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Ambassador of conscience


On behalf of the Christian Brothers in Tasmania, all two of us, I would like to welcome all of you who are visitors to this beautiful island. I especially welcome Fr Frank Brennan.

About 65 years ago, even before Frank Brennan or I were born, our two fathers were University students at the same time, both studying law - Gerard Brennan in Queensland, Peter McManus here in Hobart. There is a photo of the 1949 Convention of the National Union of Australian University Students. Peter McManus is the Tasmanian representative, while in the back row of the photo is the WA representative, a certain RJ Hawke, celebrated student drinker and Prime Minister of Australia. In the front is Gerard Brennan, the President of the NUAUS. Interestingly, that year the NUAUS decided to provide scholarships to Aboriginal students to attend University.

More recently, in 1982/83, Frank Brennan and I were students together at the United Faculty of Theology in Parkville in Melbourne. That time it was a McManus who was student president with a Brennan as campaign manager. Our big issue was whether we should join the group called People for Nuclear Disarmament.  

It is no surprise then Frank, that you and I meet again in the context of promoting advocacy for the sake of justice.

Frank Brennan was once called a 'Meddlesome priest' by former Prime Minister Paul Keating.  But Frank is much more than just a 'Meddlesome priest'. He is a man of multiple affiliations Yes he is a Catholic Priest.  He is a member of that planet-shaking body the Jesuits, drawing inspiration from Ignatius of Loyola. He is a Lawyer - an academic, a professor, a speaker and prolific writer - especially about Human Rights.

He has been a burr in the saddle of Premiers and Prime Minsters and maybe even Cardinals, but he also was asked by Prime Minister Rudd to chair the Australian National Human Rights Consultation of 2008/9.

This book that we are launching tonight, is a Treasure Trove of articles, speeches, and essays drawn from Frank’s work over the years.  The title comes from Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney.  Heaney when talking about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, calls it a 'worldwide amplification for the ‘still small voice’'.

The still small voice within, is the voice of conscience.  We naturally link it to the still small voice of God as in Elijah’s visit to the Mountain of God.  Or as Jesus of Nazareth points out, it can be the voice of God in the marginalized person, silenced, oppressed unable to be heard.

Frank Brennan describes himself as an ambassador of conscience.  In the first part of the book, Frank uses his sharp mind to look at the place of conscience in the Church that he has committed himself to, and emphasises the importance of the Church being an exemplar of transparency, due process and natural justice.  Then he proceeds to look at amplifying that still, small voice in the world.

By personal example and from the richness of his own reflective spirituality, Frank refuses to allow the perspective of Christianity to be drowned out or sidelined in Australian public discourse.  As much as any other religious figure in Australia, Frank has maintained this religious perspective while engaging in issues of ethics and justice in contemporary Australia.  This book is testament to that. Across all the issues he covers, he emphasizes the importance of the 'religious sense that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God'.

He does this while speaking in the language and terms that are understandable to the public square, taking us beyond the narrowness of national interests to a wider universal perspective.  A small example of Frank’s commitment is the picture on the cover.  It shows Frank taking time out from his national consultation to join a group in front of a coroner’s court in Western Australia, standing in solidarity with the family of Ian Ward, an Aboriginal man who died in custody.

Several of Frank’s essays concern the rights of Australia’s indigenous people – an issue dear to you Frank. It was your father, Chief Justice Gerard Brennan who wrote the judgment for the Mabo decision which was handed down 23 years ago today, 3 June 1992.

For the last 30 years, Frank has been preoccupied with the interrelatedness of Aboriginal dispossession, disadvantage, and marginalization.  He has sought to articulate a publicly coherent policy of reconciliation, justice and recognition for indigenous Australians.  His other recent book launches have been for his book No Small Change which is about Aboriginal Recognition in the Australian Constitution.

Frank does not just write from mere academic study but becomes also a story teller of people and places and interactions:

  • Frank’s early ministry as a priest was with Aboriginal Australians in the streets of Redfern, Sydney.
  • He has often since sat in the red soil of Australia deeply listening to indigenous men and women.
  • Frank has worked with refugees on the Thai Burma Border and in East Timor.

His experience of listening to the still, small voices of people on the margins, has given him great authenticity in amplifying those voices.  I enjoyed reading the various essays, marked by Frank’s sharp clear writing and replete with experience and stories. My copy is already dog-eared, highlighted and underlined.

Frank Brennan could be speaking to those of us who carry the tradition of Edmund Rice when he writes: 'You are the hand, feet, heart and mind of Christ in the contemporary world and in the contemporary Church.'  Frank is a Jesuit, educated for his middle years in the Edmund Rice tradition at the former Nudgee Junior in Indooroopilly, Brisbane.  Edmund Rice, Founder of the Christian Brothers, was formed in his spirituality by Jesuits in St Patrick’s Church in Waterford, Ireland.

We find a synchronicity then when we look at the 4th of the touchstones for Edmund Rice Education.  The touchstone is of course Gospel based, and we could be describing the approach of Frank Brennan to listening to the still small voice’.  The EREA touchstone entitled Justice and Solidarity reads:

We are committed to justice and peace for all, grounded in a spirituality of action and reflection, that calls us to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized, and the Earth itself.

Frank, on behalf of the Christian Brothers and our tradition which is embodied in Edmund Rice Education Australia, and in these men and women in leadership, I want to express our gratitude to you: 

  • Gratitude for your presence with us this evening and at this conference.
  • Our gratitude for you enabling us to become more informed on the intersection of justice, advocacy, policy and law.
  • And our gratitude for your lived witness of listening and amplifying clearly, loudly but modestly that still small voice of God and conscience especially of those who cannot be heard.

I take great pleasure in launching here in Hobart, your book Amplifying that still, small voice.

Sean McManus is a Christian Brother, Sydney, on 14 June 2015. This is the text of his address at the launch of Frank Brennan's Amplifying that Still Small Voice at Hobart Town Hall on 3 June 2015, in the presence of principals and partners from Edmund Rice Education Australia schools.



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Existing comments

Sean, And so say all of us. Thank you for speaking so eloquently at this occasion and connecting with the ER tradition..

John Webb | 25 June 2015  

Well said Sean. Appreciate some of the summary of the book and Frank's life work and liked the link to the EREA context

Jeff Regan | 25 June 2015  

It is great to see the sons of Edmund Rice closely associated with Father Frank's work. There must be many like me who owe so much to the Christian Brothers. These days the opportunities to acknowledge that debt are few. I could not imagine a better combination than "the monks" as I affectionately knew them and Frank Brennan working for social justice. May God continue to let both prosper.

grebo | 26 June 2015  

Great that Brennan and yourself got an education & both went to University Many people who grew up in cruel Catholic orphanages weren't so lucky Pity Frank Brennan & others in the Catholic Church Turn a blind eye to the social injustices committed against us -CareLeavers of Australia's 900 Orphanages Children's Homes & foster care The silence is deafening Jesus must be weeping !

Leonie Sheedy | 26 June 2015