Friday, 20 January 2012

Sale's Pentecostalist bishop: healing the virtual schism?

I've been trying to finish each week with a look at a diocese with a good news story to tell, and I want to continue that pattern today with a look at the diocese of Sale in Victoria.

Source: diocesan website
This might seem a rather surprising choice to some in terms of having a good news story to tell, and it is true that is early days yet for this diocese, given that Bishop Christopher Prowse, now aged 58, was only appointed in 2009.

Nonetheless, as we continue to hear reports, both official, from the head of the Congregation of Bishops, and in the form of Australian rumours to the same effect, of priests saying no to offers of episcopal appointments, I think the efforts of someone who said yes and is working to heal the deep rifts in this diocese deserve to be made more widely known.

Sale: the challenge in a microcosm

This is a diocese where the virtual schism within the Australian Church between orthodox catholics and liberals is more visible than in many, made particularly manifest in the long running, but now settled case of Fr Speekman (on which see below), but also through the ongoing efforts of a group of orthodox catholics in the region who publish the excellent Into the Deep newsletter.

Many have disagreed with some of the particular calls Bishop Prowse has made since he took over.  Nor will traditionalists or perhaps even many conservative catholics feel comfortable with his Pentecostalist-charismatic style of spirituality I suspect.

Nonetheless, this is a bishop who, in a relatively short period, has taken some very important and positive steps towards restoring catholic life in the diocese and so I think, particularly deserves our support and prayers.

Let me explain why.

The diocese of Sale

Source: ACBC
Sale is the fourteen ranked geographical diocese in terms of Catholic population, with around 96,000 catholics, and takes in 44,441 sq kms.

It takes in Gippsland (East Victoria) and at its western end includes rapidly expanding outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The Cathedral is in the town of Sale (population 13,336 in 2006), but the bishop has shifted (or is in the process of shifting) the diocesan bureaucracy and his own residence to Warragul, which is much closer to Melbourne (104 kms compared to 212 kms from Sale) the main population centre for South West Gippsland. 

In terms of priests, the diocese has more or less held its numbers overall over the last couple of decades, mainly due to an increase in religious priests, though a number of parishes were without a priest due to retirements. In 2010 the diocese had 43 priests in total (32 diocesan) and five permanent deacons.

Sale Cathedral, from the diocesan website
Fr Speekman and the virtual schism

The festering sore in the diocese has long been the case of Fr Speekman, whose sermons you can read on his blog.

You can read the chronicle of the whole case through various editions of Into the Deep and other places, but as far as I can work out, the story goes as follows.  Fr Speekman is a strong advocate of a return to a genuinely catholic approach to education, who was removed as parish priest of Morwell by the previous incumbent, Bishop Jeremiah Coffey following complaints mainly from school authorities to the effect that his insistence on orthopraxis in relation to the sacraments, and handling of the issue, amounted to bullying.

Instead of backing his priest, the then bishop, Bishop Jeremiah Coffey first removed his authority over the schools, and subsequently deposed Fr Speekman's as parish priest. Fr Speekman appealed to Rome and was successful: the bishop was ordered to reinstate him immediately.   The Bishop refused to do so, and instead appealed the decision.  He lost again, but once more refused to comply with the (new) order to reinstate Fr Speekman.  Instead, the bishop appealed once more, this time to the highest court of appeal, the Apostolic Signatura.  Before the appeal could be heard however, he reached the age limit and retired.

There was a widespread hope that the new appointee, Bishop Prowse would withdraw the case.  He chose not to do so, however, and the final outcome was that the Bishop Coffey's decisions to depose Fr Speekman were ultimately upheld.  Nonetheless, Fr Speekman is back working in the diocese and the Bishop has undertaken to talk to him about a fresh appointment there.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular case and more particularly its handling (and a number of other not entirely unrelated ones), it is pretty clear, as Into the Deep has chronicled in detail, that this is a diocese where liturgical and other abuses, and error have been rife, and where the proper relationships between clergy, laity and agencies in the diocese have become unbalanced.  And where the school system in particular is, as in so many places, less than obviously catholic in character.

Correcting these problems is going to take time and a lot of effort.  With the case settled there is now a chance to move forward, and Bishop Prowse seems to have taken a number of important steps in this regard.

Bishop Prowse: a focus on mission

Bishop Christopher Prowse of Sale is 58, and was appointed to Sale in 2009.  Before that he had been an auxiliary of Melbourne.  Bishop Prowse holds a doctorate in Moral Theology from the Lateran.

