..."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.
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.
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...
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.”