No accord on inter-faith service

An article by Jeremy Hartcher in Issue 2/2004 of The Southside News, a publication of the University of Technology Sydney Journalism program.

It includes comments attributed to Cardinal George Pell on the Redfern situation that some might consider defamatory.

Parishioners at St Vincent’s church in Redfern have been refused permission to hold an inter-faith service. [see also {rdlc Is this an ecumenical Church?}]

Organisers say assistant parish priest, Father Dennis Sudla, told them the service is inappropriate for the church – although the inter-faith event has been held at St Vincent’s on two previous occasions.

"Dennis told us that St Vincent’s is not an ecumenical church and that such a service would be inappropriate," said Mary McMahon who organised the first service in 2001. Father Sudla did not respond to requests for comment.

St Vincent’s new priests belong to a conservative, tradition-based movement within the Catholic Church, called the Neocatechumenal Way (abbreviated to Neocats)

The inter-faith event is called a Mass of Compassion and brings together Muslims, Jews, Sikhs as well as other Christian denominations to celebrate humanity and togetherness.

This recent commotion over the use of the church building is the latest confrontation in a series that have taken place since the former parish priest, 74-year-old Father Ted Kennedy, resigned in late 2002 due to ill health. Father Kennedy, an iconic figure in Australian Catholicism, presided at the Redfern church for 30 years. His liberation theology approach to ministry often put him at odds with Church authority but it endeared him to the Aboriginal people of Redfern.

Liberation theology, which developed among South American clergy in the 1960s and 70s opts to put church resources into liberating people from poverty and oppression.

Ted Kennedy’s sister, Marnie Kennedy, a Sacred Heart nun said her brother’s approach to ministry was effective. "A little while back, before he got really sick, Ted came to visit the parish. It was amazing, the church was packed, mothers everywhere were bringing in their kids to meet Ted. And people were hugging him and telling him how much they loved him and that they missed him", she said.

In 2002, the ailing priest received a commendation from Pope John Paul II in recognition of his work for Australia’s Indigenous community. After multiple strokes later that year, Father Kennedy retired.

His replacement, Father Peter Carroll, resigned after a brief eight month stint. When Father Carroll left, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell appointed Neocats, first Father Gerry Prindiville, and later, Father Dennis Sudla to run the parish. Some parishioners complain about not being consulted before the appointments.

In an interview for UTS NewsDay in September, Dr Pell said, he believed stronger leadership was needed to stabilise the Redfern parish. The Cardinal blames the congregation at St Vincent’s for Father Carroll’s resignation and says the appointment of two traditionalist priests was needed because of the existing conflict. "I appointed Father Peter Carroll, a gentle man, and these people [parishioners] ran him out of the parish.”

This is strongly denied by a number of people at the church. One spokesman said Fr Carroll did not engage with the community.

Commenting on continued tensions at St Vincent’s Dr Pell said: "I don’t think Redfern needs handouts, the place is full of people trying to do good, with handouts and that. What they need is gospel preached to them. What the locals need is some sort of personal sense of identity or sense of integration that’ll help get their life together. And for the long run the Neocatechumenal people are better equipped to do that than most because if you send in an isolated individual priest there, with no lay support – he would’ve just been crucified too", he said.

When asked about complaints from members of the congregation on the lack of consultation, Dr Pell said, "Well I would say they should start to practice what they preach. In other words, practice regularly basic Christianity and basic courtesy".

Arguments over the use of the church building happen regularly at St Vincent’s. The arguments highlight the differences between Father Kennedy’s approach and that of the new priests. Many Aboriginal people, who are not churchgoers, use the premises as a gathering place and were encouraged to do so by Ted Kennedy.

While Kennedy was there St Vincent’s did not display the typical adornments of a traditional Catholic church. An Aboriginal flag and a picture of a much loved Aboriginal elder, Mum Shirl adorn the walls where the Stations of the Cross would normally hang. Mum Shirl died a few years ago. The new priests have installed a rectangle of carpet and a low dais.

The changes caused St Vincent’s regular, Michael Gravener to describe it as a new form of colonisation. "It’s a bit like Captain Cook coming back into this country and just walking into an environment which the Aboriginal people of Redfern find very sacred", he said.

Dr Pell has said that both Father Prindiville and Father Sudla have had experience with indigenous people living in urban communities. Father Prindiville, an Australian, was brought from the US after a stint as a missionary in the West Indies and Father Sudla came from his home in the Philippines.

But Marnie Kennedy says the Neocatechumenal approach is simply too conservative for a place like Redfern. She believes the priests have alienated Redfern’s Indigenous community and told ABC’s Radio National a request by an Aboriginal family to use the church for a funeral was rejected. "We have had hundreds and hundreds of Aboriginal funerals over the years. Ted never questioned whether they were Catholic or not. But a few weeks ago one of the elders died – Aunty Betty. Her family had to go around to the priests’ place, to ask permission to use the Church. But Gerry (Prindiville) didn’t give them any condolence. He said, ‘are you Catholic? Is your mother a Catholic? If not how could she be buried in the church?’" Sister Kennedy said on the Religion Report in July. [more here]

Aunty Betty’s son had been shot dead several years ago and the St Vincent’s community helped her through the tragedy and it was her wish to be buried there, Sister Kennedy said. She had a strong connection to the church but Father Prindiville’s abruptness and lack of compassion denied her that request, she said. "So that sort of thing goes round the Aboriginal community like fire. They have an enormous underground communication. So they pass on to each other that this is not the place to come," said Sister Kennedy.

The new priests at St Vincent’s say their desired direction for the church is not radical. "We want to run it like a normal parish where the priest is there, with the co-operation of the parishioners, working together to preach the gospel, to catechise the children and to administer the sacraments", Father Prindiville said on Radio National.

Michael Gravener believes the church is more than an ordinary, normal parish. Mr Gravener wants the church to continue to act as open and welcoming place for the local community, churchgoers or not.

And Ms McMahon agrees which is why she sees the church as an ideal location for the traditional inter-faith service. Father Prindiville who supported the last inter-faith service in 2002, told Southside News that it would be inappropriate to hold the service this year because of "internal problems" at the parish. Mary McMahon said: "We see St Vincent’s as a neutral ground to celebrate our humanity and to hold out hands of togetherness. It worked before and we want it to happen again," she said.

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