The Aboriginal people’s priest

On 24 May 2005, I attended the funeral of Father Ted Kennedy, an Australian Catholic priest. Ted has left behind him a legacy of commitment to dispossessed Australian Aboriginal people, and a theology of the poor and the alienated which has not only radically changed what it means to be Church for those who joined him, but continues to inspire the community he left behind.

The funeral was an unforgettable event. It took place in the Aboriginal heart of Sydney, a section of the inner city suburb of Redfern known as ‘the Block’. The Block is a portion of land which was returned to the Aboriginal people in the early seventies by the then Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. It became the place where many Aboriginal women and men came to find members of their families. The Block was Ted’s stamping ground for thirty years while he was parish priest at St Vincent’s Church Redfern. An enormous marquee had been erected for the funeral in the middle of a grassy square enclosed by run down houses which speak of dispossession. In the near distance were the towers of the Sydney central business district, this time speaking of wealth. Behind the altar set at one end of the marquee the congregation could see a huge black, yellow and red Aboriginal flag painted on a long brick wall. In all there were more than 1500 people present, from all backgrounds, black and white, rich and poor, ordinary and famous, who had come from various corners of Australia to pay their respects to the great and humble man. Around the altar were seventy priests, among them a number of bishops.

Ted was carried by local Aboriginal men into the marquee. Starting with a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony led by a Song Man, the requiem mass lasted five hours during which people sang, spoke, prayed, cheered, laughed and wept.

Ted was born in 1931 into a family of Irish background. His mother was deeply religious but suspicious of the institutional church. His father was a doctor, a compassionate man who did not charge patients for whom payment would be difficult. Ted trained for the priesthood in the late nineteen forties. He was chaplain at the University of Sydney for seven years during which, a friend of his Peter Willis tells us, he gave his students a vision of ‘Christianity drawing on justice and radical equality’. Ted was a scholar and a leader who affirmed people, and his popularity as a chaplain won him many friends and supporters for what was going to become his life’s work.

In 1971, with two other priests who wanted to try out new and communal styles of ministry, he came to Redfern. Poor Aboriginal people came to the door of St Vincent’s to ask for food and shelter and from that moment on the door of the church remained open night and day to them. It was the start of what Ted called his ‘love affair’ with the Aboriginal people. Early on Ted Kennedy met Shirley Smith, a fearless Aboriginal activist known to everyone as ‘Mum Shirl’, and became a close collaborator in her work, naming her as the greatest theologian he had ever met.

Ted lived with, provided for, and offered a sanctuary to the Aboriginal people of Redfern. Peter Willis talks of Ted’s welcome:

The presbytery of St. Vincent’s parish was handed over week after week, month after month to waves of homeless and broken Aboriginal people who came for shelter and eventually occupied the whole place while Ted retreated to a bed in the Sacristy of the church. And of course Ted didn’t actually own the presbytery and the church officials were concerned that church property in his care was not being well maintained.

A community member, Judith Salmon, comments on Ted’s ‘approach’:

One of the qualities I most appreciate in Ted is his vigorous disrespect for false authority. He approaches the Word of God expecting good news and he finds it. He interprets the teachings of Jesus unfettered by institutional viewpoints and lifts the mantle of prejudice.

Ted’s understanding of Christian love is that in loving our most needy neighbour we are attending to Christ. Rowan Williams says: ‘The neighbour is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbour is bound up with our own connection with God’. Ted’s theology grew from his experience in the midst of Aboriginal people, and others learnt along with him. ‘Oh yes, I did learn something from coming to Redfern all those years ago,’ Maureen Flood says, ‘something about the links between contemplation and social awareness/action.’

In a letter he wrote in 1975 to the Archbishop of Sydney, Ted outlined his vision of the St Vincent’s community:

There are various ways of describing what this community is about. I think I would prefer to think of it first as a community of prayer. It is not difficult to turn our life into prayer here. Living as close to the poor, as we are, means that we are consistently confronted by the Gospel. We are being compelled to meet them and each other in Gospel terms. In our formal morning prayer and in our daily Eucharist, we are endeavouring to break the Word of God to each other. Secondly, we are trying to be a pastoral community. It is our aim to know and love every Aborigine in this district, every Aborigine who is passing through.

