The move by the Catholic Diocese of Brisbane to close down its rebel priest and congregation at St Mary’s Parish in South Brisbane is rapidly becoming more than a mere PR disaster and it is starting to get international coverage as well.

It runs the risk of empowering priests, and parishes, elsewhere in the church to stand up to the hierarchy — and to the conservative dictates emanating from the Vatican in particular.

The Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, dismissed rebel priest Fr Peter Kennedy last week, but not only has he refused to leave, he has whipped up levels of congregation and wider support that must be more than worrying for the church hierarchy.

Yesterday’s mass, defiantly attended by Fr Kennedy — but not by the priest the Archbishop nominated as his replacement — drew a congregation of close to 2,000. At the same time, a well publicised public ceremony at Southbank — a couple of blocks away — for the victims of the Victorian bush fires drew no more than 300.

Compromise seems as far away as ever and, short of calling in the police to evict Fr Kennedy and hundreds of his supporters, the Archbishop’s chances of gaining control of the parish are actually diminishing.

What will be alarming the hierarchy even more is the growing interest in the struggle by the St Mary’s congregation elsewhere in the Catholic Church.

The next showdown may well involve a diocesan bishop not far from Brisbane.

The Catholic Bishop of the Toowoomba Diocese, Bishop William Morris, is under investigation for daring to raise the possibility of married priests, or even women priests to address the chronic shortage of clergy in his vast diocese.

The Bishop is well known as a moderate in the church and widely regarded for his commitment to ecumenical relations with other churches, notably the Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Churches in his diocese.

He faces a real dilemma. By 2014 most of his priests will either have retired or be eligible for retirement — reducing his clergy compliment from 40 to just 6.

In the face to complaints from the church’s “temple police” — the same group who instigated complaints against St Mary’s parish — Bishop Morris has been under investigation for the last two years. Under investigation for merely asking questions about how the diocese can possibly provide the clergy its parishes need.

Like Fr Kennedy, Bishop Morris is showing increasing signs of being defiant, telling the local media that he would not be silenced and would continue to ask questions.

The attempted removal of Fr Kennedy is making headlines around Australia and it is starting to get some coverage overseas. If, as is widely expected, Bishop Morris is next, then the coverage given to Fr Kennedy may well pale into insignificance!

Peter Fray

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