Danny Gilbert launches book

Here is the text of Danny Gilbert’s address for the launch of Ed Campion’s new book – Ted Kennedy Priest of Redfern

Danny Gilbert at the microphone, David Lovell and Ed Campion seated

I am honoured and pleased to launch Father Ed Campion’s book about Ted Kennedy.

As I thought about this task, I realised how impossible it was to just talk about the book. I simply had no choice but to add bits here and there about my own life with Ted. That means I will talk longer than Ed Campion would like and no doubt some of you. So I apologise in advance and ask for your forbearance.

First I must say that this is a terrific book, intelligent, engaging and multi layered.

It is not, and does not pretend to be, a conventional biography.

The book is about Ted Kennedy, the man and the priest.

Ted didn’t begin his priestly life with a strategic plan. So Ed Campion rolls out before us, to use Marnie’s words, “Ted’s providential life”.

It is also a book about the Catholic Church in Australia. And it is a book about the attitudes and tone of the Archdiocese of Sydney – certainly as Ted saw it.

It touches on the many people who influenced Ted and the many hundreds of people who were so profoundly touched by him. Ted’s essential humanity is deeply present throughout the book – his greatest strength according to Ed Campion.

His weaknesses are there too. But they don’t count for much in the sum of the man.

The many influences on Ted are laid before the reader. Firstly, there were his Catholic parents and their rejection of all that was “churchy”. Ed Campion writes of Ted’s mother, Peg, and “the cold eye through which she looked at priestly failings”.

That eye framed so much of Ted’s own thinking and what he came to call that most egregious of sins – the sin of “clericalism”.

Many others who influenced Ted are also mentioned. To name but a few – Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Jesuit Pedro Arupe, the American Dorothy Day, the Australian Jesuit Jerry Golden, Tony Coady, Roger Pryke and not to leave out of course Cardinal Pell himself – his influence being somewhat distinguishable from the others!

Then there are the numerous poets, including James McAuley, Judith Wright and especially John Shaw Neilsen and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The book also acknowledges the influence of his bishop and priest friends and many others, too numerous to mention here, including Peter Kearney, with us today, whose songs we’ve sung again this morning.

Tom Bass is also there. This is the altar Tom made for Ted. I should mention that Tom is currently working on a significant sculpture representing the force and partnership that was Ted and Mum Shirl.

Ted was ordained as a young man in July 1953. Ed Campion completely captures the mood and the times:

Then, on 18 July 1953, he went to St Mary’s Cathedral and was ordained a priest. The choir sang over him, ‘thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’, and friends and family knelt for his blessing. There followed a week of festivities ….. Masses and Benedictions of the Most Blessed Sacrament in parish churches and schools and convents.

How things have changed.

What you read about Ted as a young priest will surprise. He always wore a black suit, black hat and spoke of a sinful Sydney. He was even censorious about colleagues who did not observe the liturgy.

Little did he imagine the liturgical rigmarole that he would subsequently unleash here, at St Vincent’s Redfern.

And he did not drink.

Kings Cross changes many people and apparently it changed Ted. When he went to St Cannice’s in 1957 he had his first drink. Like all naughty Catholic boys, we are told he said to a friend, “Don’t tell Mum I drink”.

Ted remembered himself in those days as “an overgrown altar boy”, a description he came to apply to many bishops and priests, mostly of course, bishops – present company excluded of course.

Prior to his appointment to Redfern and with the exception of a stint at Sydney University, Ted served as curate in a number of parishes. He didn’t like parish life. He hated it. According to Ed Campion, and we can all hear Ted saying it, he thought parishioners dull, with “damp spark plugs”.

Of course Ted never blamed the laity. He blamed a dull and unimaginative church.
As a young priest, Ted’s homilies were starting to ignite spark plugs all over Catholic Sydney. “People were hungry to hear the gospel preached in a way that made sense to them.”