Community members and friends stressed the authenticity of this statement. Gabrielle and David Nolan:

We were bowled over by Ted’s knowledge and care for each one of the Aboriginal community. He knows everyone by name, they are his family and their genealogy, their ‘country’ are as important to him as his own beloved Araluen and Ireland. It’s not just because he has a fantastic memory, he has that, he genuinely loves each and every one.

Father Peter Maher:

This practical knowledge was matched with a keen theological insight and edge that came straight from a political reading of the gospel that left fellow travellers enthralled with its freshness and cultural critique. Ted had an eye for the angle that gave hope to the underdog and a passion to those who stood in solidarity with the underdog.

In the same letter to the Archbishop of Sydney, Ted clearly articulates the need for Christians to recognise that it is not just an issue of extending welfare to the poor, but of learning from them:

We rest on the help of the Aboriginal people to help us change our hidden prejudices (…). We would like to think that we are growing to be a sign of Christ’s love, that every Aboriginal person would think of this place as a home away from home, that they would all feel known and loved by us, and assured that we are ready to support them in their sorrows and anxieties, their aspirations for advancement and their fight for justice … (W)e are all aware that this stance can carry a double edge, fraught with the danger of paternalism. But we rely on the Aboriginal people, and on Christ who is so truly represented in them to keep teaching us the way.

Ted saw the plight of Aboriginal people not only tied with ruthless colonial massacres and oppression, but with the whites’ inability to come to terms with a collective conscience of the situation today. Ted’s faith was that our own liberation as Australian Christians is bound up with that of the Aboriginal people. He said that the Aboriginal people had evangelised him. In his book Who is worthy? he wrote: ‘All sin that is to be taken seriously is social sin, sin that is victim-producing. … (T)o insist that acts of injustice call for acknowledgment, recompense and reconciliation is to show the only way to being truly humanised and contributing to genuine peace.’ He argued that we have so much to gain by learning about the treasures of Aboriginal spirituality. ‘Catholic theology needs the impetus of creative conscience, of accepting the sacredness of the earth in a new and fresh way, and our responsibility to protect and nourish it with new insights and energy.’

Maureen Flood again:

The overwhelming spirit of the (St Vincent’s Redfern) community is of longing for Justice and Reconciliation for and with a People who have been so comprehensively and unjustly dispossessed.

There was not enough time for me to know Ted well on a personal level before he was taken seriously ill and stopped coming to say mass, but I did hear a number of his beautiful homilies. I have been blessed in my being able to share in Ted’s legacy in the Redfern community. Since my first Sunday with them, I have been enriched beyond words by liturgies which bring alive the words of Christ in the Beatitudes.

Alan Hockey said this about the time he first met Ted, and I feel he speaks for me too:

(It) was somewhat of an anticlimax – shorts, slippers, a worn stole and a fragile body. Could this be the man of the legend? He greeted me, seated on an old vinyl chair with a makeshift altar in front of him and a decidedly dishevelled look about him. He offered his hand to me and I felt the warmth and strength of the man.

The day after Ted’s funeral, The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Chris Geraghty, theologian and District Court Judge who had led the prayers of the faithful at Ted’s funeral:

We have lost a fierce friend to encourage us, a powerful God botherer, an untidy grimy prophet, a Jesus figure in our midst.

But there was no need to canonise Ted Kennedy, Indigenous Elder Sol Bellear had said, because the Aboriginal people had already acclaimed him a saint.

Quotes:

Maureen Flood, SSS, Church Mouse website

Alan Hockey, Church Mouse website

Father Peter Maher, Church Mouse website

Gabrielle and David Nolan, Church Mouse website

Judith Salmon, Church Mouse website

Sol Bellear, Chris Gerarghty as quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May, 2005.

Ted Kennedy in a letter to the Archbishop, 1975, Church Mouse website and in Who is worthy? Sydney: Pluto Press, 2000.

Rowan Williams in Silence and honey cakes: the wisdom of the desert, Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2003.

Peter Willis in ‘Remembering Ted Kennedy’, Eremos Vol 92, August 2005.

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