Father Edward (Ted) Kennedy, who has died at 74 after a long illness, was parish priest of Redfern for more than 30 years. In that time he became a national authority on the plight of Aborigines, an authority that came not from libraries but from sharing their hazardous lives.
Ted Kennedy came to Redfern almost by chance. In the heady years after Vatican II (1962-65) he belonged to a movement of priests eager to try out new styles of ministry. In particular, they wanted to displace the feudal structure of parishes, whereby pastors (known in Australia as parish priests) made all the decisions while other priests (curates) were merely hired hands. The new breed wanted team ministries, in which everyone shared authority equally. This might include lay parishioners.
The ageing archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Gilroy, resisted such ideas, satisfied with the traditional authority structures of the church. His successor, James Freeman, was more amenable. Thus, in November 1971, three priests, John Butcher, Fergus Breslan and Ted Kennedy, began a communal ministry in the Redfern presbytery, not knowing what to expect.
Their first caller was an Aboriginal woman seeking food. From then on, the doors were always open to Aborigines, for food, lodging or a sympathetic ear. On wet winter nights up to 100 would crowd into the presbytery to sleep wherever there was space. Friction with the police was constant and Aborigines found champions at the presbytery. At times the atmosphere in the house could become sticky or even dangerous but the priests never, ever called the police. So began what Kennedy would call his love affair with Aboriginal people.
Then along came a powerful Aboriginal woman, Shirley Smith, known to all as Mum Shirl. She became Kennedy’s backstop, someone he could call on in emergencies, as often as five times in one night. More significantly, she became an important influence on the way he saw the world. From her he learnt the pain and pride of being Aboriginal, which often led to suicide. He noticed that Aborigines never left suicide notes, as white people do – their own already knew the pain that had driven them this far. Kennedy sat with them and grieved; he travelled with the coffins, to bury them in their home lands; he became, alas, a very experienced funeral celebrant.
Shirley Smith did more than this for Ted Kennedy: she opened him to the purest form of Christianity. At her funeral in 1998 he said that she had welcomed the Gospel like a child, taking it in whole without spitting out the uncomfortable bits. Mum Shirl taught him to be a fellow sufferer, to find Christ in the rejected and accept him there unconditionally. She taught him about just anger too, and the need to fight for justice. “The greatest theologian I have ever known,” he said of her at the funeral.
Of course, there were other influences in his life, principally his parents. Their door was always open to anyone in need, so early on he saw that doing justice was a necessary part of the Christian religion. His father, Jack, was a Marrickville doctor who counted many priests among his patients. A strong Catholic, Jack Kennedy was nevertheless not a copybook parishioner: neither a member of the Holy Name Society nor a man who sent his children to parish sodalities, he did not attend the weekly novena service. He was, as Kennedy said in a letter to Gilroy, “a most prayerful man but he never said the family rosary”. Kennedy’s heart was not in these things either, as he told a perhaps astonished Gilroy.
Peg Kennedy also had a decisive influence. A cold-eyed observer of the antics of self-important clergy, she inoculated Ted against the virus of clericalism. When recruiters tried to lure him into the seminary at an early age, she said: “No, the boy must finish his schooling.” Thus began his critique of clericalism, which became a dominant theme of his intellectual life, as shown in his foreword and epilogue to Judge Christopher Geraghty’s memoir of the Manly seminary, The Priest Factory.
The Manly seminary scarred many of its students but Kennedy seemed proof against its toxicity. One reason may be that at Manly he began to read discriminately, developing a strong interior life as well as a muscular prose style. A favourite author was Cardinal Newman. Over years he gained a comfortable companionship with poetry, so that every speech or sermon was brightened by quotations from Australian poets, or from Hopkins or Yeats. Dying, he would become alert to correct someone who misquoted a cherished poem.
In his first parish he met a poet who was then finding his feet in the Catholic Church he had recently joined. This was James McAuley, who showed the young priest some of his latest verse. Kennedy took the text to another parishioner, Richard Connolly, asking him to set it to music. Thus was born the most successful hymn-writing duo in Australian Catholic history. The McAuley-Connolly hymns got Australians ready for the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Kennedy respected artists and intellectuals and won their respect in return.
His years as chaplain at the University of Sydney, where he made lasting friends, accentuated this side of his personality. He learned to listen to other people, especially those on strange paths to or from God. He was sought out by young men, here and interstate, stuck in a seminary system, as he said, “designed to keep us in short pants forever”. Later, many would claim that the infantilism of the seminaries had contributed to clerical pedophilia.
So when Kennedy came to Redfern he was a seasoned priest. In time, the other two priests went elsewhere and he was left on his own as parish priest. For rest and recreation, and to maintain his reading and prepare sermons, he kept a bolthole at Burrawang in the Southern Highlands. At Redfern, however, he was in the front line, under fire, with nerves stretched. People joined him there, contributing their talents to parish life. For example, his sister, Marnie, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, initiated street retreats with two friends: instead of being withdrawn from the world, to contemplate a lonely God, participants were plunged into the smelly life of the streets, to find God there.
Increasingly, Kennedy came to emphasise a stream of thought that had always been part of his teaching, the importance of the poor. In 1970 he had fashioned a retreat for Queensland seminarians around the notion that the disadvantaged and the down-and-outs are our brothers. At Redfern he developed this into a theology of poverty, saying that the poor had special insights into the meaning of Christianity and their voices should be heard in the councils of the church.
Kennedy’s commitment to the marginalised led him to homosexuals, one of the most marginalised groups in the church. As a confessor, he had encountered their “transparent gentleness and a finely tuned nobility born of pain”; nor could he discern violence or hatred or anger or bitterness or rancour or power or force – surely this must be a sign of grace. They were good people, so why were they deprived of Holy Communion?
Reflections such as this led Kennedy to write his only book, Who is Worthy?, in 2000, a response to a position taken by George Pell in 1988 and persisted in afterwards. Writing as a private theologian, Pell had seemed to deny Vatican II’s teaching on the primacy of conscience in religious matters. Kennedy’s generation had worked hard to establish the doctrine of conscience in Catholic orthodoxy, and he responded to Pell with trenchant argumentation based on classic texts from Newman.
Kennedy was the friendly face of the church for thousands of Aborigines as he spoke the truths of their loss to the conquerors’ world. He is survived by Marnie and the Aborigines who took this white priest into their hearts and made him part of their own story.