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The marginalisation of Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy Priest of Redfern by Ed CampionIdealism often leads people who belong to idealistic groups to live and work among the marginalised. In time they often feel marginalised and are seen as marginalised within the organisations to which they belong. They are said to 'go native'.

This is often seen as an event to be avoided and as a problem to be solved. Wiser counsel suggests it is a fact to be accepted. If you live at the margins, you will be marginalised, if you work at the boundaries you will be seen to be outside the main game, if you dwell beyond the frontiers you will lose your citizenship. That is what happens. The real question is: how do you handle this fact of life?

Edmond Campion's stimulating new book describes the process of marginalisation, and suggests lines of reflection on it. He tells the story of Ted Kennedy, a notable Sydney priest whose desire for an engaging form of ministry led him to Redfern in the 1970s. There he found and was found by the Aboriginal community. He opened his church and his house to people as he found them — which often meant drunk, dirty and abusive — and stayed with them for 25 years. In his language, he found Christ in them.

He also felt and was seen as marginalised. Acting as if nothing mattered more than to respect and be with his people soon brought him into conflict with police and landowners. It also alienated him from some of his parishioners and brought him into tension with church authorities whom he believed to have only a perfunctory interest in Indigenous Australians.

He came to see the world and church through the eyes of Aboriginals. This perspective inevitably diverged more and more sharply from that of officers of church and government who saw them only in relationship to their own institutions and their own kind of people.

This is a common experience and fact of marginalisation. Its logic is to alienate people from the group in which they found the inspiration to live at its edges. That is a pity because it cuts off a basically well-disposed group from the bridge that could be made to the marginalised community. How then can people handle the fact of marginalisation in such a way that they can feed back their experience to their broader community?

The structure of Jesuit thinking may be helpful here. Recent Jesuit rhetoric has picked up the commitment of their founder Ignatius Loyola to work at the frontiers of race, religion, culture and ideology that ordinary church organisation cannot easily reach.

Ignatius addressed the fact of marginalisation by supposing that Jesuit missions to the frontiers came from the symbolic centre of the Catholic Church, the Pope. He also suggested actions that would help to resist alienation: praising devotional practices like long prayers and devotions, refraining from criticism of prelates and so on.

But underlying these practices and this imaginative vision lay the bonds that linked Jesuits to one another. They were expressed in the letters from distant missions, reports from dangerous postings and so on.

These ways of imagining and acting in the world will seem prissy and self-protective when they are adopted as a slogan by those who live and work among Catholics. They will be used to suggest that marginalisation is a problem, not a fact, and ultimately discount any kind of life at the margins. But when they are embodied in a life lived at the edge they will have a robust, often rebarbative, shape.

As Ed Campion shows, the way in which flesh and blood human beings like Ted Kennedy creatively handle being marginalised is messy. Ted handled it with rage followed by request for forgiveness, with indictment of Catholic pastoral priorities and safer understandings of what it meant to be a priest, with large expectations of himself and others, a simple faith, and with a gift for friendship and good conversation.

He was a priest in a world without walls. He was blown by the winds that raged through his world. He often raged at those who lived a more sheltered life, and faithfulness became native to him. There are other ways of being Catholic and being a priest, but as a margin dweller he was exemplary: subversive of settlements that trimmed the Gospel, a human being among human beings, and faithful to his calling. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, marginalisation, Edmund Campion, Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern



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Existing comments

Poor Ted, as a shepherd leading his flock of lame sheep through the minefields of modern life and prevailing Catholicism, he must have known he was committing a mortal sin against arch-diocesan neatness. He must have been aware that the runaway train of ‘catholic political correctors’ would get him in the end. He reserved a place on the margin from day one.

Marginalisation, conditioned by arrogance, is the mode of management of the Australian Catholic Church. The margin is the position in the hierarchy occupied by every parishioner, particularly women. Servers, Acolytes and Deacons fair little better, Priests - emasculated almost beyond belief - are no longer free to be leaders within their communities. They are servants of a central administrative authority; Bishops provide a corporate smoke screen to hide their objectives from the lower orders.

