Imagine there’s no heaven…

11 Feb 2009

By The Record

An interview on ABC Radio revealed much about the convictions of the man in the middle of the scandal that is St Mary’s South Brisbane, and who has just been sacked by his Archbishop.
Anthony Barich reports.

Fr Peter Kennedy

Father Peter Kennedy does not believe in heaven. Nor does he believe in hell, and he’s hazy on the concept of life after death, if a recent radio interview is anything to go by.
These beliefs underpin liturgical problems and abuses in St Mary’s parish in South Brisbane that led Archbishop John Bathersby to advise Fr Kennedy to remedy them or remain outside communion with the Catholic Church.
With the advice unheeded, the prelate sacked him as the parish’s administrator last week, effective as of February 21.
Fr Kennedy, who will be replaced by Dean Ken Howell of St Stephen’s Cathedral as parish administrator, was given the option by the Archbishop to retire. The prelate’s decision follows a number of long-running problems at the parish.
Fr Kennedy, who revealed the extent of his belief in the afterlife in a January 27 interview on ABC Radio, has allowed his parishioners to design their own liturgy.
His resident priest Fr Terry Fitzpatrick was captured on Youtube baptising a young child with the words, "We baptise you in the name of the creator, sustainer and liberator of life", adding "who is also father, son and spirit". The priest then added: "That’s good, nice and cool"… and invited "everyone to put water on him".
The clip was quickly removed from the internet, but it is believed hundreds of children have been baptised with this formula, which the Congregation for the Doctrine and the Faith announced was invalid in February 2008.
Archbishop Bathersby will nominate a day “in the near future” when baptisms can be performed at St Stephen’s Cathedral and certificates issued to parents concerned about validity, or those who are adult converts.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made it clear that invalid baptisms cannot be dismissed and forgotten. They must be corrected,” the prelate told Fr Kennedy in the letter advising the priest of his termination.
For years the parish has had its own Eucharistic prayer, which is recited by the congregation as well as the priest, important parts of the Mass have been eliminated and Scripture readings have been swapped for other material.
The parish reportedly has a large and growing congregation, which Fr Kennedy has publicly said he may use to form a breakaway Christian community elsewhere in South Brisbane. "I’ve been here 28 years and I know this community is solidly behind me, and so we could go elsewhere," he has said.
In the letter advising him of his termination, Archbishop Bathersby said that should the priest carry out his threat, “I cannot stop you from doing so”, but warned that those who joined him would not be in communion with the Catholic Church, along with Fr Kennedy himself.
Fr Kennedy, a former navy chaplain whose parish has a strong social justice focus, said that “we as a community” at St Mary’s dispute the Archbishop’s claim of their self-excommunication. “We as a community belong to the Catholic tradition,” he said.
The priest also disputed claims of a Buddhist statue being placed in the church, which made headlines when an irate parishioner smashed it. The statue, which Fr Kennedy purchased with Fr Fitzpatrick, was not a typical Buddha figure, he said, but a statue of a “young monk with his head shaved” that could be mistaken for a Buddhist image. He also confirmed that a “Buddhist-Christian” group of 50 holds a meditation session at the parish church every Monday.
Fr Kennedy wrote to the Archbishop on January 12 inviting him to further discuss the situation at St Mary’s, but the prelate wrote back with a termination letter saying: “I see no reason to do so. I have repeatedly asked for changes but you and the community have not budged an inch.”
He said the parish’s instant disclosure to the media of his letters to St Mary’s has also given him “no reason to enter into discussion”. Fr Kennedy admitted on ABC Radio that “we broke liturgical rules”, and mentioned a Mass at the parish on January 25 when the Mass started with Aboriginal dancers performing and singing on the sanctuary instead of starting with the priest introducing the Mass with the Sign of the Cross.
He said he does not feel like he is out of communion with the Church.
Having arrived at South Brisbane in 1980 after being ordained in 1964, he said he quickly changed the furniture, giving away half the pews to leave “an enormous space” in front for the whole congregation to gather around the table – “not an altar” – for the Eucharist.
Fr Kennedy said that he changed the ambience to “celebrate a new way of being church, a new liturgy”, adding that any changes he made were always done in consultation with the people, including the liturgy. He said he has no regrets about being a priest, but would not become one if he had his time again – “not in today’s Church” which he described as a “club where you have to play by the rules or you’re out”. He said giving homilies and talking about issues in people’s lives is a “great privilege”, but said he hopes he does not preach to his congregation.
The social justice focus that Fr Kennedy has fostered was praised by Archbishop Bathersby, which he sincerely hopes will remain. The prelate also wants a return to a Marian devotional focus which “was normal in the past”, adding that he will do whatever he can to facilitate this devotion.
The Archbishop told Fr Kennedy that the decision to fire him from the parish gives him no satisfaction. “The separation of Christians is contrary to all that Christ prayed for,” the prelate said. “Nor does such division promote the Kingdom of God.” However the 62-year-old prelate added that he does not believe this division will be healed in his time. Bishops are required by Canon Law to tender their resignation at age 75.
In the meantime, the Archbishop asked all the faithful of the Archdiocese to pray for him and for all in the Archdiocese, especially the community at St Mary’s.