The meddling priest and the Redfern prophet


Frank BrennanIn 1975, I turned 21 and headed down from Queensland to join the Jesuit novitiate in Sydney. Most nights a fellow novice used offer a prayer for Ted Kennedy. I could not work out why we needed to pray constantly for a US senator, no matter what his Irish Catholic pedigree. I then learnt that there were two Ted Kennedys.

As a second year novice I was sent to Redfern. Ted enjoyed forming Jesuit novices. I was appointed Mum Shirl's driver. I learnt a lot. Then I was asked to drive Len Watson down to Canberra where we watched the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act through the Senate.

In those months, I learnt that there were many Ted Kennedys. He was an enigma — exhibiting sophistication and simplicity, subtle discernment and black and white judgment, a romantic vision and that resignation born of hard, bitter experience, soft love and brittle anger.

Ted was a man of the Word that he proclaimed Sunday after Sunday at the old wooden lectern in St Vincent's Church Redfern, and a priest of the Sacrament, blessing and breaking the bread for all comers at the Tom Bass altar which he brought with him from Neutral Bay.

Ted was like the Old Testament prophet Amos confronting Amaziah. He was like one of the 12 in the gospels taking nothing for the journey as they stepped out proclaiming repentance and casting out demons.

Like Amos, Ted did not plan to become a prophet at Redfern. But he found no need to shake the dust from his feet once he arrived there. He proclaimed and lived the radical edge, or was it the radical core, of the gospel — making it more ordinary, more demanded and more expected of each of us.

He spent a lot of his time and nervous energy engaging with a string of Amaziahs from 'Head Office'. He often heard religious authorities telling him not to prophesy at Bethel, the king's sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom. He just kept prophesying about the swarms of locusts, the devouring fires and the plumb line which would lay waste the hypocritical, institutional aspects of Church and nation.

His family background and his early parish experience were no preparation for the ministry he exercised around the streets of Redfern. Like Amos, he said, 'I was neither a prophet nor a prophet's son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel".'

I wonder what he would have made of last week's exchange of literary gifts between the Pope and our Prime Minister. Benedict gave Kevin Rudd a copy of his new encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Ted would have heartily endorsed Ratzinger's observations that 'the exclusion of religion from the public square — and, at the other extreme, religious fundamentalism — hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity', and that 'human rights risk being ignored either because they are robbed of their transcendent foundation or because personal freedom is not acknowledged'.

For his part Kevin Rudd gave the Pope a copy of the National Apology that stated the threefold 'sorry' for the suffering, hurt and degradation inflicted 'on a proud people and a proud culture', and requested that the apology 'be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation'.

All of this would have been music to Ted's ears. He was always wanting those in positions of power and authority to make these acknowledgements. But I can't help thinking that his delight would have been tempered by dissatisfaction. Those who knew him would know where his niggling would come from and how he would express it. Though he wanted and expected much from authority, he was ultimately mistrustful of it.

He knew that in the end, no matter how much was said or promised by those in authority, there was a need for commitment on the ground. There was dirty work to be done and suffering to be embraced. Even when he waxed lyrical about Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern Park speech, he preferred to focus on the weeping responses of Aboriginal people he knew rather than on the grandeur of the prime ministerial rhetoric.

Ted proclaimed a message of repentance to our whole nation, seeking to cast out the demons deep in the soul of the country — those historic abuses of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters that are still being played out, as attested in the recent inquest into the death of Mr Ward in Kalgoorlie.

Launching Ed Campion's new book Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern last week, Sydney lawyer Danny Gilbert said, 'Ted felt that the church had over the centuries soft-pedalled on the gospels. Christ's words had been reduced to something that was comfortably domesticated. But to Ted's way of thinking the gospels were radical, raw and uncompromising. Ted blamed Rome and the church hierarchy for this dumbing down.'

The lesson of Ted Kennedy's Redfern is that the poor belong at the altar and there is no place for dumbing down at the lectern.

Frank BrennanThe full text of Frank Brennan's homily at the mass preceding the launch of Edmund Campion's Ted Kennedy, Priest of Redfern, is available at here.

Topic tags: frank brennan, edmund campion, ted kennedy, priest of redfern.kevin rudd, pope benedict



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Existing comments

I thought that the article was excellent.

I used to live in Sydney and travelled through Redfern (via train) each day on the way to and from work. But I did not know too many other than what I saw in the streets. The Apology was a great event.

