The Man Who Threatened Rome
A review of Peter Kennedy’s The Man Who Threatened Rome (One Day Hill 2009) by Beryl Myers.
(Reviewed August 2010)
Many people of other faiths, agnostics, Protestants and even atheists will find themselves backing the stand that Father Peter Kennedy took against the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He stands out as a ‘real good bloke’, coming into the public eye when the media reported how most of his congregation followed him when the Catholic Church authorities locked him out of his church, St Mary’s South Brisbane. The book Peter Kennedy: The Man Who Threatened Rome tells some of the story.
Just picking this book up and reading the chapter headings and authors’ names enticed me to read on. One of the quotes given after the title page really stood out for me: ‘The most important thing is not to stop questioning (Albert Einstein)’. Later, reading about the T-shirts some of the people wore in support of St Mary’s, I was wondering if they had perhaps thought of the slogan ‘Peter for Pope’!
The book, organised by journalists Martin Flanagan and Michele Gierck, and with an introduction by former priest Paul Collins, consists of contributions by a varied collection of writers. Some are from the St Mary’s congregation; others are by people of great standing in theology, journalism, social justice etc. Some contributions indicate the continuous pressure Peter Kennedy was under, describing how photos, videos and notes were taken during services by vigilantes and sent to Archbishop Bathersby, and later to Rome.
People were drawn to Kennedy’s congregation from all spheres, with no discrimination. Whether a person was Roman Catholic or Protestant, whether they were gay, divorced or a homeless derelict, they were welcomed. Once, during a sermon preached by another priest, a homeless schizophrenic man walked in and went directly to the chalice. He picked it up and gulped down its contents. Father Kennedy quietly took the man by the hand and led him back to sit beside him in the pew. He held the man’s hand and patted it every now and then to calm the man down whenever he began an outburst.
One contributor, Robert Perrier, says of St Mary’s: ‘One doesn’t get the impression that it’s run by anyone, and certainly not by an institution. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of organisation but everything that needs to get done, gets done.’
‘If Obama were Pope’ by Hans Kung (a Swiss Catholic priest and controversial theologian) draws interesting parallels between George W Bush and Pope Benedict XVI. He points out how President Obama is changing the Bush legacy by calling for a new era of responsibility, and is concerned with partners and allies. Pope Benedict, like Bush, is trapped in thinking in terms of friend and foe.
Those who didn’t follow the St Mary’s congregation when they began a St Mary’s in Exile church will be happy with the arguments in the chapter by Neil Ormerod (Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University). He writes: ‘In the end the issue is whether or not the parish was still operating as a Catholic parish. The responsibility to decide this matter lies with the bishop, not with the parish itself or its parish priest.’
There is a chapter written by John Shelby Spong (‘A Manifesto’) in which he spells out his beliefs that ignorance and truth cannot be placed side by side and evil is not made less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. He stands up for homosexuals and other marginalised people who the Catholic Church frown upon and he will not tolerate racism and sexism.
An ordained Catholic priest of 36 years, Roy Bourgeois began his questioning after surviving the Vietnam war. He suggests that all priests and Catholics should ask: ‘If we, as people of faith, profess that God created men and women of equal stature and dignity, if we say that the call to priesthood comes from God, then who are we, as men, to say to women, “Our call is valid, but yours is not”?’ Printed also in this chapter is Roy Bourgeois’ letter to the Vatican when he was told to recant his statements or be excommunicated.
The next chapter, written in support of Roy Bourgeois, is by Sister Joan Chittister and brings to light various US Catholic anomalies. The one that stood out for me was: ‘Even people who voted for Barack Obama have been told by some priests and bishops that they need to go to confession before they go to Communion.’
‘Message of hope’ is the title of the chapter written by Tom Uren. He writes: ‘I am not a Catholic but I have evolved in life, I have drawn on men and women of goodwill. My life has been influenced by people like Pope John [XXIII], Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and our Mary MacKillop.’ Although Father Kennedy is not mentioned, Tom Uren’s contribution shows that people of all religions can influence, for good, those who have a message for progress and compassion.
The last chapter, ‘Second meeting’ by Martin Flanagan, sums up Peter Kennedy as a humble, thinking man who would have been burnt at the stake if he had lived in an earlier age. When it was suggested that Kennedy’s name would be required in the book title to generate sales, Peter Kennedy reluctantly agreed, but suggested a subtitle from the movie Life of Brian: ‘He’s not the Messiah; he’s just a naughty boy’.
A percentage of the proceeds of the book sales will be returned to St Mary’s in Exile and Micah Projects (a social justice organisation that originated from the St Mary’s community).