in the last pontificate of John Paul II, which went for something like 28 years.
He was, as they say, John Paul’s attack dog.
Many of us, we hung on, hoping that there would be quite a big difference when John Paul … went to heaven. But it was an amazing slap in the face to have Ratzinger made Pope.
That just crushed any hope you had left, that Vatican II had given us. You had this great hope, and it never happened, because John Paul II turned the second Vatican Council on its head, and so has this Pope.
How does St Mary’s in exile differ from your mainstream suburban church?
Women are marginalised by the Catholic church and always have been and always will be.
We have a list of women who begin the liturgy always, and they invite people to come up around the table for the Eucharist.
But the hierarchical church says no, only the ordained priest who has these special powers can celebrate mass. That’s nonsense, it’s the community who makes the liturgy happen, and the whole of the community participates in the Eucharist, which is why we got into trouble back in 2009.
What started you on the path you find yourself on today?
I came to South Brisbane to do the prisons, and I was quite naive, [had] no training to go into prisons, but I always wanted to work with the poor, but I didn’t know what “the poor” meant even.
But I discovered it when I started working in prisons — that we actually imprison the poor. So that radicalised me at the time. There was a riot in the jails in 1982, and wrongly I was seen by the hierarchy of the jails, to align myself with the prisoners.
I didn’t deliberately do that but I obviously did. And so I was stopped from going into the prisons by most prison officers. I think that radicalised me too. I’d done nothing to deserve this treatment, and I began to identify with those who were marginalised by society.
Karen and Peter Walsh, who were members of the community, ran a home at Albion for homeless kids. They came to live with me about 1985 at the parish house, and from that relationship, Micah Projects began.
Just towards the end, we entered into an agreement with Indigenous people here, but that was just stomped on by the hierarchy of the Catholic church.
So life goes on, because I do think that what is central to the message of the gospel is that the Jesus of the gospel is one who was identified with the marginalised and the poor. So I think that’s the mark of a Christian community.
Will the church remain relevant?
The Catholic church in this country, and in the Western world — I don’t think it can bounce back. There’s not much chance of some sort of radical leader coming to the head of the Catholic church.
I think that the Catholic church will be less and less relevant. Young people are not angry, they just find it not relevant to their lives.
So I don’t have much hope for the church. I think in 10 years’ time it may not really be operating that well at all.
There’s this huge walking-away from the church by its people, and rightly so because the church, instead of being concerned about the people, as we’ve just seen with Bishop Morris, they are only concerned about a theology that underscores power, and male hierarchical power, and claim that that’s the way Jesus set the church up, which is total nonsense.
Bishops are caught wherever they are, because a bishop has to promise obedience of mind and will to the Pope when he becomes a bishop, so you immediately give away your conscience.
It’s a sort of a totalitarian regime, it’s a fascist sort of state, where “branch managers”, as Bishop Morris called bishops, pledge total allegiance to one man, who’s just a man, and just like all of us, he’s a wounded person.
We’ve heard about the “temple police” who reported St Mary’s to the Vatican accusing it of unorthodox practices. Who are they?
They are a group of disparate people. In our case, the people who reported us to Rome, pathetic’s not the right word to use, but they were really sad people, and not very bright.
There were three or four priests, very conservative, very righteous of course. And Rome listens to them.
The sad thing is that the Bishops just don’t have that fortitude to stand up against Rome. It is amazing to people like yourself that they would lack that.
You know this film that Peter Hegedus has produced called “The Trouble with St Mary’s” — I want him to change that title and call it “Giving Rome the Finger”!