In terms of spirituality, I gather Bishop Prowse is an advocate of the charismatic movement: he described the late Bishop Grech as a "Pentecost Bishop", and I suspect he'd like to be similarly described.  Certainly his two pastoral letters so far have both been issued for Pentecost Sunday, and reflect something of a pentecostalist flavour.

While I have to admit I rather cringed when I read that in the lead up to one of these pastoral letters, a series of regional forums were held where people were asked to stand up and 'testify' to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, an evangelical fervour of one variety or another is particularly called for in this diocese, and while I would quibble about some of the particular pitch, they do go to important issues.

In his Inaugural Homily, Bishop Prowse said:

"We find too many Catholics absenting themselves from the practice of their faith or even becoming non-believers ...We find Catholics in public life or the scientific world confused or ignorant about Catholic teachings on ethics or conscience ...This new situation demands that Catholics today are to be well formed in their Catholic faith and well informed of the world around us. It is not the time to be 'dumbing down' Catholic identity. Quite the opposite is called for ..."

The Bishop's first pastoral letter (Pentecost 2010) focused on giving the diocese a more missionary orientation, with a refreshingly direct presentation on the reasons to evangelize not just our own parish communities, but also those who are no longer practising Christians, as well as those who have never been Christians.

The second proposed as the pillars for the diocese's direction a deepening of devotional life, linked to an active missionary life, based in the family.


This is also a diocese that has to get big brownie points for its promotion of the Traditional Latin Mass, clearly intending for it to act as something of a corrective to some of the problems that have crept into the celebration of the Ordinary Form there! 

Bishop Prowse appointed the priest who has long said the Latin Mass in the diocese, Fr Andrew Wise, as dean of the Cathedral.  And through Fr Wise's efforts, the first Solemn EF mass was celebrated there this year for the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral in the presence of the bishop, and attracted a strong crowd of around 120 people. 

Better still,  it provided an opportunity for great catechesis on the liturgy and the continuity of the tradition, with a series of articles (and pretty piccies) over several months in the diocesan newspaper preparing and promoting the Mass, and then explaining why it is celebrated ad orientem in response to questions afterwards!

There is a weekly EF Mass on Saturday mornings in the Cathedral, and now a Saturday night EF vigil mass said by priests from the Melbourne community.

The diocesan liturgy support publication also looks to be quite good, and new guidelines for funerals were put in place to prevent excessive use of secularist elements.


 Bishop Prowse has also been extremely active in recruiting priests.  A recruitment trip in 2010 resulted in an impressive six arriving in 2011 from Nigeria, Sri Lanka and India, to supplement a number of missionary priests already in the diocese.

There is an active focus on promoting vocations, and he has also recruited some seminarians from overseas. 

The diocese had four seminarians in 2011.

The devotional life, discernment and the social justice paradigm

I mentioned there were one or two theological positions articulated in the bishop's pastoral letters that I'd quibble with, and there are two important ones I want to particularly highlight because they cause ongoing tensions between traditionalists, conservatives and charismatics that we need to overcome.

Let me make it clear that I'm not suggesting there is anything erroneous about these positions, they are all areas open to theological debate.

The first issue is the perceived tension, on the part of some, between a commitment to traditional devotions, and practical charity and engagement in the public square on the other. When one of the common themes that emerged from the forums was the importance of  deepening the devotional life of the diocese through things like Holy Hours, Exposition, well celebrated liturgy and so forth, Bishop Prowse responded in his Pastoral Letter that:

"I am delighted to see the emphasis spontaneously given to this foundational aspect of our shared Catholic life...But, may I make this observation? It was not self-evident to me in listening to the comments offered during the Forums how this vital devotional life was to be translated into developing a social conscience and expressing itself into works of charity, especially to the poor and oppressed...A strong devotional life in the diocese without equally strong practical expressions of caritas towards our neighbor will not do. Catholics are not members of a pious sect or devotional clique..."

The bishop is certainly not alone in regarding some traditional practices as somehow private indulgences and not linked to the churches broader mission. 

But the traditional view is of course that we must seek first the kingdom of heaven - and all else will follow from that!  By deepening our spiritual lives, we will be sanctified, and in turn desire that sanctification for others. 

And while I strongly agree that practical charity and active engagement in our families, workplaces, socially and politically are vitally important, surely not everyone needs to do everything!  Too often, conservative and traditionalist Catholics are criticised, it seems to me, for not being engaged on social justice issues when what is actually meant is the particular social justice issues which members of the political left think they should subscribe to: refugees rather than life issues for example.  I don't know if that is the issue here, but I do think this idea that there is a dichotomy between devotional life and the whole of the Christian life is a false one: indeed, prayer in itself can be the ultimate form of 'caritas', far more powerful than any practical work of charity.

