IT'S TIME TO TAKE A STAND
by Fr John Crothers
Earlier today I had a meeting with one of our parishioners. Anne (not her real name) has suffered from severe depression for many years. She comes to see me about once a month. We talk together, and we pray together. Her life is extremely difficult and I just hope that our sessions help her in some small way to face another day.
Anne also suffers from coeliac disease and is unable to eat even small amounts of gluten. When she comes to communion at the parish masses she always receives a gluten-free host. Today I had to tell Anne that we could no longer obtain gluten-free altar breads for her. I had been advised that the Congregation for the Faith had determined last year that gluten-free hosts "are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist" and that all manufacturers and suppliers were to cease production and distribution of them. Anne was devastated. She will no longer be able to receive communion in the normal way. She will not be able to receive communion when she is sick. She will no longer be able to receive communion at the Communion Service that she attends regularly. She was extremely upset and angry.
I knew at that moment that something had gone seriously wrong with our Church. This was the very criticism Jesus constantly leveled at the Scribes and Pharisees, letting religion become an end in itself. I knew in my heart that I had to take a stand, not just about the banning of gluten-free hosts, but about a growing tendency in our Church to ignore the rights and needs of faithful Catholics, in the name of religion.
Over the past few years there has been a concerted effort by some bishops to push the Australian Church further to the Right. Certainly here in Sydney Cardinal Pell makes no apology for his ultra-conservative views. And neither should he. Being conservative or liberal is neither right nor wrong, it's just the way we are. The problem arises when conservatives, or liberals, fail to see that there are other people in the world whose views also need to be respected and listened to.
When Cardinal Pell arrived in Sydney three years ago he came in a blaze of media publicity. Like many priests in Sydney I knew little about him, and was somewhat bemused by all the fuss. It wasn't long though before I realised why Cardinal Pell's style of leadership generated such controversy.
As priests in the Sydney Archdiocese we are often counseled by "head office" to tread carefully when we move to a new parish. "Don't arrive and immediately start changing things. Get to know the people first. Find out why things have been done a certain way - there just may be a reason for it. Respect what the community has done, and the work of the previous pastor." It is good advice. If there is one thing that distresses a parish community it is seeing their years of work overturned by a newly appointed, gung ho parish priest with a very different model of church.
This can also happen at the diocesan level, and it happened in Sydney. Cardinal Pell, very early on, set about changing the Sydney Archdiocese to fit his own particular model of Church. One such example was the Good Shepherd Seminary. The Cardinal spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of Archdiocesan money to remodel the relatively new seminary chapel along very traditional lines. There was no consultation with the diocese generally, there was no consultation with the clergy, and there was no consultation with the Council of Priests. If I had done the same thing in a parish situation I would not only have been seriously challenged by the parishioners but also rapped over the knuckles by the bishops.
At another level Cardinal Pell's conservative outlook has led him to make a number of public statements that I feel have been inappropriate and unnecessary. His Divorce Tax Proposal was a case in point. Surely people who have been through the trauma of divorce do not need their bishop telling them they should pay an extra tax. Many Catholics were deeply hurt and offended by the statement.
More recently two other issues have arisen in the Archdiocese that have caused further tension and polarisation among the Catholic community. The appointment of the Neo-Catechumenate to the parish of Redfern was, by any objective criterion, a strange decision. If there was one parish in Sydney where you would not send a very conservative group like the Neo-catechumenate it would be Redfern. Surely it was obvious that this provocative move would cause further division in the Archdiocese.
Perhaps even more alarming was the Cardinal's decision to set up a second Catholic university in Sydney alongside the Australian Catholic University. Once again there was no proper consultation with the Archdiocese, or with the stakeholders.
I mention these examples not to be critical of Cardinal Pell but to point out the weaknesses of a particular model of Church and a particular style of leadership. I speak about the Sydney situation because that is the one I know well and have experienced at close hand. I am sure there are other dioceses where similar things are happening.
The fundamental problem with this sort of conservative leadership style is that it is exclusive and inflexible. Its exclusiveness expresses itself in an "us and them" mentality. I think this is one of the main reasons for the current low morale among the Sydney priests. Many feel that they are "on the outer" because their model of church does not correspond to the highly conservative model that is being pushed at the moment.
The inflexibility of this particular model of leadership is expressed in the way the institution is seen as more important than the people in it. The gluten-free host issue is a typical example. I simply cannot understand how bishops can argue that this is what Jesus would want. Jesus' way of ministering was anything but rigid and institutionalised. He focussed on people, rather than laws. In particular he was always inclusive, rather than exclusive. I feel that many of our Church leaders need to reassess the current model of Church leadership in the light of Jesus' own style of leadership.
It is not easy to publicly criticise the Church hierarchy. As in all institutions there is strong pressure not to rock the boat, not to "break ranks". I write this article the day after the feast of Mary MacKillop and I think I am getting some sense of what Mary must have felt in deciding to challenge her local bishop.
I hope these thoughts are received in the spirit in which they are given. I welcome any feedback.
Fr John Crothers has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Sydney for the past 19 years. He has worked in seven parishes in various parts of the Archdiocese and is currently the parish priest of Peakhurst and Penshurst parishes in Sydney's southwest. He may be contacted at St Declan's Parish, 92 Penshurst Street, Penshurst NSW 2222.