A thinly attended Friday morning mass has just ended at St Vincent's Catholic church in Redfern, a deprived inner-city neighbourhood of Sydney. As the priest, Father Gerry Prindiville, hurries out, the front door opens to a colourful wave of humanity.
These are the parish's most needy: the homeless, the mentally ill, the down-and-outs, many from Red-fern's sizeable Aboriginal community. Some used to attend mass, but now they come just for the free meals provided twice a week.
For 30 years, under Father Prindiville's predecessor, Ted Kennedy, St Vincent's was a refuge for broken people. Father Ted, as he was known, was passionate about social justice. He helped to set up Aboriginal housing and medical services in Redfern, where he is still revered.
But he also made himself unpopular with the Catholic hierarchy, particularly the present Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, an ultra- conservative. After Father Ted fell sick and died last year, Cardinal Pell replaced him with priests from the Neocatechumenal Way, a Spanish missionary movement committed to saving souls rather than changing society.
The move, which some denounced as provocative, has caused a rift between clergy and parishioners. The latter, who include a substantial number of middle-class Catholics drawn to Redfern because of Father Ted, say the "Neocats" have no interest in the area or its problems. The priests have been accused of showing disrespect to Aboriginal people and their traditions.
Now the faithful are fighting back. A few Sundays ago, Father Prindiville found a huge mural had appeared in the church overnight. Framed by indigenous totems including an emu and goanna, it reproduced a speech by Pope John Paul II in Alice Springs in 1986, in which he paid tribute to Aboriginal spirituality. The Pope told Aborigines: "Your dreaming is your own way to touching the mystery of God's spirit in you and in creation." Father Prindiville was furious. He called the mural vandalism.
Since then, relations have deteriorated. Father Prindiville scandalised worshippers by storming out half-way through one Sunday mass, calling it "too political". Prayers had been offered for Vietnam War veterans, and for Aboriginal stockmen who fought for land rights. After last Sunday's mass, a parishioner, Len De Lorenzo, stood to read a conciliatory letter. The priests walked out, with one seminarian making a two-fingered gesture. …