The outsider

09 Nov, 2013 04:00 AM
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His support for the ordination of women and an incident over the Eucharist saw Greg Reynolds excommunicated from the Catholic Church. But as Stuart Rintoul discovers, this rogue priest is not giving up without a fight.

Not long after Greg Reynolds was born, he contracted pneumonia. The doctor did not hold out much hope and told his mother, Patricia, to send her other children away for a while and throw open the windows to the winter air. "If he's going to survive, he's just got to fight the elements," the doctor said. The boy recovered, although for a long time he was weak and spindly. His mother, a devout Catholic, always believed that he had been saved by God for a purpose.

Sixty years later, Greg Reynolds sits at a kitchen table in a small rented apartment in Melbourne's south-east, speaking quietly in a soft laconic drawl. His excommunication from the Catholic Church is on the table between us, slipped neatly into a plastic folder to keep it straight and clean.

Written in Latin, a language he never learnt, it comes from the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) and carries the authority of Summus Pontifex Franciscus, Papa (Pope Francis). It convicts him of heresy (Canons 751 and 1364) and blasphemy (Canon 1369), which he has been told relate to his support for the ordination of women and his celebration of the Eucharist after his priestly faculties were withdrawn, and excommunicates him in accordance with Canon 1367, which refers to a person who "throws away the consecrated species or takes or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose", which appears to relate to a strange incident where a dog received communion.

Reynolds has been defrocked and excommunicated "for the good of the church". He shakes his head and says he feels like an ant who has been hit by a hammer. "How can they, who are so big and so powerful, be so frightened of me?" He notes that paedophile priests have been defrocked, but not excommunicated: "How can they see this as so much more serious than that?"

Greg Reynolds's trouble with the Catholic Church began three years ago, when he made up his mind to support the ordination of women. But his journey began in May 1953 when he was born, the third of four children, into "a pretty average Catholic family" who lived in a mile-long middle-class street in East Bentleigh, in Melbourne's south-east.

His father, Ralph, converted to Catholicism to marry his devout wife. Greg and his two older brothers, Paul and Phillip, were altar boys and went to Catholic schools. Greg's friend from that time, Chris White, recalls that he was always studious, gentle and kind, but says that he was surprised when Reynolds became a priest because he also liked to go to ballroom dancing to meet girls.

After completing an economics degree at Monash University, Reynolds started questioning whether there was more to life. A friend of his mother's suggested he enter the seminary, where others were surely grappling with such questions.

"I went into the seminary not even sure that God existed," he says. "I didn't put a time frame on it, but it was certainly just going to be a temporary arrangement, 'til I got a few answers and then I'd get out."

He enjoyed it and began to think that he could be a priest. "But it's a bit awkward if you don't believe in God," he says laughing. "So I gave God, if She's [sic] out there, a bit of time, saying, 'You're going to have to sort this out because I can't go on here indefinitely.' "

One restless night, he broke down in tears of frustration. "Nothing happened, the darkened room did not light up, but, looking back, from that day the sense that there is a God began to grow." In the months that followed, he prayed and meditated and gradually "the whole spiritual reality opened up to me, not in any dramatic way, but just that subtle but deep sense that God is out there and Jesus is the way".

In 1977, he travelled to India and Nepal with four other seminarians and came back with a strange story. He told his family how he was waiting for a bus one day in Kathmandu when a boy came and stood beside him, begging. Reynolds brushed him aside, got on the bus, looked out the window and his eyes locked with the boy's. "They were the eyes of Jesus looking at me," he said to his family. "He asked me and I let him down."

Consumed by guilt, he gave away material things. Years later, after his parents died, he gave away most of his inheritance to the needy.

Reynolds was ordained in 1979. He spent three years as a curate in Sunshine, in Melbourne's west, working with an elderly Irish priest, then became a chaplain to the deaf for four years. For two of these, he lived at the presbytery in South Melbourne with the irascible priest Bob Maguire, who enjoyed a thorny relationship with his archbishops.

While working with the deaf, Reynolds stepped towards solitude, asking Archbishop Frank Little for permission to become a novice at Tarrawarra Abbey. One of Australia's most closed and contemplative monasteries, Tarrawarra, in the Yarra Valley north-east of Melbourne, is home to a community of Cistercian monks, the Trappists.

He read the works of the New Zealand-American monk Thomas Merton and, after three years, went back to Little with the "hare-brained idea that I was being called to be a hermit". Little made him a chaplain at the Mercy Hospital for two years, then relented and gave him permission to live as a hermit for a year - which became a decade.

