No positive spin from Pell on wicked Redfern

Perhaps the most telling aspect of this week’s Redfern Catholic community Encounter documentary on ABC Radio National was the decision of Cardinal George Pell and parish priest Fr Gerry Prindiville not to participate.

The program featured the voices of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal parishioners who feel disenfranchised by the new style of ministry introduced by Fr Prindiville and other members of The Neocatechumenal Way. The current model represents a radical departure from that which was built under the leadership of Fr Ted Kennedy over 35 years.

The absence of Cardinal Pell and Fr Prindiville from the list of speakers symbolises the detachment of the parish administration from the life of the parish community. It was part of a rich tapestry of symbols depicted in the program.

"The carpet, which none of us likes, is here; we’ve always had bare boards," said parishioner Mary McMahon. "They’ve also put a dais there, which we also find inappropriate, as we don’t believe the priest should stand up above the rest of us."

We can surmise that that Cardinal Pell and Fr Prindiville didn’t want to have anything to do with the program because they felt they wouldn’t be given a fair go by what they imagined was the predictable and hostile "left-wing agenda" of the ABC.

In fact that fear was shown to be unfounded by the program’s presentation of the experience of Broome’s Bishop Chris Saunders, whose contribution amounted to a heartening endorsement of priests of The Neocatechumenal Way whom he’s had working in his diocese. Bishop Saunders related the positive experience that overcame his skepticism towards The Way prior to their coming to Broome.

He told producer David Rutledge: "Everything I see about it – the way they love one another, the way they support one another, as a way of helping people to walk more deeply, in a more committed fashion towards Christ."

The placement of these comments of Bishop Saunders could even be construed as suggesting that the communitarian dimension of The Way has the potential to provide an antidote to Fr Kennedy’s "awful loneliness" that was alluded to earlier in the program. At the very least, it challenges the contention of some of the other speakers that there’s evil at work in the placement of the Neocatechumenal community at Redfern.

Indeed the program’s failure to quiz Bishop Saunders about the role of The Way in the disempowering of the poor at Redfern suggests Rutledge is giving them more than a fair go. Saunders is after all also chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, which has a lobbying brief to bring the poor into the mainstream of society.

If Cardinal Pell and Fr Prindiville had participated, they could have explained why the parish administration is attempting to put a stop to the twice-weekly sharing of a meal at the church. It’s possible there is a good reason, but we do not know, because they have not made themselves available. As it stands, the program mentions that the Archdiocesan Charitable Works Fund is withdrawing funding for the meal, presumably on direction from Cardinal Pell. On the face of it, this is a travesty, and the faithful from parishes and schools around Sydney should be asking themselves why they should continue to give money to the Fund.

Without Pell and Prindiville, it was left to commentator and former priest Paul Collins to give the ecclesiological analysis. He relates the reluctance of the Neocatechumenate administrators to involve the Redfern parishioners in decisionmaking to a form of Catholic fundamentalism, and the fostering of what he calls "border-protection" – "a closed-shop mentality, indeed a sectarian mentality".

Bishop Saunders had put a strong positive gloss on what Paul Collins sees as the "bunker" style of The Neocatechumenal Way. It’s possible that this isolation from the people is in fact the best way for the Redfern administrators to proceed. But we don’t know, because we haven’t heard the argument. From what we can glean from the available speakers, the Redfern problem is about fear, and not positive pastoral strategy.

Paul Collins’ grim prediction is that the refusal of the administrators to engage in dialogue will destroy the community. That, he says, would be "a very wicked thing". In the absence of other views, this stands as the most plausible explanation.

© Copyright ONLINE CATHOLICS Ltd (ABN 63 107 718 703) Issue 10, 28 July 2004

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