He talked about the importance of following one’s conscience, at a time when people were anxious about the Vietnam war and birth control. As Ed Campion says, “Week after week, people remembered, and talked about, what Ted had said in his Sunday sermon. The effects could be long lasting” – as indeed they have been.

People were hungry for a new church, a less judgmental church, a church more in sympathy with the complexities of modernity and what it is to be a human being.

The zeitgeist was alive with the hope of a church which might become unshackled from the constraints of petty rules, a church more open to the influences of an educated and sophisticated laity, a church that would embrace literature and the arts.

For Ted and his priest friends, it seemed to herald the opportunity for a different kind of priestly life.

Ted inspired and gave hope to so many. He must have been in his element.

Indeed, Ted as an inspirational figure is a theme throughout the book. I remember an old priest friend of Ted’s, Les Cashen, referring to Ted as that rare breed of Catholic priest, a prophet.

Ted even seems to have been something of a leader and organiser of retreats for priests. This was an astonishing revelation to me. By the time I met Ted in the early 1980s he simply loathed retreats. He loathed the whole concept of “leadership” even more.

One very surprising piece of information was that Ted, with his friend Val Noone, planned a national convention of priests leading to the formation of the National Council of Priests. Who would have thought it? Just as he was capable of forging a signature, he would, if alive today, be capable of denying he had anything to do with the National Council of Priests, let alone its formation.

Ed Campion goes so far to assert, I think with his tongue close to but not entirely in his cheek, an initiating role for Ted in Vatican II. Ted held so much hope for Vatican II.

As to the forged signature, you can read about that in the book.

Ed Campion reminds us of the many people who talk of the impact of Ted on them as young men and women. Some of those people are here today.

He refers to a retreat Ted gave to Queensland seminarians in 1970. A seminarian summed up its impact on him as follows: “In a way that had never come through to me in church circles before, he spoke of the poor, the disadvantaged, the down and out, as his brothers. Previously we had assisted them, looked down at them and forgotten them.”

It seems that what changed Ted most was his appointment as University Chaplain at Sydney University in 1960. Kings Cross had loosened him up and Ted was ready for the University. His appointment was arranged by his friend Roger Pryke, who was buried only last Tuesday. Ted frequently acknowledged his friendship and indebtedness to Roger Pryke.

Ted loved the university life. He loved the opportunity to be intellectually curious and he loved the students. One of them was Rod Coady. Rod is quoted:

Ted’s guidance was gentle and had depth and for many, these groups provided the foundation of a renewed and deepened faith. He had infinite patience with troubled students and the compassion and wisdom he displayed in helping to solve problems ensured there was a steady stream of students at his door. Perhaps more than anything else though, what I remember is his generosity: there seemed to be literally nothing, if it were in his power, that he would not do to help someone in need.

And so it was all of his life.

After being effectively removed from the university by Cardinal Gilroy, (Ted had no time for Gilroy), Ted and his friends continued to think about a different kind of priestly life. They made continued requests to Cardinal Gilroy for at least 5 of them to be appointed as a team ministry to serve in a parish as a community rather than a hierarchy. Gilroy refused. Archbishop Freeman was more sympathetic and appointed three priests to Redfern.

Redfern was not their first choice, none of them knew anything about Aboriginal people, and three was not really enough. But in 1971 Ted Kennedy, John Butcher and Fergus Breslan moved into St Vincent’s presbytery in Redfern to try something new.

As you would expect, a good deal of this book is devoted to Ted’s life at Redfern. It was in this place, where we are now, that Ted began his long and deeply spiritual life with Aboriginal people. They were the poorest of the poor and to Ted they were embodiments of Christ himself.

Ted loved these people, he respected them and he gave them welcome. All he did and all he offered, was absolutely unconditional. He expected nothing in return. It must have been the most powerful revelation to Aboriginal people to meet someone in authority who did not judge them.

Ted always used the word “insist”. He was a very insistent man. Ed Campion himself insists that to understand Ted you must understand Ted’s insistence on the absolute and unconditional demand of the gospel that Christians give priority to the poor.

