Father Ted Kennedy
St Vincent's Redfern 1971 - 2002
A compilation of reflections by Community members presented to Ted Kennedy on his retirement as parish priest of the St Vincent's Catholic Church in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern.
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Fr Ted Kennedy

Reflections 1
Reflections 2
Reflections 3
Reflections 4
Reflections 5
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Visitors since 12 April 2004
  Church Mouse

I attended one of the sessions held earlier in the year after Mass to discuss the future of Redfern post Ted Kennedy. I didn't feel that I had anything of use to contribute because I believed that I would have no part in this future Redfern. This conclusion was based partly because of geographical distance but, principally because my connection with Redfern was not necessarily with the place or the community but with Ted Kennedy himself. The Redfern I've known has always been a special place and the people who attended there special people. I have been so privileged to be welcomed there. But I am convinced that it is Ted that has made it all so special.

As you know, I met Ted in 1961 as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I had spent three years in the seminary after school and a further one year issuing lottery tickets as a public servant. I commenced my Arts degree in that year (majoring in Latin and Greek). I joined the Newman Society and fell under the spell of the chaplain, Ted Kennedy. I recall going to weekly discussion groups, Mass in various lecture rooms and St Joseph's (or is it St Michael's) across City Road, playing the odd game of squash with Ted (who always won!), being introduced to the demon alcohol (with whom I have continued a long and fond association) and going on Newman camps each term.

I arrived at the Uni still very much scarred by the battering of the seminary. I was filled with a certain sense of failure softened by the fact that illness over which I had no control was the reason I was “asked” to leave. Looking back it would have been much better if I had made the decision myself. But the scarring was principally the result of the rigid certain “truths” redolent of the monastic way of life we lived which were drilled into us by the mainly mediocre who taught us. I exclude John Burnheim and Bede Heather from that definition. Ted, with the patience of a saint, as the saying goes, chipped away at these appalling rigid views with which I had cocooned myself (probably to avoid the realities of life). He didn't do this by criticising them but by trying to replace them with a new look at issues, a look based on the scriptural insights of 1960 not 1760.

Ted was the senior of the two chaplains at Sydney at this time and moved in a rarefied circle of intellectually committed persons not only at Sydney Uni, but generally wherever there were thinking Christians. When I arrived on the scene, it was towards the end of a vibrant intellectual movement - Charlesworth, Cody, Nelson, Flynn, Vermeech , etc etc were a couple of years or so ahead (mainly “or so” now I think of it), but as the Vatican Council was to be held shortly, we were piloting the Mass in English and we were the guinea pigs for some wonderful new hymns from Connelly and Macauley. It was a stimulating time. We were in awe of these luminaries who questioned and appeared to have answers which had a relevance unlike our Catholicism rooted back in the rigid monasticism of the Middle Ages (ps the girls still whipped a handkerchief on their heads at Mass at this time and masturbation was still a mortal sin ­although Ted seemed to regard it as an irrelevant form of introspection).

If I were asked to say what was the predominant message that Ted preached at that time from my point of view I can easily say it was the Commandment of Love in the New Testament. And while he may have preached it tirelessly the outstanding thing was that he lived it and used it to make sense of and give meaning to living Catholicism in a modern world that was to be embraced as having worth in its own right. The influence of John Henry Cardinal Newman was paramount. Of course, if you ask Ted, he'll tell you that I usually missed the point entirely and probably he'll be pleased that at least I got that much.

Ted was always available for us. That to me was the most indelible practical feature of Ted's apostolate at Sydney Uni. He must have listened to the same personal problems of countless students over those years. You never adverted to it because you knew he was always concerned for you.

Following graduation I mucked around with some part-time post-graduate work which quite worthily came to nothing and kept in contact with Ted mainly through the UCFA, the University Catholic Federation of Australia, a body of graduate and undergraduates of all the Australian universities. (I recall someone once wanted to rename it the Federation of University Catholic Students until the acronym was pointed out).

