True north

Fr Ted Kennedy (1931–2005)

Life and death abound in ironies. While some are droll, others are cruel. Yet few of the 1500 or so people who attended the funeral of Fr Ted Kennedy on 24 May—the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, Patroness of Australia, the response of antipodean Catholics to Empire Day—could have imagined what was about to transpire. Fr Kennedy had not been buried a week before his successors called the police to that fraught inner-city church to deal with ‘trouble-making’ parishioners. This unflinching and selfless friend of Australia’s indigenous people never once in his 30 years as parish priest at St Vincent’s, Redfern called for police assistance, for both philosophical and pragmatic reasons. That funeral, like so much else in the life of this remarkable man, was both a sign of, and a challenge to, the fractures and factions in Catholic life in Sydney.

It was at that very church where the funeral began, with a traditional Aboriginal Smoking Ceremony followed by a long procession to ‘The Block’, the site of so much heartbreak and inter-cultural violence in Redfern. Some of us felt, for reasons of a different (but really less valid) symbolism that the ceremony should have been held in St Mary’s Cathedral, but Ted’s remarkable elder sister, Marnie rscj, insisted that he wanted it in Redfern. ‘If it were in the cathedral,’ she told a mutual friend, ‘Ted would climb out of the coffin and walk out of the building.’

The assembly at his funeral would make rich readings for a sociologist. There were, of course, many Aborigines whose welfare had been his burning concern for 30 years. Some were outside the huge marquee, tending a fire which provided a constant and emotionally pungent smoke. As an Australian incense, it reminded us of the land that means so much to us all. Others were inside; their chanting enriching the ritual with an intense eloquence. This proved unexpectedly moving for so many of the white people present. This keening cut deep to the soul; yet others bore aloft a small cross, decorated with indigenous colours and symbols. The dispossessed, from around the nation, proud and profoundly saddened by the loss of their unswerving friend.

The other part of that grieving congregation—journalists, artists, politicians, atheists, professionals aplenty—were, mostly, those who had encountered, and been influenced, by Ted as young students and graduates. They represented that other dispossessed group in Australian history, the Irish. While the latter have in their success mostly cut their links with the Catholic establishment (another Kennedy legacy), they have retained a vein of spirituality in their lives, commonly sustained by poetry and the arts.
Yet the ‘establishment’ was there, too. Not Cardinal Pell, who had another pressing commitment, but over 60 priests, many overcoming overt infirmity in their determination to honour Ted Kennedy. They concelebrated the mass under the eloquent and empathic leadership of Bishop David Cremin, who proudly identified that the vestments which he wore, decorated with indigenous motifs, were lent by Fr Frank Brennan.

Indeed, Brennan’s father, Sir Gerard—the former Chief Justice—was there, in the company of the former judge and Governor-General, Sir William Deane; taking their seats well to the back they were urged, with a scriptural recollection, to go higher. Judge Christopher Geraghty, author of two sadly colourful books about priestly education in Sydney, read his eloquent Prayers of the Faithful, which bristled with pointed lessons for Cardinal Pell and other political prelates who might wish to demolish Vatican II and return to Counter-Reformation days and ways. Tom Uren was there, as were sculptor Tom Bass, Gerard Windsor and Stephen Crittenden from the ABC, who was enthusiastically embraced by Cremin as the procession passed him.

And who was this great Australian whom they all mourned, celebrated and honoured? Ted was born in 1931 into the family of Marrickville doctor Jack Kennedy, the loved son of Peg—some would say ‘pampered’, but, then, many a saint has grown from a privileged background. He entered Manly seminary at 16, after completing his matriculation, where he never seemed very engaged by his studies. His colleague, Dr John Challis, does not recall him as a great reader (that lay in the future) but as one with a passion for cars, which he shared with the philosopher-to-be, John Burnheim. It was when he moved into suburban parishes—Ryde, Punchbowl, Elizabeth Bay, Neutral Bay and Redfern, where he was to become legendary—that he became, in Challis’s words, ‘an existential theologian who worked out his theology on the job’.

In Ryde, James McAuley was a parishioner and Ted, ever the facilitator, suggested that he collaborate with the ABC broadcaster and composer, Richard Connolly. Their Hymns for the Year of Grace are arguably the finest liturgical music to emerge anywhere in the last 50 years. It was hardly unexpected, then, that Ted was the creative part of a partnership with Fr Roger Pryke in conducting an exceedingly important ‘Living Parish’ week at Manly which brought participants from around the country and ignited liturgical renewal in Australia, much of it against the bishops’ will. ‘Ted saw that the right people came,’ Fr Pat Kenna told me.