Let me quote this passage: “Ted did not discover the poor in books, he was living among them. Yet when he opened the book of the Bible, they were there too. What the Bible said to him about the poor (and children) was that they were sacramental people because they were powerless: they showed us the need for faith in God, not faith in ourselves.”

How often did we hear Ted say with respect to the poor and the fringe dwellers, “They have the lens through which we can see God”?

The book does not give a lot of detail about Ted’s life at Redfern but we get a strong sense of how hard it was. “Aborigines were flooding into the city from up and down the eastern states and beyond, trying to find their families and seeking new lives.” Between 50 and 100 people were regularly coming and going, living in and around the presbytery. And all those people were fed every day. Imagine the chaos and the sheer discomfort.

All the while, Ted was hurt and angry that the Sydney Archdiocese failed to support him and failed to extend the friendship of the church to Aboriginal people.

There is no getting away from it. Ted regarded the Archdiocese of Sydney as a menacing presence in the life of the church.

Ed Campion is not so polemical, but he does note with sharpness Ted’s “index of disappointment with the bishops”.

And as we know, it was not a brief index.

There are several references in the book to Ted’s ‘Twenty-five years at Redfern’ speech. Ed Campion is on the mark when he says that one section of that speech

“gets close to [Ted’s] appeal as a human being”.

In that speech, Ted singled out four groups who had been excluded from the public life of the church, and I quote:

  • First of the four groups were the poor, especially of course Kooris.
  • Then there were women, starting with those ‘consecrated coolies, religious sisters’.
  • Next, homosexual men and women, who had been treated as if their baptism was, to quote Ted, ‘like an inoculation that didn’t take’.
  • Finally, there were all the clerical and religious drop-outs, at the mention of whom his words took on a vigour and grace that is reminiscent of (Cardinal) Newman’s sentences.”

Ted then names many of these men and women whom he felt the Archdiocese had failed in Christian love to nurture and support. He finishes with these words:

I want to say, to all you brave and wonderful drop-outs, so beloved to me, a simple word of admiration and thanks.

Throughout his life at Redfern, Ted was both assisted and challenged by many big-hearted people, and their part in the story of Redfern is also told.

Special mention is made of some of the many women in Ted’s life. First among them was Shirley Smith, or Mum Shirl as she was better known. Much is said about Shirley and the relationship between the two. Ted described her as the greatest theologian he had ever met. (She was practically illiterate.)

While this is not in the book, I remember Shirley standing alongside Ted (it was hard to tell who was preacher) and declaiming about the world’s most important men. In Shirley’s order of importance they were: Jesus Christ, St Martin de Porres and Father Ted Kennedy – she always referred to Ted as Father. She would say, pointing at Ted, “You see this man here, his name is Father Ted Kennedy (as if we didn’t know). Next to Jesus Christ and St Martin de Porres, he is the greatest man who ever walked this (h)earth.”

Other women receive honourable mentions as well: Sister Ignatius Jenkins of the Sisters of Charity, Maureen Flood of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters and Nora McManus of the Little Sisters of Jesus. All no longer with us.

Not everyone found favour with Ted. There is a delicious piece in the book about his run-in with Mother Theresa. To Ted’s mind, she was seeking to impose her order on Aboriginal people, when what was required was to be invited. He told her, face to face, that until she was invited, she was not welcome in Redfern.

She quickly took the hint.

Ted would be worthy of a book if all he had done was to help Aboriginal people; if all he had done was to play a key role in the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service on the old convent site next door and in the creation of The Block.

Yet there was another very significant dimension to the man. He was a wonderfully challenging and energising preacher. Ed Campion would know this better than most. He says of Ted: “He had an Irish ability to strike off phrases that lived. Thus where others who had raged all their lives at the damage done to them in the seminary, he was able to impale the system on one sharp sentence: ‘It was designed to keep us all in short pants’.

Ed Campion goes on: “Speaking of the pettifogging moral teaching of those days, that tortured good folk with scruples and filled the parish confessionals on Saturday afternoons, [Ted] summarised its leading idea as ‘Annoy yourself, for Christ’s sake’”.