For the first three years, he lived in a bush shack at Longwood, in central Victoria. He spent the next five in a one-room brick hut built for potato diggers at Trentham. There was no electricity, an open fireplace, tank water, single bed, desk and chair. From there, he went to a shack at Warburton, in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne, for two more years.

He celebrated Mass alone, read and meditated and passed more than 10 years with the grudging support of Little and his successor, George Pell, who was "extremely supportive". "It was great, just felt right for me," he says. "It's a very unusual calling, but it has always been there in the history of the church." He says he can think of nothing in his background that drew him into silent contemplation. "It seems as odd to me as to anybody else."

On a soft autumn day in October, we return to Trentham and spend some time with Tom and Mary Walsh, the elderly parishioners who allowed him to stay there in the potato diggers' hut. Asked what she thinks of the path Reynolds has taken and his excommunication, Mary Walsh replies, with Irish equivocation, "Well, of course we are traditional Catholics, but we have always been very fond of Greg."

Reynolds returned to parish life a less conformist priest. At Donvale, in Melbourne's east, he irritated traditional parishioners and delighted others by saying "in the name of the Mother" rather than "in the name of the Father" at the end of Mass. The pastoral associate there, John Lazzari, describes Reynolds as "a priest of a deep spirituality" and "a very good man" and says his excommunication is "clearly wrong".

By 2010, Reynolds was parish priest at Western Port, on the Mornington Peninsula, and it was there that he decided to speak out in favour of the ordination of women. Friends advised him to be cautious, but he would not be persuaded. He thought, "Damn it, I'm going to say it."

He wrote to Archbishop Denis Hart, informing him of his intention and then at three Masses across the parish said he believed it was God's will to have women priests and that denying women the right was "obstructing the work of the Holy Spirit".

He tells me that as "an insignificant little parish priest'' he lacked the profound theological training to contradict papal teaching, "but some things you just know in your heart, in the core of your being". At each Mass, he says, there was strong applause.

It did not extend into the Cathedral. Hart responded, by email, that he should recant or resign. Reynolds replied that he intended to do neither, but resigned nevertheless as the parish priest a year later, in August 2011.

By then, he had made up his mind to become a priest for the disaffected - those who thought of themselves as Catholic, but were at odds with the church on women's ordination and homosexuality, as well as victims of clerical abuse and those who were divorced.

He was inspired by the outspokenness of Peter Kennedy, a priest for 40 years who was defrocked in 2009 and founded St Mary's in Exile in south Brisbane, and had closely followed the battle of American priest Roy Bourgeois, who was laicised last year after a five-year battle over women's ordination.

Michael Kelly, a former Franciscan seminarian and organiser of the Rainbow Sash movement -which campaigns for acceptance of homosexuals in the Catholic Church - had met Reynolds around 1998 through a network of people who were attempting to live "contemplative lives". He regarded Reynolds as a man of "deep and simple spirituality". When he learned Reynolds had resigned from active priesthood, he advised him to "build a community". Reynolds established the group Inclusive Catholics.

On the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011, Reynolds celebrated the group's first illicit Mass. He said his actions were founded on justice and compassion. Conscious of the implications, he preached, "I take comfort from the words of St Thomas Aquinas: 'I would rather be ex-communicated than forced to act outside my conscience.' "

Then in August last year, the consecrated bread of the Angels, the Eucharist, was given to a dog during communion. The Age religion editor Barney Zwartz reported it this way: "A first-time visitor arrived late at the Inclusive Catholics service in South Yarra with a large and well-trained German shepherd. When the consecrated bread and wine were passed around, the visitor took some bread and fed it to his dog. Apart from one stifled gasp, those present showed admirable presence of mind - but the dog was not offered the cup!"

Reynolds says he did know the man had shared the Eucharist with his dog, and he would never have given communion to a dog, but that it was "just one of those odd things that happen" and "a bit of a non-event". He was sorry to hear that the dog died not long afterwards.

The Catholic Church did not regard it so lightly. Hart described it as an "abomination". He demanded Reynolds cease acting publicly as a priest and disassociate himself from groups acting in defiance of Church authority. The following month, Reynolds was advised that Hart had begun the process to have him defrocked.

But conservatives demanded more. The Catholic blog Australia Incognita fulminated, "Why haven't Fr Greg Reynolds and 'Inclusive Catholics' been excommunicated yet?" Criticism was directed not only at Reynolds, but also at Hart. In England, conservative priest Ray Blake said he felt angry and sick and criticised Hart for tolerating an "anti-Church" preaching heresy to dissidents. "I really cannot understand why this priest, having celebrated the sacraments whilst suspended, was not excommunicated," he wrote.