Then in the mid-1960s, Cardinal Gilroy appointed Kennedy as chaplain to Sydney University, to succeed the
charismatic and psychologically literate Pryke. Kennedy was terrified by the prospect of dealing with all of those young intellectuals but he succeeded splendidly, in part because, as Kenna put it, ‘He had the gift of persuading each person that she or he was the only one who mattered.’

One of the dramas of those university years was the ‘Mother Gorman Affair’. In late 1966 John Challis had interviewed this visiting American nun on ABC TV in a program called ‘God = X’ in which they canvassed contemporary theology in an accessible way. It might have gone almost entirely unnoticed were it not for a letter which Dr Thomas Muldoon, the bullying assistant bishop, wrote to a Sydney woman, encouraging her to publish it if she wished.

The fortnightly Nation soon reported the story and it provoked outrage. Pryke attacked Muldoon in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald and, encouraged by Ted Kennedy, a few young men at Sydney University—including Joe Castley and the late Bob Scribner—called a public protest meeting which packed out the Anzac Auditorium in College Street. The sensation was the appearance, with a stilted apology, of the ashen-faced and trembling bishop, accompanied by a muscular quarter carrying a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. It was a crucial event in Australian Catholic history and Ted Kennedy was the facilitator.

Everything moved to a higher plane of practical Christianity in 1971 when Kennedy, John Butcher and Fergus Breslan persuaded the new archbishop, Jimmy Freeman, to let them look after the parish of St Vincent in Redfern. There Ted came under the ineluctable influence of Shirley Smith, ‘Mum Shirl’ to simply everyone. She was, as Kennedy described her, ‘the greatest theologian I have ever known’, the real Aboriginal Elder of that place. She taught him about indigenous culture, and the tragic price of their dispossession and that, ‘The red soil between their toes is the spirits of their ancestors.’

Supported in financial and other ways by his old university friends, Kennedy devoted himself to this cause, turning no one away. He coped with illness and drunken violence without ever resorting to the police, and developed a close involvement with the nascent Aboriginal Medical Service. What deeply saddened him was the number of funerals that he had to conduct. The squalor which his presbytery developed did not seem to disconcert him, with up to 100 sleeping there on winter nights. Though a lover of the ordered emotion of poetry (especially Australian and Irish), of fine wine and good food (green vegetables excepted), Ted was not, personally, terribly fastidious. At his funeral, one of Ted’s family told of a nurse at the hospice where he spent his last weeks regretting that she could not persuade him to dry between his toes. ‘His mother couldn’t get him to do that either,’ was the knowing reply.

For all of his activity and innumerable and legendary phone calls—‘he operated a virtual parish,’ John Challis puts it, ‘the apostolate of the telephone’—Ted rarely revealed much of his inner self. He loved the solitude of the bush and took pride in the fact that his father was born in Harden, where his grandfather was principal of the local public school. He particularly loved Araluen, near Braidwood, and a family property there which dated from the gold-rush days. Most of all he loved his refuge at Burrawang, in the Southern Highlands where he lived, in spartan circumstances, in a house dangerously over-filled with books.

Kennedy crossed swords with authority, most enduringly in the book Who is worthy? which he published in 2000. He was always rightly suspicious of those with power, and their motives in the exercise of it. He was a constant thorn in the side of Sydney’s episcopal nomenklatura, especially those with pretensions well astray from reality and truth. Nevertheless, many were thrilled to see not only Bishop Cremin as the presiding celebrant, but also a humble Cardinal Clancy, one among many, with the concelebrating priests.
The night before that requiem, a visiting Dutch couple had sought advice about what important things to see in Sydney next day. ‘The most interesting event tomorrow,’ they were told, ‘will be the funeral of a Catholic priest.’ They were sceptical but their hostess pressed her point. ‘It will be important and interesting not only because he was so loved and it will, therefore, be so big. More important, this funeral of a great priest will not be held in a church.’

Unlike so many ecclesiastical bureaucrats, Kennedy well understood—as Vatican II has sought to convey—that Christ came into the world because that is where the people live. That, accordingly, was where he strove so hard. And that, in the end, was where so many strands of Sydney celebrated, honoured and exulted in his marvellous life. 

John Carmody is a Sydney medical scientist and opera and music critic. He and his wife Diana were married by Fr Ted Kennedy in 1967.



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