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Life of a non-conformist priest

Jonathan Hill |  17 July 2009

Edmund Campion: Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern. David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 2009. ISBN: 9781863551298

Edmund Campion: Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern. David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 2009. ISBN: 9781863551298With profound sensitivity Edmund Campion has crafted a biography that reveals the essence of Ted Kennedy, a man who touched the lives of many and left an indelible mark on the Redfern community.

Campion paints a portrait of a fiercely passionate yet also vulnerable priest, whose commitment to social justice was fuelled by a deep love of humanity and an unwavering faith in the Gospels. Refusing to conform to the mainstream brand of Catholicism, Kennedy's theology was centred on liberating the oppressed by understanding the truth of their situation.

A theme that underpins this book is Kennedy's intense love and appreciation for Aboriginal people. Redfern exposed him to a truth that, sadly, still lies largely unseen: Aboriginal Australians are pivotal to Australia's national identity; their salvation is directly intertwined with White Australians.

And so he became a tireless advocate for Indigenous justice, dedicating more than half his life to their cause. Such a stance did not spontaneously arise. He arrived at this point after years of prayer and contemplation which enabled him to discover his true self.

With a novelist's eye for detail Campion gives a chronological account of Kennedy's life, stitching together a tapestry of events and influences that determined his destiny. The book can be divided into experiences before and after Redfern.

The seeds of social justice were sown into Kennedy's conscience early on. As a child he once asked his mother what the Gospel meant when it said the rich would never go to heaven. Her reply: 'Your father and I have talked about it and we have decided to dedicate our lives to the poor.'

And they did. His father was a local doctor who ran a practice with his wife where the poor were personally welcomed and never charged. This stirred the child's curiosity, as he and his siblings shared in their parents' dedication.

The book guides us through his time at the junior seminary at Springwood before focusing on his stint at the major seminary, Manly College. At Manly he and the other priests participated in the rigid lifestyle while constantly contemplating what type of priests they wanted to become.

He was swept up in the energies that shaped the Second Vatican Council. The fresh approach to Catholicism being practised in Europe inspired him and his colleagues to adopt these strategies in their future ministries. The ideas of Parisian Archbishop Cardinal Suhard embodied this spirit as his books spoke of a church that was not hostile to the world but willing to learn from it and a priesthood that was open to all social classes.

We learn about Kennedy's life as a curate. His time within the University of Sydney Chaplaincy, under the guidance of Roger Pryke, was instrumental to his development. He would spend long hours engaged in discourse with students, unlocking ideas and uncovering the nature of their faith.

Towards the end of the 1960s a group of progressive curates sent a letter to the cardinal proposing they be assigned to a parish where they could work in collaboration as part of a team ministry. Such a lifestyle would entail common prayer, regular meetings and reflection, engagement in the community and a presbytery open to all. It took three years for this idea to become a reality. Kennedy was one of the three priests assigned to St Vincent's Redfern at the end of 1971.

By 1974, Kennedy was the sole parish priest as his colleagues chose other paths. This gave him the chance to express his interpretation of the Gospels in the parish. Central to his vision was a respect for the poor that shattered the sense of superiority so prevalent throughout the Christian community. He saw Christ in the oppressed and marginalised and saw it as his duty to join with them in solidarity in the pursuit of justice.

The most enthralling section of the book charts his development and growing presence in the Redfern community. We learn about his involvement with the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service, his insistence that his church be identified as a community of hospitality, his disdain for do-gooders, and the role of various people in his ministry, especially Mum Shirl whom he famously described as the greatest theologian he had ever known.

The final sections deal with Kennedy's book, Who is Worthy?, his celebration of 25 years at St Vincent's, his steep decline after suffering two major strokes and his funeral that packed out The Block.

Kennedy is not portrayed as a saint. Imperfections such as his unpredictable temper, his occasional liking for a drink and his initial insensitivity to Aboriginal Australians reveal that he, like us, was a man of flesh and blood.

This book is an immensely rewarding read. By drawing on an array of sources Campion has assembled a comprehensive biography that gives the reader a clear insight into the imaginative Catholicism Kennedy embodied. The book challenges readers to examine the nature of our own faith by considering the role of conscience in the quest to live with authenticity.

Jonathan HillJonathan Hill is a qualified teacher who has worked with Aboriginal communities in Ngukurr, Minyerri and Sydney.



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Submitted comments

Thank you. It is a book I need to read, as I know very little about the ways to alleviate the indignities suffered by the Aboriginal people. I can do little physically, but hopefully with more knowledge and compassion, gleaned from Fr. Kennedy's life, can discuss and inform children and grandchildren.

As I see it the situation is 'them' and 'us'. We are two communities. instead of one. Fr. Kennedy managed, through grace, to become one with the aboriginal people. A faithful life of commitment to his belief in a God who is good.

This book may stir more passion, to care for the unloved and outcasts, so obvious in the inner city but hidden from outlying parishes.

It is so easy to delude ourselves into apathy.

Bernie Introna 17 July 2009

So glad this turned up on your website. Thanks Jonathan you are an amazing young man.

sheila Quonoey 20 July 2009

Such an excellent review - Ted Kennedy was not a plaster saint - he didn't need to be. Dom Chautard was so wrong - so much good can come from people who are not perfect. And how many Funerals bear witness to spiritual achievement such as the woodwork provided for Kennedy and Pryke - the latter having the best that the official church -- and the church of lapsed and agnostics could offer!

Dally Messenger III 20 July 2009

I very much look forward to reading this book. I 'encountered' Fr. Ted in the 1970's when I worked for a while as a catechist in Redfern. Open, friendly and not easily forgotten. Pretty special.

Mary Maraz 20 July 2009

I have just finished this book, in tears - tears of joy that I was privileged to meet this man, and tears of sadness that all our dreams of a different kind of Church remain elusive.

Peter Downie 04 August 2009

How do I contact Ted and Edmund for a chat? Ta. How can I get more involved with the project of inclusive teaching of Aboriginal and other children and sharing my skills of compassion and caring.

Ella 23 June 2013

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