I attended Mass at Neutral Bay where Ted married Suzette and me - full blown Nuptial Mass, Communion and the works despite Suzette being an agnostic Presbyterian who promised nothing about bringing up children and not having the course of instruction, in fact not even convinced that Christ was more than a great historical person! Peter Hidden's choir actually sang for us. Our first born was baptised there.

When the second arrived I asked Ted to baptise him. We met at Redfern with our non-catholic sponsors and were all appalled at the scene. I recall thoughts of a demolition site but it was probably no different than it is today. Unlike later years it was not the joyful occasion of baptism during Mass. I wasn't to be introduced to that special Community for another decade and a half.

Not only has Ted always been available he has always kept in touch. Over the years as the kids grew up he'd pop in at home in Wollongong - never stayed long but left us feeling special. If he didn't pop in he'd phone. We've all been victims of his wonderfully idiosyncratic phone technique, especially the “lingering” farewell!

I don't know what year I first came to Mass at Redfern. It was not long after Ted had his first stroke at Burrawang. I'm not sure how I heard about it. In any event I'd formed a relationship with Kath by this time and she lived in Strathfield. It was no time at all before I was driving back to Wollongong after Mass via Burrawang. It was only a small thing but I felt that it was my opportunity to do something in return.

At Redfern Ted gathered around himself people who were (and still are) loyal to him and people who dissatisfied with the “Catholic” line are constantly seeking meaningful answers in their lives. The Redfern community is an amalgam of disparate souls. I've never thought to try to categorise them before. The one common “adhesive” for us all has been Ted. He has filled a need in each and every one of us. He has done that on a personal one to one basis but also by introducing us to each other so we can share his vision. And isn't the sharing of the “sign of peace” at the Redfern Mass simply just the highlight of the Mass!

Over the last few years since his driving started to worry him I've had the opportunity to travel around the countryside with Ted. We've gone to many places, to Wilcannia to visit a dear friend and fellow priest and the grave of a tireless worker for the Aboriginal people, to Adelaide, to Canberra, to Melbourne, to Wagga, to Broken Hill, to Inverell , to Cootamundra and so forth. Sometimes we'd catch up with a distinguished academic, at other times an isolated ageing priest in some dying country town; we'd visit people who were obviously rich and others just as obviously poor, sometimes a bishop, sometimes a hopeless alcoholic. Ted had kept tabs on all of them. He'd track them down. He acknowledged his willingness to call them his friends - and he doesn't let go of them. I can recall the surprise and delight of one ageing former member of Redfern's black community whom we tracked down in the TAB at Lismore and of another we found in a bric-a-brac shop in Coffs Harbour. And no matter who they were there was invariably a bed for Ted and me. Everyone knew Ted had money for anyone else but none for himself but more than that I always felt honoured to have him share their house. Of all the many occasions I was on the road with Ted there were only three nights we stayed in a motel and twice in a Bed and Breakfast (the latter two both hilariously eventful).

I am to this day astonished that Ted never patronises anyone. He talks to all in the same concerned and interested way - and he is concerned and interested! He makes us all feel special. He is not superficial. He is amazingly non-judgmental with our human foibles. But on the other hand he can be very, very judgmental whenever he sees injustice especially when committed by those who exploit the poor, the gay community, the black community, the sexually exploited. He saves his most stringent criticism for those exploiters of minorities who should know better, and those who have closed their hearts and minds to the gospel message of love.

I recall a small book Ted introduced to us at one time in our Newman discussion group. I don't recall its name (Ted will!) but it was written by an Anglican bishop named Robinson or Robertson. It concerned itself with a very basic approach to Christianity, one that has appealed to me. In following a Christian way of life are we to be caught up in the love of the law or are we to be caught up in the law of love? Anyone who knows Ted Kennedy knows his answer to that question.

by Paul O'Keefe


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