One would hope that those committed to activities such as Adoration and more would be encouraged and fostered in every diocese across Australia as an important plank in the program to reclaim our land for Christ, and in fairness the Bishop seems to be saying we need to do just this.

Discernment vs governance 

The other issue I wanted to flag is the question of proper relationships between hierarchy, clergy, church employees and the laity.  There obviously are some real problems in this area in the diocese (and debates more widely on this issue!), so some clear statements are entirely appropriate.  But in doing so, we need to ensure a proper balance that avoids what I'll dub neo-clericalism.

In his 'Everything for the Gospel' (2011) letter the bishop says:

Simply, may I make the following point? Let us ensure that our attempts at missionary activity in the name of the Church are deeply anchored in our Catholic faith. The enthusiasm to be a missionary people needs careful discernment and on-going formation. The wind of the Holy Spirit “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). However, we belong in a hierarchical communion in the Church. We stand ready to discern what is of the Holy Spirit or what is not of God. Here the particular teaching and discerning role of the Pope, Bishops, Priests and Deacons becomes of service to our missionary activities in the name of the Church. We do not want a fragmented Church."

Can I suggest that the use of the word 'discernment' here, in reference to the role of the hierarchy is potentially dangerous.

I suspect this is just a terminology issue, but it is worth noting that while bishops and priests certainly have a teaching and governing role, and the exercise  of those powers certainly requires discernment, they surely don't have an infallible charism to decide what is or isn't of God!  Rather, they are called, when appropriate, to test such efforts against standard principles, such as conformity with the churches teachings and the advancement of the common good.  That, it seems to me, is a rather lower bar.  Fragmentation may be in the eye of the beholder, and in fact represent desirable diversity!

Making progress?

These points aside, all up, there are clearly a lot of positive steps being taken in Sale, though they may take some time to fully work through in their effects.

They seem like some steps in the right direction to me.

But I'm just attempting to read between the lines here, so do tell me if you think I've missed the mark.

And in any case, keep all those who have been fighting so long for the restoration of orthodoxy in this diocese in your prayers.

**Hmm, I'm assuming the relative dearth of comment on this one means I've missed the mark, and people think I'm being far too kind given the handling of the Speekman case?!


Schütz said...

I think you may be a little nit-picky with Bishop Prowse here, Kate. Nothing I know of the man would give reasons for your suspicions. Your first impression is the right one: he is a good and faithful shepherd. I would also want to add that, from my perspective, Bishop Prowse is better classified as an Evangelical Catholic, rather than a "Pentecostalust" or "Charismatic". The difference may not be apparent to you. You may also be surprised to hear that he is a member of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, an area in which his approach is vey much that of our Hoy Father. Finally, you might want to investigate what the situation is with "communion services" - you may find there has been some changes in this regard in Sale.

Kate said...

First, I don't have any "suspicions" as you put it David - as I've suggested through this post I think the Bishop is doing some very good things and teaching some important messages and deserves some recognition for that.

Good to know he is doing something about lay led services too.

My quibbles were rather about the pitches that work with traditional/conservative catholics, which is important if you think healing the divides is a priority. From reading into the deep, its not clear to me that that loyal band has yet been accepted as doing something helpful(priests still refusing to have it distributed etc). And the kind of terminology/sales pitches used matters.

It is natural to use terminology and lines that sell well/arise from your own particular school of spirituality/theology, but some of these, even when well intentioned, will raise the hackles of others!

Secondly, yes I'm aware of the difference and I was being a little provocative in titling him Pentecostalist/charismatic. But I'm not yet convinced its entirely inappropriate, since he does seem to be promoting things like charismatic prayer groups, and personal testimonies of the effect of the Holy Spirit in one's life. Of course he is doing it within a Catholic framework rather than the entirely protestant version of this school of spirituality, but it does seem to be the most clearly descriptive label to me, at least on reading about it (nor is 'evangelical' very meaningful label to me, nor does it have any less of a protestant connotation so I'm not sure I see how it helps)!

And no I wouldn't be surprised that his position on interreligious dialogue - as I noted in my piece, he has taught clearly and directly on the need to convert others to catholicism, stressing the importance of mission including not just parish communities, not just lapsed catholics, but all. Practically the only Australian bishop to actually come out and say that clearly, so wins big kudos from me!

Though that focus too of course is consistent with his 'evangelical' style if you prefer to call it that!

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