The recent passing of (Sr) Pat Durnan has been an occasion for yet another eruption of dysfunctionality in the relationship between the church community of St Vincents Redfern and the incumbent priests – both members of the internationally established and Vatican approved group known as the Neo Catechumenate.
Pat was, of course buried with due respect and celebration in Melbourne. Nonetheless there are many in Sydney who remember her with fondness and wished to mark her loss to us in a fitting way. After discussion with her Order, it was decided that Fr John Ford, who knew Pat well, would be the ideal celebrant in a Requiem Mass. It is fitting to add that (Fr) John Ford is a senior priest who remains active in retirement and is very highly regarded and loved as a compassionate pastor.
As has been noted, the approach to the Parish Priest, either directly or through his curate has met with rebuttal and an insistence that any ceremony would be the prerogative of these same priests alone. (This is the very antithesis of an unwritten courtesy worldwide which prefers the offer of liturgical hospitality if ever a priest friend of the deceased is available.)
The impasse at St Vincent’s was lent an added twist by the refusal by both priests to make any announcement at all of a time and a date. The request for an open announcement was made both on Friday 26th and on the Sunday 28th. The embargo also included the absence of any mention at all in the Sunday bulletin. On being questioned as they were leaving the church on Sunday as to details, it was quietly (defensively? – we can only wonder) said by the priests: “Tuesday at 1.00.pm.” When asked to make a general announcement they refused. No reason was given except the comment: “if people are interested, they will make the effort to find out”. Well they had to, didn’t they?
Apart from what has already been said, the complete absence of any consultation (much less negotiation) simply compounded a very distasteful episode. It wasn’t likely that the community would do anything other than seek an alternative. Nothing however, could have prepared the writer for what was to occur on the appointed day.
On the Tuesday, I hadn’t made up my mind about attending until I received a call from another member of the community to be there. So I went.
The proceedings could be well described as falling into two quite distinct and contrasting categories: the first an experience of graced and prayerful silence (in spite of the nonsense which characterised the priests’ behaviour); the second, an experience of quite unbelievable sham.
The priests arrived around 30 minutes before the nominated time. The Tuesday Sharing of the Meal had taken place and all was tidied up. Three people (myself included) were in the church in quiet conversation. After some preliminary preparation of the altar by the priests, a small wooden cross with a small picture portrait of Pat was placed back on the altar (supplied by Steve). Otherwise only a white covering cloth and two lit candles remained. It was, at least, a dignified setting.
I sat in the back row directly opposite the altar. From there I could take in the view of Pat’s picture leaning against the cross. The scene was reminiscent of the occasion of Ted Kennedy’s funeral when, with the altar placed back against the wall, the central position was occupied by the coffin. The similarity was that for what seemed a spellbound length of time then, there was total silence in the church. The difference was that, on that occasion, the church was “packed to the rafters” Now there were the two priests and the original three (men), soon to be joined by a fourth. There were no women present.
But there was the prayerful silence. Once more one could think of Pat, her smiling face in view. Even imagine the altar symbolising her coffin. Moments to be thankful for.
At the appointed time Clesio Mendes, exercising his prerogative as Parish Priest, presented himself at the lectern and commenced the ceremony. Two of us present were invited to participate in the readings and “prayers of the faithful”- supplied in prepackage by the priests. To be fair, on two occasions Clesio did ask if there were any spontaneous prayers forthcoming. Personally I sensed no movement within, which is my preferred prompt for such contributions. Somehow the ambience seemed too tainted with artificiality (to say nothing of the intransigent behaviour of the priests in the previous few days) for open expression of prayer. My inner self was silent and so I remained outwardly so … none of the three responded either.
There were some short readings (the sort Ted would call “high Christology”). Nothing hit the mark. There was a sermon too, by Clesio. By way of introduction, Clesio mentioned twice that he had been asked to hold this ceremony. ( I wondered “by whom?”) It’s true that he praised “Sr Pat Durnan” whom he had not known. And then the penny dropped.
I had stood to the side after reading out the prayers and for some reason my gaze fell blankly on the altar. There was nothing there. No chalice, no breads, no pattern. Nothing. Even had the church been filled, there was no intention to celebrate a Eucharist. The ceremony to celebrate the life of a true saint – not the generic classified ones like you and me- but a true saint who personified Christ with rolled up sleeves and unbelievably persevering service in the most difficult of circumstances – years of it – was to be nothing more that a minor liturgical formality. I sensed that the women who had stayed away in droves would have not been at all surprised.
Steve was wonderful. He wasn’t going to let them get away with it. Up he went and remonstrated – without mercy! The two clerics were sufficiently intimidated to form a huddle. Clesio disappeared into the sacristy and reappeared with a ciborium. Again Steve remonstrated. He wanted a Mass … Alas … A soufflé doesn’t rise twice and a Neo Cat only relents once.
We had, at least, a Communion Service. Christ had come to honour a Servant of Love!