In the middle ages, public excommunication was sometimes accompanied by a ceremony in which a bell was tolled, the Book of the Gospels was closed, and a candle snuffed out: condemned "with bell, book, and candle". Reynolds's excommunication was much more prosaic.

In September this year, he received a phone call from the Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, Reverend John Salvano, "inviting me to come and have a chat about some canonical issues". They met on Wednesday September 18 at the presbytery. He expected to be defrocked.

Reynolds thought Salvano, whom he knew from seminary days, seemed uncomfortable. Salvano handed him the decree, gave him a "rough translation" of the Latin, and discussed the canonical violations. He told him he was the first priest in Melbourne to be excommunicated and that it was not sought by Hart but by unknown people who had contacted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which requested Reynolds's file.

Salvano said that Hart was shocked and presumed the excommunication was based on a misunderstanding of the dog and the Eucharist incident. The meeting lasted half an hour, and when they rose the two men shook hands, and Reynolds drove home. In quick time, Wikipedia added his name to a list of people excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church that includes heretical theologians, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Henry IV of France (who retaliated by "excommunicating" the Pope), Napoleon, Fidel Castro and Australian saint Mary MacKillop. Excommunication means Reynolds is forbidden to have a ministerial role in the celebration of any sacraments or acts of public worship, receive any sacrament, exercise any Church ministry or hold any office in the Church.

When we first speak, soon after the excommunication, Reynolds says he feels "indifferent" to it. "I just don't take it too seriously, really," he says, but adds that it seems "excessively heavy-handed" and that Church reformers will be concerned that it has been done under the seal of the new pope.

Bob Maguire, forced into retirement last year at age 77, is appalled by Reynolds's excommunication, but had warned him against putting his head in the lion's mouth. "It's all bullshit, isn't it?" Maguire says. "Catholic bullshit."

He describes Reynolds as "a man of principle" and "a good bloke", from a family that was "true-blue Roman Catholic". Reynolds, he says, has been denied a fair hearing and drummed out of the church by an ecclesiastical "kangaroo court". "His tour of duty, I would have thought, entitled him to better treatment. I would love to see the transcript of evidence. It is outrageously draconian. In secular society you wouldn't get away with it."

At Geelong's St Mary of the Angels parish, priest Kevin Dillon, an outspoken advocate for victims of paedophile priests, says it is concerning the church's most severe penalty has been applied in circumstances clouded by a lack of disclosure: an invisible accuser, unspecified charges, no opportunity for defence, no right of appeal. Dillon was the vocations director at the seminary when Reynolds began his journey into the priesthood and was his parish and school priest. He says while he does not agree with Reynolds on all things, he is "a fine and compassionate human being".

At Inclusive Catholics, Irene Wilson, a "cradle Catholic" who has led the liturgy at the group's illicit services, says that what has happened to Reynolds is "absolutely horrendous". "He is such a good man, working for a church that we all love so much, to make it more relevant, where all are welcome and women can be ordained," she says.

In a 500-word statement, which the Melbourne archdiocese says will be its only comment, Vicar General Monsignor Greg Bennet says the decision "by Pope Francis to dismiss Reynolds from the clerical state and to declare his automatic excommunication has been made because of his public teaching on the ordination of women contrary to the teaching of the church and the fact of his public celebration of the Eucharist when he was forbidden to do so and the manner in which the celebrations occurred".

He says that Hart and others sought "in a spirit of pastoral and fraternal concern to encourage Greg Reynolds on repeated occasions to cease his activities contrary to the teachings of the church but without success. The possibility remains open for the excommunication to be lifted upon Reynolds manifesting through his actions and teaching a serious commitment to return to full communion with the Church."

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Reynolds stands at a pulpit, preaching to a congregation of Inclusive Catholics in a Protestant church hall, a green Catholic stole draped across his shoulders. There are about 150 people in the hall, more than usual. He says his excommunication is complex, but that God has a talent for turning mess into goodness.

"We are only here really because we love the Church," he says. "It is our Church and we are not walking away from it, we are not going to abandon the Church, because we are the Church. We can't walk away from ourselves."

SMH

COMMENTS

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Some complete ignorance on manufacturing by GFA. I note the release this week that the biggest
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coles and woolworths did and are still doing this with homebrand milk. is the accc
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George is cute and beaut! Fab idea.