Church Mouse vs the Neocats

On July 31 I posted a story drawn from the Sydney Morning Herald on the continuing dispute between the parishioners of St Vincent’s Catholic Church in Redfern and the Neo-Cathecumenal priests assigned to the parish by Cardinal Pell after the legendary Father Ted’s health forced him into retirement. In that post, I mistakenly noted the the Church’s blog, Church Mouse Journal, had not been updated since the trouble boiled over into the national press in May. I’m grateful to Len DiLorenzo, the blog and website’s maintainer, for letting me know that the blog is still very much alive and for providing me with the accurate link to it.

Trouble continues to percolate through the community church and recent news reports and posts to the blog are beginning to fill in more details of the conflict between the priests and the parishioners they are supposed to be ministering to. Two stories are particularly disquieting–no, they are shocking.

Details of one remain unclear–for legal reasons–but stem from remarks made over a year ago by one of the priests, Father Dennis Sudla, about one of the parishioners, Clare Maguire, that she considered to have damaged her reputation in the parish. The occasion was an exchange between the two in August 2005; it occurred during the offering of flowers in remembrance of the victims of the Hiroshima bombing. (The blog notes in the context of stories about this year’s Hiroshima Day remembrances that Catholic priests had blessed the bombs before the were dropped.) Attempts to engage in discussions and achieve a reconciliation between the two parties proved fruitless. Letters written to the priests were dismissed as impertinent, accusations were denied, and often the complaints simply went unanswered. Maguire pursued the matter through the church hierarchy, from pastor to monsignor to archbishop before ultimately ending at the Ecclesiastical Regional Tribunal for New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. In what seems a stunning conclusion, the Tribunal “issued a definitive judgement in response to Clare’s petition in which the Judge determined that Fr Sudla had defamed her. Sudla did not exercise his right to appeal and the case is now completed” (Church Mouse Journal, August 18, 2006). The Journal goes on to note that Fr Sudla has been in the Philippines since October 2005 doing missionary work “near his family who need his help.” 

Back in Redfern, judgements of a different sort are at the heart of another grievance against the parish priests. In a letter to the pastor at the center of the controversies, Fr Prindiville, outlining their concerns, the parishioners put forth the following questions:

We are deeply concerned that you and your assistant priests have seen fit to ignore and ridicule lawful customs of our parish. How many Aboriginal funerals have there been here during the last three years? How often have we seen Aboriginal members of this Community publicly challenged about their state of sacramental preparedness at the very point of receiving the Eucharist, and turned away from the altar, confused and humiliated? We are painfully aware that non-Aboriginal people are treated differently. To refuse Holy Communion to any person not prohibited by the Church from receiving the Eucharist is a violation of the norms of the Church you say in your letter “must be respected by all”.

What exactly is meant by “sacramental prepardness”? The website Catholic Answers puts it this way: “To receive Communion worthily, you must be in a state of grace, have made a good confession since your last mortal sin, believe in transubstantiation, observe the Eucharistic fast, and, finally, not be under an ecclesiastical censure such as excommunication.” What the priests’ public challenge amounts to then is an open denunciation, a pronouncement that the priest knows that the parishioner is in a state of mortal sin. More simply, bound straight for hell. To die in a state of mortal sin is to be unredeemable, to be cast out from God for all eternity in torment and damnation. If the language I use seems a bit over-purpled, well, that’s how the Catholic Church sometimes likes to put it to effectively scare the sinner back into the fold. This kind of behavior makes “defamation” seem puny in comparison.

Such actions on the part of the clergy violate so many fundamental precepts of the Catholic faith that I hardly know where to begin, but let’s start with the “sanctity of the confessional.” Remember old black-and-white movies where the priest knows the secret that the plot hinges upon, but he can’t be moved to reveal it? Well, it looks as if the Neocats don’t have even as much respect for their principles as a Hollywood padre, since they presume to make public some intimate knowledge of the state of a parishioner’s soul. Then there’s the concept of “examination of conscience,” by which one acknowledges sin to oneself: it seems that the priests can see into the conscience of their congregation’s members more clearly than the people can themselves. It’s not surprising that the parish is scandalized, and that Catholics around the country and overseas are taking note of this egregious behavior.

When the parishioners made what Fr Prindiville regarded as an overtly political statement during the Offertory prayer recently, Prindiville and his assistants stopped the Mass immediately and walked out of the Church. This action too deprived the community of the Eucharist, although not in quite so pointedly personal a fashion. The following week, Fr Prindiville made it through the entire ceremony, but left immediately upon its completion, not staying to listen to the reading from the Church lectern of an open letter to him from four parishioners, and refusing to speak to any members of the congregation. While it may look like the Neocats are in full retreat, I suspect they are stonewalling more than running for the hills.

It has often been said that Christianity, and most particularly Catholicism, is absolutely inimical to Aboriginal spirituality. The Catholic insistence on the fundamental separation between spirit and flesh and between heaven and earth is antithetical to the all-embracing nature of the tjukurrpa. The insistence on the One True Church, with its revealed and unalterable dogma stands in sharp contrast to mysteries of the Dreaming, its dynamism and its accommodation of new revelation. The Christian focus on the world to come reverses the Aboriginal commitment to follow up the Dreaming. Catholic Churches have been critcized for superficially “aboriginalizing” their liturgy by accepting dot-painted vestments or stained glass with Aboriginal inspired motifs, smoking with eucalyptus instead of swaying censers of frankincense, or the singing of hymns in language. But in the end, its critics say, the Church will never and can never accommodate itself to Aboriginal systems of thought, for that would be to deny the primacy and incontrovertible nature of its own revelation.

And yet it seems that for the past thirty years, St Vincent’s Church in Redfern has achieved some kind of meaningful reconciliation through the ministry of Father Ted and his work for social justice with Mum Shirl. It was Pope Paul VI, after all, preaching to indigenous people in Latin America, who first exhorted “If you want peace, work for justice.” But the Neocats want to segregate “social and justice issues” from the celebration of the liturgy. That which defines the Church, in their view, can not tolerate the slightest deviation. The Church in Redfern, whatever its flaws and problems, entered into the lives of many of the Aboriginal people there, and it seems to have accomplished some good in the process. All that looks to be in danger of coming undone through the intransigence of a few clergymen, including Cardinal Pell.

If it turns out that the Catholics are correct and all men will one day stand in judgement before their Divine Creator, and be asked to examine their consciences, and to give an accounting of their works upon the earth, perhaps these clergy will find themselves quoting Paul Keating when he spoke to the people of Redfern and Australia:

“We failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.”

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