Sydney Morning Herald, November 10, 2004
Multi-faith services and meals for the poor have gone from Redfern’s Catholic Church, writes Linda Morris.
Under the organ loft of St Vincent de Paul Church, latecomers fork through the remains of chicken stew and the crumbs of jam rolls while cheerful helpers chorus happy birthday for one of their own.
But the picture of good works at the twice-weekly meal for the poor belies simmering tensions between Catholic conservatives leading the Redfern parish and a diverse congregation with a reputation for social justice.
The new leaders of the church are accused of unchristian behaviour – of insulting an elderly nun and alienating the Aboriginal community with which the church has forged strong links.
In an open letter published in the e-magazine Online Catholics (see below), parishioner John Hill is the latest to warn of the "disintegration or even worse, the destruction of a parish" that for more than 30 years "has been a beacon of hope for social justice, the authentic Gospel teachings, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the rights of indigenous Australians".
The former priest has accused unnamed members of the clergy of unmannerly behaviour, of assaulting a parishioner for not quickly placing a host in his mouth, of telling an elderly nun she should look at herself in the mirror and of telling a parishioner she was in need of pyschological help.
The Sydney Catholic Archdiocese stands by the parish priests whom it says are "deeply committed to the mission", have been unfairly accused and have the support of the Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell. "They always endeavour to treat every member of the community with respect and courtesy, and do so in circumstances that are often quite difficult," a spokesperson told the Herald.
"The allegations made by a newcomer to the parish contain many errors of fact, including the allegation that a man was placed in a headlock when receiving communion, which is simply untrue."
Tensions surfaced after Father Ted Kennedy, the long-time parish priest who helped make the church a focal point for Redfern’s Aboriginal community, stepped down to be replaced with followers of the highly conservative Neocatechumenal Way.
The movement, founded in the early 1960s in the slums of Madrid, aims to restore the ancient process of adult Christian initiation and, while admired for its Christian commitment and missionary zeal, it has been criticised for dividing parishes, and accused of secretiveness and authoritarianism.
The movement’s strictures have collided with a church community that has embraced diversity in worship and welfare as an expression of Christian principles.
Paul Collins, a liberal Catholic commentator, says the neocats, as they are commonly known, are one of a handful of religious ecclesiastical movements to flourish under the John Paul II papacy and whose mission is to empower the laity to spread the Gospel.
Patriarchal in structure, their focus is on evangelism and building a closed community. The decision of the archdiocese to install the movement in Redfern, a church which had adopted an open approach to contemporary issues, was bound to be provocative.
"It was a disastrous action to do this because the Archdiocese of Sydney and ultimately Cardinal Pell had to know this was going to lead to terrible conflicts in the Redfern community, but also for the neocats who are totally unprepared for the complexities and sensitivities of the kind of mission that Kennedy was all about. There is a sense that they too have been placed in an impossible situation," says Collins.
The wrangling at St Vincent de Paul’s has spilled over into debates about the use of church property, including the right of parishioners to hang a picture of the late Mum Shirl Smith, a co-founder of the first Aboriginal medical service and mother figure to many Aboriginal parishioners, behind the altar and the right of non-Catholic Aborigines to be buried by the parish priests.
St Vincent de Paul’s multi-faith services, started after the sinking of the Siev-X, have been abandoned, parishioners say, and they fear their unrenovated presbytery ,which they want as a youth centre and residence for the parish priest, will be sold off.
The archdiocese denies any plans "at present" for parish property to be sold or redeveloped. "The archdiocese has recently sought professional advice as to the structural soundness of the existing buildings and will, along with the parish priest, be considering options for restoration consistent with the needs of the parish and local community."
The Archdiocesan Charitable Works Fund withdrew funds for the twice-weekly meal for the poor in June at, it said, the request of an "Aboriginal leader, who had concerns about safety and hygiene and also thought it was not helping the self-respect of the community".
The meal service survives on donations and the goodwill of a dozen volunteers. Helper Mary Mahon said she had been told the church was not an appropriate place to serve free meals. "We say there is no more appropriate place for it to be in than here if you really believe that Christ was here for the poor and the sick. There is no safer place."
Disaffected parishioners have assembled a dossier of their troubles on their website, Church Mouse, and are preparing a formal complaint, comprising nine statutory declarations, to take to Pell and a panel of senior clergy. Hill is not hopeful of reconciliation and says letters and petitions to Pell "about the deteriorating condition and the pain inflicted on the community at St Vincent’s" have not been given due consideration.
Parishioner Jack Callaghan, among those who claim to have had a confrontation, is defiant. "The hope is we’ll pack up and go but we’ll stay on."