All this begs the question: when did the job description of ‘The Good Shepherd’ change from leading the flock and keeping not only lost sheep but all sheep from harm - to herding the flock, according to rules and immutable procedures, and punishing and casing out those judged to have offended against the ‘unholy’ spirit or the inadequate letter of the new law?

Dermott Ryder | 23 July 2009  

The marginalised are everywhere - even within the Society of Jesus. I'm thinking of priests like Brian Stoney, missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Hans Henricks, leaders like Pedro Arrupe and Cardinal Montini, theologians like Juan Luis Segundo. I could go on but you get my point.
Frank Brennan worked (works?) just as closely with Indigenous Australians as did Ted Kennedy. I don't know what support Frank received from within the Society but certainly the work itself was one worthy of a companion of Jesus, the Nazarene carpenter turned teacher, who preached the good news of God's love for all, yes all, his creatures.

Uncle Pat | 23 July 2009  

A fabulously moving and enlightened piece of writing; along the lines of Erving Goffman's stigma. It speaks with understanding of those who are marginalised because they work with and for stigmatised peoples, and it speaks for and of the work of Jesuits that helps me to understand.

JaneAgatha | 23 July 2009  

Andrew Hamilton has again identified challenges facing those including Christians and Catholics who actively pursue social justice, well illustrated by a life at the margins such as Ted Kennedy's.

We should applaud the Jesuit commitment referred to by Andrew "to work at the frontiers of race, religion, culture and ideology". But Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola saw Jesuit missions to the frontiers as coming from the centre of the Catholic Church. Church marginalisation of the Ted Kennedys seems to deny that direction. Accepting marginalisation as a fact is fine but does that relieve the Church of its responsibility to give any support to those working at the social justice frontiers?

I note Andrew’s reference to Ignatius’ suggestions for resisting alienation, namely “devotional practices . . . , refraining from criticism of prelates and so on”. Why should prelates be denied the benefits of criticism? Criticism should be welcomed by those who seek to be leaders; its absence fosters arrogance and hubris.

The Church can undermine commitments to social justice at the practical level, and the marginalising of Ted Kennedy provides a good example. Yet Ted Kennedy was applying Christ’s teachings to relationships with our indigenous people, a people who have been treated shamefully by our society.

Does the Sydney archdiocese have any remaining commitment to the indigenous people of Redfern or see the Catholic parish of Redfern as having a responsibility for all in its community? How sad that the Church chooses to marginalise those seeking the social justice taught by Christ.

Peter Johnstone | 23 July 2009  

Given the recent press comment attributed to Father Peter Norden it would seem that he too feels marginalised by his work with prisoners and ex-prisoners, whom society places at the bottom of the pile, so to speak. It would seem that he feels that he has not received the support that he needed from the Society of St Ignatius. One can only hope and pray that he is able to bear the burden of his time in "Gethsemene" and find his way to a place of peace and centredness.

Graham Holmes | 23 July 2009  

'The Lord is my pastoralist
There is nothing I shall need.
Balanced and scientific is the diet
Which keeps me productive.'
I'm sorry I can't remember the rest.

Jim Jones | 23 July 2009  

Many thanks Andy.
I first met Ted Kennedy in 1978 when I was researching an assignment at teachers college. As he welcomed me and ushered me into what I imagined had been his lounge room, he led me to read a poem on his mantle piece. I was touched by the poem’s simplicity and pathos. As I nodded, Ted turned with his arm outstretched and said, ‘Meet the poet.’

There stood Maureen Watson, a woman I would come to know over the coming weeks as I worked to co-produce a program on Maureen’s work that would one day be broadcast on Channel Seven.

As a middle class young man, I was one of the usual suspects who would often visit Ted over the coming twenty years as he sat at the fire with the local people in Redfern. But sadly, like so many in the community, mine was not a sense of mission – Ted had this in spades. I did not rage loudly over the years – Ted did so with a voice that should echo in our memories for decades to come. I did not live native – Ted moved into the shadows of our city in search of Christ.

To be fair, I suppose I was led to the margins by the sense of marginalisation I felt within. It was as if aboriginal landmarks were loud posters that proclaimed my own pain and dislocation.

