In the next few weeks, one of Brisbane’s largest Catholic parishes will face effective excommunication from the Catholic Church in what will be the kind of PR disaster normally reserved for the Anglican Church.

The parish of St Mary’s South Brisbane — in the electorates of both the Prime Minister and the Queensland Premier — has long been “non-conformist” when it comes to following the Vatican’s conservative dictates.

The parish priest, Father Peter Kennedy, does not wear vestments during communion services, encourages women to preach sermons and blesses same s-x couples — among other transgressions from the Vatican’s orders.

The Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, is one of the Church’s more tolerant leaders, but Rome has given him the task of bringing St Mary’s into line. Or else. His task has been futile from the outset.

Despite numerous attempts to reach an agreement with the parish for it to conform with the Church’s rules and traditions, Father Kennedy and his congregation of around 900 have no interest in giving in, or even compromising.

Given the ultimatum the Archbishop has issued to the parish — which it has rejected outright — he now faces the messy task of effectively “excommunicating” the parish from the Church, and effectively “defrocking” the parish priest and his assistant.

The long-running dispute between the Archbishop and the parish has been in the headlines in the Brisbane media for the last couple of years. On Monday, the Courier-Mail launched a strong attack on the Church and a defence of Father Kennedy and his parish but that won’t make any difference where it counts — in Rome.

For years the conservative elements in the Brisbane Diocese have been insisting that Archbishop Bathersby ensure that priests, and parishes, conform with the Vatican’s dictates on a range of issues. More than once, complaints have been made to the Vatican about the usually tolerant approach of the Brisbane Diocese, and its Archbishop who is well known for his support for the ecumenical movement, especially with the Anglican Church in his capacity as joint head of the worldwide Catholic-Anglican dialogue.

But not even the Archbishop will be able to give in on the dispute with St Mary’s and on a couple of the issues, even the Archbishop on his own would not be able to tolerate the parish’s refusal to conform.

The Trades and Labor Council of Queensland — which has its headquarters a short distance from St Mary’s — has offered the parish “alternate accommodation” for its services; it may soon have its offer taken up.

This dispute between Rome, its Brisbane Archbishop and a recalcitrant parish is already causing the Church considerable public discomfort — and worse is to come, much worse!

Peter Fray

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