Is the Catholic Church in need of a facelift? The key figure in upcoming documentary The Trouble with St Mary’s – Parish Priest Peter Kennedy – believes so. He is presently excommunicated by the Church.

When Father Peter Kennedy was sacked by the Catholic Church for unorthodox practices in 2009, the dispute resulted in one of the biggest rifts in Australian Catholic Church history.

Developed and co-financed by Screen Queensland and ABC, The Trouble with St Mary’s is a new feature documentary designed to inspire the viewer to “question their own beliefs and not to take them for granted,” according to writer/producer/director Peter Hegedus, “and to look at their own lives and ask: What do I believe in and who do I affect with what I’m doing?”

Filmed on “a modest, domestic budget”, according to co-producer Veronica Fury, the documentary details the fracture between the Catholic Church and the Priest accused of heresy.

Father Kennedy’s questioning of the infallibility of the Pope, the literal readings of the Bible including the Virgin Birth, and that Jesus Christ was the literal Son of God are incongruous with some of the most fundamental tenets of Catholicism.

In practice, Kennedy rejects wearing vestments, blesses gay marriages, allows all members of the church, including women to recite the Eucharist, and changes the wording of the baptism.

After 45 years of service to the Catholic Church, Kennedy received a decree of removal from the office of Priesthood from the Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby. He left Brisbane’s St Mary’s Church but continued to practice as a Priest for his community, called St Mary’s in Exile (SMX).

Kennedy’s new outlook on Catholic teachings drew Hegedus (a non-Catholic) to services at St Mary’s in 2006 – years before Father Kennedy’s dismissal from the parish.

Filming started at St Mary’s in August 2008 and followed Kennedy’s removal from the Catholic Church and the establishment of SMX.

Completed last month, the ongoing production allowed for “lovely longevity, real character growth and real stories”, according to Fury.

“The key issue for me as a documentary filmmaker” says Hegedus, “is to present both sides of the story – that is, the Catholic Church and the community in exile.

“I had to make sure that the fact that I did attend St Mary’s did not cloud my judgement about what was going on. I was very cautious. We had an impartial party inspect the final cut and make sure that we are not saying anything that is not correct.”

In order to offer a fair and even-handed account, Hegedus spent time with Kennedy’s exiled community as well as the current community of St Mary’s Church. Opponents to Kennedy’s congregation were interviewed, including ex-community members who accused the community of building a cult status, saying “it was becoming too much about him and not enough about Jesus,” explains Hegedus.

The man Hegedus was most interested in interviewing was Archbishop Bathersby. While he remained inaccessible, Kennedy’s successor at St Mary’s Church, Father Ken Howell, provided the key opposition voice in The Trouble with St Mary’s.

In order to reach audiences broader than the Catholic community, Hegedus explains, “we tried to stay away from big Catholic words so as not to confuse the audience.”

In addition, Kennedy’s congregation is also reflective of a lot of new communities as they start developing. Hegedus explains that SMX “must ask themselves: What do we do? What is our identity? What is our belief system?”

Hegedus says The Trouble with St Mary’s is “a really interesting study of democracy, institutions, and the power play that goes on in communities."

"What Peter Kennedy’s community is facing at the moment is that it comes up against a 2000-year old institution and they now have to establish themselves as a new community with a new identity.”

The Trouble with St Mary’s will air on Sunday, May 29 at 10pm on ABC1.

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