Friday, February 5, 2010

St Mary's and Peter Kennedy - the Book

It's been about 7 or 8 months since I've written on St Mary's South Brisbane and the dramas there with the former priests, Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick. I had promised I would write something about going back to St Mary's but it seems other things got in the way. I have been pretty much a regular at St Mary's since the change took place last year. I don't live in the area anymore so I don't know how long I can sustain it, especially as, coming up this year, I have quite a bit of housesitting quite a few kilometres away in the southwestern suburbs. Along with quite a few others my main purpose in going back was to provide support in a difficult time and to ensure that a diversity of congregation was maintained. And lets face it I like the church and the community there. It still makes a nice contrast to some of the more mainstream suburban parishes I've visited.

I've not been to what's been termed St Mary's in Exile, at least not for their regular services in Trades Hall. However, last December I did attend a book launch for Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened Rome (published by One Day Hill), a compilation of essays and reflections, in large part by people involved in or sympathetic to the Exile community. The launch seemed much more like a religious service - possibly something out of Hillsong - than any book launch I'd been to previously (I'm not used to community hymn singing at a book launch, for instance). And unlike other such launches it was the subject/s of the book, Peter Kennedy as well as Terry Fitzpatrick, at the centre of attention and signing copies of the book, not the authors/editors.

I have to admit the title of the book put me off. It buys into what is by now a founding myth of a new religious denomination forming amongst the exiles, that Peter Kennedy, alone standing for the principles of Vatican 2, was the victim of Vatican powermongers, aided and abetted by local reactionary Catholics dubbed the Temple Police. The first essay in the book, by Paul Collins, someone who did, unfortunately, get monstered by the Vatican apparatchiks, assumes that this myth is a realistic account of the events that led to the dismissal of Peter Kennedy and the community's move into exile/separation. I only wish the myth was a true representation of the facts in which case Collins' essay would have been quite apropos. But the reality is that the final upshot of the saga was very much a local affair, as much to do with Terry Fitzpatrick as Peter Kennedy and very little to do with either local reactionaries or Vatican enforcers.

But of course Paul Collins was not to know that and so I can't judge his essay too harshly. The real story behind the events will probably never enter the public domain and so reading Collins' contribution was for me a salutory process enabling me to make a perspectival shift before proceeding with the rest of the book. The rest of the book is fascinating, irritating, moving, depressing, confusing, inspiring and enlightening. It is, as the back cover blurb says, an assembly of voices, an assembly framed by a two part hagiography of Peter Kennedy by Melbourne based journalist, Martin Flanagan. There follows a large section - nearly 60 pages - by Michele Gierck titled "The People Speak" a series of sketches of eleven people involved with St Mary's (including Gierck herself and Terry Fitzpatrick). That's followed by some 21 essays/reflections mostly by people who are part of the St Mary's community or others commenting on the events. However there are other essays by such as John Shelby Spong, Hans Kung, Roy Bourgeois and Joan Chittister that I presume were chosen for their illustrative effect. None of them reflect on the St Mary's events or betray any evidence of awareness of those events. Kung, Bourgeois and Chittister have all in their own different ways fallen foul of the Vatican and so their essays presumably are meant to illustrate the Vatican power dynamic that was likewise supposed to have also rolled over Peter Kennedy. I strongly recommend the essays by Roy Bourgeois and Joan Chittister. They make a trenchant critique of the authoritarianism and patriarchal clericalism that is one of the key problems of the Roman communion. Kung's essay,'If Obama Were Pope', no doubt written in the heady early days of the Obama presidency, reads now as rather embarassing in its naive understandings of the dynamics of US presidential power. One thing we don't need in the Vatican is a charismatic and popular Pope; the last one was John Paul 2 and he was a disaster! The Spong piece is his recent Manifesto in which he declared that he is no longer going to debate the issue of homosexuality in the Church with those pushing homophobic agendas. I'm sympathetic to Spong's position. I get sick to death of always having to go over the same old stuff too. I'd love to move on myself - I've spent many years reading some most odious materials. I'm much more interested in developing very different readings and understandings of biblical and other texts that will help open up especially Christian possibilities for new ways of living, beyond patriarchy, sexism and patriarchy. In the St Mary's context, Spong's piece is presumably designed to reflect the reasons for going into 'exile'. Peter, Terry and community are no longer going to waste time debating with or justifying themselves to the patriarchal homophobes in the Vatican and the local Temple Police.

However, the remainder of the contributions reflect and comment on the issues at St Mary's and many of them are from members of the community and supporters of Peter Kennedy. Some of the pieces, like the four from overseas, were presumably first published elsewhere. Certainly the critical piece by Neil Ormerod, 'Mary Mary Quite Contrary', I remember reading last year, on Eureka St, I think. Some of the essays, like that of Paul Collins, take as their starting point the foundation myth of Vatican bullies and Temple Police, but others are more far-ranging and get into a range of issues that are highlighted by the St Mary's experience.

The strength of the book is those contributions and accounts of the ordinary members of St Mary's. It's a strange experience for me to read these accounts because of the shared ideals, often even shared languages. I know the well that St Mary's drew on. That well lay deep in the long traditions of the Catholic left, in particular the Catholic Worker movement and I think also the Poustinia movement. St Mary's in its heyday would have come very close to the vision of one of the early figures of the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, who imagined every Catholic parish operating a house of hospitality and active with the poor and outcast, building community and developing spirituality, not least by maintaining some sort of rural retreat. Each parish was to be a centre of activism in which the seeds for a new human-centred (not profit, not power driven) society would be sown. St Mary's didn't have a house of hospitality but it had a community orchard planted around the old presbytery and it also had Micah Projects, a government funded community agency. Peter Kennedy also had a property up in the Numinbah valley with little cabins for people to go and spend time in reflection. I spent a few days there myself many years ago in early '91.