Sadly, this is a shadow side most of us continue to deny. How else could we not acknowledge the resultant shame that casts itself across our nation? We know deeply that the separation is not about government funding or policy design.

Could it be that not only do we lack the capacity to sit at the fire with our indigenous brothers and sisters, but that we are bereft of the ability to sit around our own campfires because we are not sure where our fire resides?

Through Ted flowed a gentleness and compassion that was bright and insightful. May we reflect upon his legacy and pray long prayers to discover some of what God has to say to us said through our brother Ted.

Vic O'Callaghan | 23 July 2009  

Thank you for highlighting the life of this special Christian Fr Ted Kennedy. His example may help us to follow our calling with extra determination and passion. He is an inspiration, and offers us a real insight into what it is to be a real follower of Christ. Not easy, but sustained by grace, he lets us see that impossible things are possible.

I hope his story will not be just a good read, but a good push from our lounge chairs ... to do something, however small, for someone with whom we would not normally mix..someone in that 'other' world ... I am hoping for a conversion...

Bernie Introna | 23 July 2009  

Thanks. Ted was family friend, mentor, guide and flawed man with integrity. As someone who is herself 'marginalised' by Aspergers Syndrome, a troubled history, and an unflinching idealism that has at its heart a wish for a better world, I believe prayer, contemplation, care and creativity is at the heart of how we must live. The world is mad. Ted knew it. All he did was rail against that until the dying of the night. We need more like him. We need to find the same in ourselves and rejoice in it because it is at the heart of Christ's teachings and it is a long, long way from Cardinal Pell and The Vatican.

Camilla Connolly | 24 July 2009  

I have the greatest respect for Fr Ted and his work in Redfern. He was allowed great freedom to continue his ministry by successive Archbishops. I never appreciated his bitter criticism of his superiors or of the rest of us doing ordinary conventional parish 'hack work'.

Must the argument always be 'either-or' rather than 'both-and'? Must it be the Cardinal and the archdiocese versus Fr Ted and his apostolate in Redfern?

The Cardinal and the Archdiocese are involved in many works of mercy, as are many priests and a good number of the laity in every parish. Surely we should appreciate this along with Fr Ted's outstanding work.

Fr Ted had outstanding gifts of intellect, compassion and prophecy. I do not. I would not have lasted 10 minutes with him in Redfern. Outstanding people can often tend to 'marginalise' themselves. They are often individualists rather than team players. I found that Fr Ted was not always an easy man to deal with. In a difference of opinion he would not, or could not, tolerate one opposed to his own. So he surrounded himself with the like-minded who gave him great support. That is understandable.

At the same time I found him to be a humble man especially in his latter years and when burdened with illness. I write only because I tire of finding the blame alway being laid at at the feet of those who have the burden of governing the church in the Spirit of Christ, and the rest of us who quietly do all the unpublicised, conventional and yet very blessed ministries in all the run-of-the-mill parishes.

Fr Ronan Kilgannon | 24 July 2009  

Fr Ronan Kilgannon says that he 'tire(s) of . . . the blame always being laid at the feet of those who have the burden of governing the church in the Spirit of Christ'. I doubt if he means ‘always’ but surely Church leaders should be held accountable, particularly in matters of social justice. Power and authority must be balanced by accountability; such is the nature of governance.

We should reasonably expect that our Church leaders reflect the Spirit of Christ in their ministry, and the situation at Redfern is such a matter, particularly in seeking some justice for our indigenous people. Fr Kilgannon considers that Fr Kennedy was 'allowed great freedom to continue his ministry by successive archbishops'. Even if that were so, true leadership should go beyond the paternalistic 'allowing', to strong active support for courageous attempts to address injustice. That would be closer to the Spirit of Christ.

Peter Johnstone | 25 July 2009  

I am a parishioner at Redfern. I no longer see that the term 'Marginalised' is fitting to describe what people of faith and social justice are doing in their lives when walking with aborigines and other disadvantaged groups eg women,gay & lesbians as Ted Kennedy described in his book 'Who is worthy?' I would describe such people as 'prophetic'. They are a voice for the voiceless and draw from the Gospel and their Baptismal rights and responsibilities. We are all called to be 'priest, prophet and king'.