I believe one of the biggest problems is that the ordinary white Australian does not really know too many Indigenous people. I think this is an issue. I remember at school we heard a very young Charles Perkins speak. But I am more impressed by Tanya (young Australian of the year). I still ask myself the question after spending so much taxpayer money why isn't the life of most indigenous better? It should be!

Joe | 16 July 2009  

While reading this article I was reminded of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and more recently of Ted Kennedy's namesake Fr Peter Kennedy. How many more prophets will the Australian Bishops persecute before they realise it is they who need to follow the gospel not their hapless victims of authoritarian double speak.

Ray Ham | 16 July 2009  

Yes Loe - to live the Gospel, we must be radical.

The Jesuits are still active in Redfern trying to improve opportunities for the education of young Aborigines.

ray O'Donoghue | 16 July 2009  

What a wonderful article Frank. Ted Kennedy remains one of Australia's most inspiring sons, a person who lived out gospel values and who inspired so many people. What a pity the church hierarchy and those with political power can't follow his example of selfless giving to his beloved indigenous brethren. O that his life might encourage others in ministry to follow his selfless example of being the Christ to those in need.

Paul Rummery | 16 July 2009  

Thank you for the article which calls all of us to a radical conversion. A new way to live out our Christianity. Perhaps we, who proclaim our beliefs each Sunday, need to look again at the Gospel message.Could we be more like Fr. Kennedy who followed Christ so humbly.

As we give some of our money to the usual charities,are we reaching out to comfort and love those who are outcasts. Do we stir from our own comfort zone.Do our children and grandchildren have all the latest mod.cons. all the electronic games, the ipods. whatever else is shown to them constantly by the media? When do we put ourselves last? Are the Gospel stories for the past or for now.Did Jesus die to himself , when he went to the suffering and the outcasts, when he was dead tired. Do we give some of our money and hope we will never have to meet an outcast.I am very grateful to read about this wonderful prophet of our times. God's grace was enough for him. Perhaps through that same grace we can all aspire to that radical love.

Bernadette Introna | 16 July 2009  

I was a Jesuit novice with Frank in 1975 and remember those prayers in the chapel. Ted had been our parish priest in Neutral Bay before he went to Redfern. I doubt that anyone except my own parents has been a greater influence on my life. Certainly I joined the J's because I saw him as the sort of person I would like to become. I had no idea of how impossible an ideal that was. To me Ted stands with prophets like Simone Weil, George Orwell and Daniel Berrigan. For such people life, to be lived truthfully, must be lived in extremis -- their intensity and eloquence is charismatic yet inimitable. Vale Ted and thank you Frank for writing so telling about this extraordinary, almost terrifyingly challenging man. I look forward to Ed Campion's book.

Hugh Dillon | 16 July 2009  

'the church had over the centuries soft-pedalled on the gospels.'

This is an unfair and tunnelled vision view of the church. Why judge by the standards of what middle class Australians have or have not done? There are many things done by the church in many places - orphanages, homes for the homeless, care of the dying, hospitals, schools, yes even Aussie mission schools which were good, voluntary work of all types.

I just don't buy this nonsense that the church has done nothing and has to be criticised all he time. Look at he good others have done and then do some good yourself. Incidentally there have never been as many martyrs produced in the church, as in the twentieth century. Does that matter to anyone?

Skye | 17 July 2009  

Wonderful to hear from His Worship, the Hon Hugh Dillon. It was Hugh who used offer the prayers for Ted Kennedy!

frank brennan sj | 17 July 2009  

Thanks to eureka St for these wonderful entries. Thanks very much to Ed Campion for the book which I hope to be able to buy. I Thanks also to Frank Brennan for the homily. I also had the privilege of regular visits to Redfern and Sr Joan Hamilton in 1976, meeting Aboriginal people and witnessing the extraordinary combination which was Mum Shirland Ted Kennedy and team.

Frank's descriptive paragraph was so good but thanks especially via Ted Kennedy - for not letting the Prime Minister getting away with the glory of the Apology while he continues to wreak havoc on Aboriginal Australia through the NT Intervention and 'mainstreaming' so much of the hard won gains by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the period up to the last federal government.

On behalf also of Daphne O'Rourke formerly Smith, wife of Captain, I pay a last salute to her admired Father Ted Kennnedy

Michele Madigan | 24 July 2009  

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