But the crisis at St Mary's stemmed in part from a form of thinking in many Catholic circles that saw the 2nd Vatican Council as the Roman Church finally catching up with the Reformation. Vatican 2 was all about 'relevance' about modernising the Church and the modernity looked to was pretty much a Protestant Reformed modernity. This suited some of the more conservative circles who could engage in liturgical changes and purges of the calendar of saints and changes in clerical dress etc while not really addressing the underlying issues of power in the church. JP2 drew on such aspects of modernity as PR and the cult of celebrity to reinforce his authoritarian Papacy. He also heavily promoted a variety of rather strange and dubious movements to counter more progressive and dissenting movements in the Church.

But the same modernising discourse was embraced by many Catholic progressives as well. They were able to draw on it to develop critiques of Church power structures, often by looking to Protestant models or through liberation and feminist theologies. All too often, however, there came a jettisoning of any sense of value in the past/tradition, under the influence of modern myths of progress. The Roman Church was regarded as a medieval institution that had to shed all its backwardness to enter the modern age. In actual fact the Roman Church was/is as medieval as, say, the Anglican Church, having been very much remade through the 16th century Council of Trent and then through the various settlements of Church and Papal power in the 19th century. It was only in the 19th century, with the rise of secular societies, that the conditions developed, which enabled the full flourishing of Papal power and Vatican centralism. Papal Infallibility was only declared as an item of necessary belief in 1870 at Vatican 1, at the same time as the secular power of the Papacy was stripped away by the new Italian state. In purely political terms, losing that secular power was probably the best thing to happen to the Papacy. In some respects the post-1870 church anticipated various developments in the modern world. It became an international corporation operating under a democratic centralism that would put Lenin's to shame while the purge of the Modernists a century ago was every bit as ruthless as the late Bolshevik purges, albeit without the bloodletting. Papal infallibility itself would be echoed in conservative Protestantism with the notion of biblical inerrancy which became a key plank of the fundamentalism born in the US a century ago. So one could say that the Roman church was as thoroughly modern as any other aspect of modernity.

There were aspects of Catholicism, that sat awkwardly, were even embarassing, in the liberal bourgeois order. The cult of Mary is one such example and certainly over the last few centuries the place and figure of Mary had been progressively diminished within the Church from the great Mother and Queen of Heaven figure of medieval Latin Christendom. Her diminution mirrored the rise of the patriarchal nuclear family as the structuring base of the capitalist state. This diminution was accelerated post-Vatican 2 under the perceived need to get to a more Christocentric (and masculine?) focus in the Church.

I'm not knocking Vatican 2 or saying that there should not have been changes. Many of the changes I think were desirable and necessary. Others I suspect were distractions or were driven by a modernist desire to rid the Church of perceived medievalisms. But the real problem in the church is the problem of power, the centralising clericalism, which has its roots most strongly in the medieval reform movement of the 11th and 12th centuries in the Latin West (and in which the 16th century Reformation also has its roots). What's so rotten about this clericalism was illustrated by the various clerical sexual abuse scandals over recent decades. But those scandals were on symptoms of a continuing problem of power by which the local church operated as a branch office of the Head Office in Rome and the clergy were held up on a pedestal to function as agents of that head office.

In its early days I think St Mary's had the potential to challenge that clericalism and to do so from within, reconfiguring the language and traditions of Catholicism. I've written about this in some of my earlier posts. But in the end it failed to do so, taking instead a reprise the Reformation and more recently wandering into an almost post-Christian New Age realm. The St Marys exile church seems to have become pretty much a form of liturgical Unitarian Universalism. That's fine, of course, if that's what you want but is quite definitely not Catholic, whether it be Roman, Independent, Orthodox or even Anglican (which allows for a wide variety of styles).

And that is why, in the end, Peter Kennedy was not any kind of threat to Rome at all. By adopting a post-Catholic, even post-Christian, universalism, Kennedy and the community took themselves out of any Catholic orbit and abandoned any attempt to reconfigure Catholicism, from within its own terms (Roman and non-Roman), abandoned any shared discursive framework by which to challenge Rome on its own terms Instead they had developed into a new sect. And the even greater irony was that, far from threatening Rome, in a sense there was an emulation of Rome. Rome had its cult of personality around JP2 and I think in the latter years a cult of personality had developed around Kennedy. It's understandable - he had been a good priest. But I wonder if, towards the end, that cult of personality took him over. It's very easy for something like that to happen and certainly there were aspects of the book launch and the, dare I say, veneration of both Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick displayed there, which gave me pause. And I couldn't help but think that this is the same old Roman clericalism reinscribed.

But by all means get a copy of the book. The questions raised, the hopes expressed, the visions dreamed have not lost their urgency, relevance and import. St Mary's was a model for how a church of Catholic tradition could be. The crisis last year arose because the priests and other leaders of the community had pretty much lost their moorings in Catholic Christianity. They were becoming, will become a distinct separate denomination, only vaguely Christian. On the other hand, the ongoing parish community has had to almost start again from scratch. It's early days yet but I hope that St Mary's may again one day model a way for church of Catholic tradition to be. Who knows, it might even one day genuinely threaten Rome, or even liberate it. Ah, but there I fall into utopianism.

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