Judy Janssen | 26 July 2009  

I thank Peter Johnston for correcting my exaggeration. But it does often seem like 'always'. Scanning the comments above it is certainly 'very often'. I am surprised that he considers allowing someone the freedom to pursue something new by way of apostolate (originally team ministry) as 'paternalistic'. This is my point. Why does Peter jump immediately to a negative conclusion? When parents allow their teenagers more freedom to pursue interests outside the home is this being 'paternalistic'? Surely it is an act of trust? I applaud the correction of Judy Janssen.

We should be careful of our use of the word 'marginalised'. Thomas Merton considered it a grace 'to live on the margins'. And we all do to some extent. I think Fr Ted rejoiced in being 'on the margin' and would not have wanted it any other way. My impression is that he was as responsible for this as anyone else - if there is some need to lay blame, which I doubt. An Archbishop could have transferred Fr Ted from Redfern to Rose Bay with the stroke of a pen.

Fr Ronan Kilgannon | 27 July 2009  

Fr Ronan Kilgannon is surprised that I consider that "allowing someone the freedom to pursue something new by way of apostolate originally team ministry as 'paternalistic'". He might well be surprised if that were what I said. My comment (recorded above) was clearly NOT about team ministry. I said:
"true leadership should go beyond the paternalistic 'allowing', to strong active support for courageous attempts to address injustice",
namely the disadvantage and discrimination suffered by indigeneous people of Redfern.

To be even more explicit, I am suggesting that the Church did not give adeqauate support to Fr Ted Kennedy in his ministering to disadvantaged indigenous people in the spirit of Christ, a need that the Church continues to overlook in Redfern today.

Peter Johnstone | 27 July 2009  

I relished the crossflow of opinion on the work and role of Ted Kennedy who was also something more than we could see. The gift of prophecy does not come as a perfect package in a perfect person. We do the best we can with the gifts we have and the understanding that comes to us,even if that understanding comes late. Like many a Grahame Greene character his life and actions have made us think.

Thank you Andy Hamilton and commentators. Full marks to whomever chose that powerful image of the calm and trusting child looking out to the world as it is held in Ted's strong grasp.

Chris Flamer | 28 July 2009  

Thanks Andrew for some perspective on a wonderful human being who also happened to be a priest. His 'seeing Christ' in everyone is a marvellous example for all of under the umbrella of Catholicism!! '

Rosemary Keenan | 28 July 2009  

Ronan Kilgannon's perspective gave me as much heart as Andrew's did. In a strange way, most of us are marginalised in the mainstream by our geography and the very limits of our gifts, our graces, our imagination and generosity. I need the inspiration of Ted and all who battle on any margin to make sense of my own unheroic and great mission mainly to the non-marginalised.

as Andrew's rticle.Bob Wilkinson | 30 July 2009  

Although some people such as Father Ted have made significant and positive changes to the lives of our indigenous sisters and brothers, it seems to me that not much has changed for their betterment overall since I was teaching on a settlement in the late '60s, and in Darwin in the early '70s.

I would like to thank the people publishing Eureka Street for their thought-provoking and informational articles.

John Brennan | 13 August 2009  

Similarly with Peter Kennedy of St Marys South Brisbane. The full story isn't out yet but here is another who tried other ways of being catholic and being priest.

Mary Long | 09 September 2009  

he was strong and at times made enemies among people who didn't understand the call, but… you know, to really live the Gospel, especially the more affluent, and he didn't mince his words at times, but he mellowed a lot. And he's… even now I can't walk down Redfern Street without them coming up to ask me how he is. They just loved him, really loved him.

David Lovell | 12 August 2010  

Hello, my name is Michael Liu and I am an independent film maker in Perth Western Australia. I have been researching Aboriginal artist Revel Cooper who stayed with Father Ted Kennedy in the early 1980's. I was wondering if your organisation had any information leading to Revel Coopers artwork in Sydney and his stay with father Ted. From the BBC documentary father Ted was portrayed as an amazing person and we would like to explore what we can with his relationship with and the inspiration he gave to Revel. thanks for taking the time out to read my email. kind regards Michael liu 0433 019 333

michael liu | 11 October 2015  

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