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It’s some time now, a couple of years, that I have been following the vicissitudes of a small Australian parish community, that of St Vincent’s in Redfern, a poor suburb of Sydney, whose population is mostly Aboriginal. Naturally, I do this via their web site, Church Mouse.
This community grew and matured under the guidance of two extraordinary people, the priest, Ted Kennedy and Mum Shirl, an activist who was herself Aboriginal. Fr. Ted Kennedy, called ‘the priest of the Aborigines’, achieved, through his respect, his personal poverty and the spirit of Vatican 2, a true inculturation of the traditions and customs of the Aborigines in the Gospel and in the liturgy.
The community of St Vincent’s, which Ted directed for almost 30 years, was characterised by its commitment to the Gospel, the warmth of its welcome, its strong community spirit, its openness to the most progressive things that came from Vatican II, its care for the poorest, its intense concern for social justice, and above all its activism for reconciliation between the two Australian communities, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
Mum Shirl died in 1998, Ted in 2003. For their services to the Aboriginal community both received The Order of Australia.
However, already before the death of the priest, Cardinal Pell disapproved of the positions Ted Kennedy took up, regarding them as excessively radical. To deal with the problem, in 2003, when it was necessary to relieve Fr. Kennedy because of his health, he took the decision to put the parish in the hands of the Neocatechumenal Way.
This incomprehensible decision has produced an enormously tense situation at St Vincent’s, that gets worse with every day. As it seems they are accustomed to do, the NeoCatechumenals have come in without any respect for the particular characteristics of the community of St Vincent’s, with their own celebrations apart from the rest of the community, their own liturgical norms, the disrespectful treatment of Aboriginal customs and of the peculiarities of this parish and also the marginalisation of the poorest, the most simple and uneducated who make up a good part of it.
In spite of everything, the Community of St Vincent’s keeps going, working at its task of integration and of service, not only without the support, but even with express boycott, of its Neocatechumenal priests.
In all this effort to keep the original spirit of St Vincent’s alive, in the mobilisation of the efforts (so far fruitless) to get the Archbishop of Sydney to send it more suitable pastors, in its role in keeping alive, in spite of everything, the flame lit by Ted Kennedy and Mum Shirl, the web has played a decisive role. But it has been painful to follow the series of frustrations and disagreements involved, and in me myself it has produced , on more than one occasion, a profound anxiety, like an intense emotional identification, to see how our brothers in the Antipodes share the problems that we (whether communities or close groups) experience here.
However the community doesn’t lose hope and keeps struggling because they know they are not alone. In the web and in the old blog they can see many testimonies to the network of support and solidarity that has been established between other communities whose parishes have been handed over in the last few years by Cardinal Pell to conservative institutes or movements like the Neocatechumnenal Way or Opus Dei.
One of the latest items on the site is the news of a private celebration for Spanish Neocatechumenical pilgrims to World Youth Day with the priests of the parish which was held behind closed doors and with no access to members of the community.
Another example of disagreement is explained in detail in the entry No meal for the Pope. The community, in what it considers one of its principal services, organises twice a week a shared meal in the church itself (Sharing the Meal). It is open to anyone in need who wants to come, generally more than a hundred of the poorest people of the suburb – the photo on the web is of the special Christmas meal. The Neocatechumenal priests and the few ‘missionary’ families sent by Cardinal Pell, refuse to participate in any way with the rest of the community in this service. But it doesn’t end there. Because of the visit of the Pope and the presence of Neocatechumenal pilgrims to World Youth Day, the parish priest decided unilaterally to suspend the shared meal this week, arguing, to the shock and incomprehension of the community, that the church was needed for sessions of catechesis with the pilgrims. This very clearly demonstrates the difference of sensibilities.
In what can be seen as a sad counterpoint to the great Via Crucis that is going to be staged this week, the parishioners of Redfern wrote on the wall of the church some years ago, (and they have written it there again each time the Parish Priest has rubbed it out), this sentence:
I will conclude with a final reflection taken from this recent entry (worth a full read, in English), which very much reflects the sentiments of this community and refers specifically to WYD08:
I beg you to pray for a short while, not for WYD08 (Benedict XVI himself has asked that and you can do so if you wish), but for the community of St Vincent’s in Redfern Sydney, and for its efforts to bring about the Kingdom in spite of all.
1. We love the Church; we work in the Church; we feel ourselves members of the Church; we value the Church; and we know that we have met Jesus thanks to it. We know many believing groups and individuals who have strengthened our faith.
2. The Church grieves us; it grieves us that its closed-mindedness to certain modern values keeps so many people away from the Gospel. We affirm that within the Church positions are held (in the areas of organisation, of relations with society or of sexual morality) that are a true scandal for our contemporaries.
3. At an official level, channels and attitudes for dialogue on burning issues are lacking. Often there is silence as if things were taboo, or there is recourse to authority to silence dissident positions.
4. We see renewal in the Church as essential if it is to continue its mission: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus and collaborating in the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
5. Encomun is for many of our communities a place of reflection and dialogue about the renewal of the Church. Our communities’ own experiences are a sign of a Church renewed and refreshed. Therefore we desire that these reflections, which we wish to share with the people of God, can serve to continue this task.
While we wait for structural changes to happen in the Church, we will dedicate ourselves, through the modest means at our disposal, to curing wounds, feeding hope and joining our efforts at dialogue with those of all people who feel the way we do.