John Paul’s words a weapon in parish war

The Australian, August 05, 2006

Help now or in the hereafter? Different approaches by modern missionaries have stirred tensions in Redfern, writes Peter Lalor

Put tree around pope’s words: Garry Griffiths in front of the mural he painted inside St Vincents Church, Redfern. Picture: James Croucher

LAST Saturday night, a group of conservative Spanish missionary priests held their mass in a middle-class Redfern terrace. The Eucharistic loaf was baked according to a strict recipe and the furtive community prayed like early Christians.

Nearby, at their empty Catholic church, a confronting mural was drying on the walls. The work featured the words of reconciliation spoken by Pope John Paul II to the Aboriginal people in 1986.

For months, a group of 20 Aborigines and Christian activists had planned the painting in secret. They did not tell the new parish priest, Father Gerry Prindiville.

On Saturday afternoon, a small group moved in with ladders, stencils and paints. Somebody had the key to the adjoining medical centre, which allowed access to the St Vincent de Paul property. Somebody else had left a door open so the guerilla artists could gain access.

Garry Griffiths, a Redfern resident for the past 48 years and one of hundreds of Aborigines who had slept for years in the presbytery with the former priest, Father Ted Kennedy, was one of the artists.

A member of the Kamilaroi mob, he painted his totems: an emu and a goanna. He helped put the tree around the former pope’s words.

“We had nowhere to plant one so we painted one,” Griffiths explained.

On Sunday, scores of locals turned up for the special ceremony to mark Pope John Paul II’s visit 20 years earlier. “Mate, I was so proud, it was the best turn-up we’ve had here for a long time,” Griffiths said. “Our people’s faces lit up when they saw it.” But Father Prindiville’s face fell noticeably. It was the latest act of rebellion in Redfern’s religious war.

On the outside wall of the church somebody has scrawled these words: “Crucified on every city sidewalk, the Aboriginal Christ should be free in his own church, among his own people in Redfern.” The message is notice of a conflict that is getting more heated by the minute.

On one side of the battle are the Kooris and community workers; on the other the Cardinal George Pell and the conservative evangelical priests called the Neo-catechumenal Way. The Way is a Spanish missionary movement set up in the 1970s by an evangelical painter who was a student of Picasso.

It has hundreds of thousands of recruits around the world, two seminaries in Australia and was only recently recognised by the Vatican.

The Neo-catechumenal missionaries were sent into the parish in 2003 by Cardinal George Pell after the retirement of the beloved Father Kennedy a year earlier. The Way does not hold with social work, is not fond of open masses and has turned its back on decades of liberal Catholicism practised in Redfern.

Redfern is a unique parish and the church, under guidance of Father Kennedy, established a strong social presence and was associated with the medical centre, housing initiatives and other welfare works.

Everybody was welcome at mass, including drunks, the mentally ill and those whose need for a cigarette out the back meant they could never sit still long.

Since Kennedy’s retirement – he died in 2005 – things have grown progressively less tolerant and occasionally ugly. Cardinal Pell calls it “painful” and blames “extremists” in the community.

There are allegations from both sides. The old Redfern mob reckon a new priest threw the Aboriginal cross across the floor and smashed its stand. People have been manhandled, mass has been interrupted and Aboriginal services dishonoured.

Father Prindiville is considering removing the new mural. “I don’t know whether I will leave it or not,” he said.

Aboriginal deacon Frank Cain, who helped celebrate Sunday’s service, said the Way had alienated his people and the wider parish. “These Neo-catechumenals have their place in the world, but Redfern is not it,” he said.

“We believe in a Christ that walked with the people and not on them or above them.”

Cardinal Pell says most of the people causing trouble are not locals, but agrees that he wants the church in Redfern to move away from social work and concentrate on souls.

“I believe as a serious Catholic that the best thing we can offer to people who are suffering, or in some cases degraded, is religion,” Cardinal Pell said. “There’s no long-term help for anyone in Redfern simply by handing out condoms or syringes or a few bob to clean the church, that’s paternalistic.”

Yesterday morning at the back of St Vincents church, Griffiths’s asthmatic lungs fought vainly to get a breath as he huddled over a cup of hot tea, his wet hair dripping.

He and 20-odd other locals had sought shelter from the rain in a soup kitchen run by a group of social workers after Friday mass.

Father Prindiville and a Brazilian assistant, Father Clesio Mendes, had just finished the ceremony and rushed out past the cold and hungry crowd. “He doesn’t want to know about us,” Griffiths says. “They don’t really want us here.” The social workers say the priests won’t help carry in the food. At one stage the archdiocese even cut off funding for the soup kitchen, but wide protests saw it re-established.

The Way priests also took the Saturday night mass service away.

Cardinal Pell says it was to avoid troubles at the service, but it is standard practice for the Spanish group and one the Vatican has warned them about, instructing members to attend public Sunday service at least once a week.

The Spanish movement refused permission for outside priests to say a mass at the church on Saturdays, forcing the locals into the nearby medical centre.

Earlier, the priests had removed a portrait of Aboriginal welfare worker Mum Shirl from a wall in the church, but the locals replaced it, Father Prindiville took it down again, but it went back up and has stayed ever since.

Cardinal Pell says he is willing to go to Redfern to sort out the problem, but months of negotiations have gotten nowhere. “The parish clergy continue to have my full support,” he said. “They have been subject to regular abuse, harassment and provocation, often during the mass itself.”

Members of the local community defend it, saying that they speak up in church because it is the only time anybody is listening.

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