There are many of us here today who had the extraordinary privilege of hearing Ted preach. His sermons were peppered with quotes from discomforting theologians, philosophers, writers and poets.

The centrepiece of his teachings was the Kingdom of God here on earth. He would often cite St Ireneus “The glory of God is man fully alive”. He viewed the Gospels in their proper historical context. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus was a murder story. The Roman empire and the Jewish religious hierarchy were in cahoots. They both used their power to trample on the human spirits of the poor.

Ted saw Christ not so much as redeemer, as liberator.

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.

Over the years, some people have suggested that Ted failed to approach the Eucharist with the requisite awe and respect. I have to say that is a lie. The contrary was the case.

Whenever Ted presided over the Eucharist it was a most holy and venerable occasion. Ted said the Eucharistic prayers as if it might have been for the first time. Frank Brennan has already referred to some of the words which so often fell from Ted’s lips as he stood behind this altar.

Ed Campion sets the record straight:

At Redfern the liturgy could be chaotic, which is not to say it was inauthentic. At mass, a crying Aborigine might stumble to the altar, seeking comfort from Ted, who would stop what he was doing, and console the afflicted person before resuming the liturgy; or a girl on roller skates might glide into the church and up to the head of the line for Holy Communion receive Communion and glide off again. Yet Ted seemed to keep a remarkable interiority to his worship as several witnesses attest.

That is a lovely reflection – Ted’s “remarkable interiority of worship”. The author has nailed it well.

Rather than these being hanging offences, Ed Campion sees them as “evidence of a faithful priest”.

Ted’s masses were extraordinarily beautiful.

Ed Campion is careful not to lionise Ted.

Ted could be very angry, intemperate and highly judgemental. Not only with the Archbishop of the day – that was a given – but also with people he was close to. Some of his views were thinly-based and to my mind sometimes disproportionate. But even then, they were not easily dismissed, and in any event Ted didn’t care. He freely acknowledged this aspect of his character. As we know, he asked his friends not to save him from his “uncircumspect self”.

There is much in the book about his long standing run-ins with the Archdiocese whose consistent rejection of him and his requests inflamed him and wore him down. Particularly of course his request that the old presbytery be gifted to Aboriginal people. A request still denied.

Ed Campion reminds us that like Dorothy Day before him, Ted Kennedy did not think himself saintly, although Ted thought Dorothy Day was.

Ted could recognise his wrong doings. The book contains the most beautiful description of an occasion shortly prior to his death when Ted asked someone for her forgiveness over a wrong-doing of his many years before. It is one of the many high points of this book.

Further evidence of his appeal as a human being.

Ed deals at some length with Ted’s book “Who is Worthy” and of course with that most memorable event in the life of Ted Kennedy – his funeral.

Before I finish there is a personal story about Ted which I must tell. Ted died in May 2005. He was barely conscious for the last 6 months of his life. I saw him regularly during this period and on one occasion I had just been to a Leonard Cohen tribute concert. It was Sydney Festival time. Ted had not acknowledged my presence for the first 10 minutes of my visit except to squeeze my hand. I had no idea that Ted even knew who Leonard Cohen was, but, searching for conversation, I told Ted that Cohen’s song Bird on a Wire so reminded me of him. He replied in a voice that was barely audible, “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir”, and together we finished the next line – “I have tried in my way to be free”.

That said it all for me. Ted had tried in his unique, difficult, wonderful way to be free. This book is testament to that.

You will understand why I have said at the outset that this is a marvellous book. It very cleverly weaves together the various threads of Ted’s life. Ed Campion’s language is as subtle as it is rich. Like Ted, he has ‘an Irish ability to strike off phrases that live’.

I asked Ed why he wrote this book. He said he wrote it for everyone who loved Ted.

The respect and admiration he had for Ted and the warmth of his friendship and regard, jumps out of almost every page. He wants Ted to be properly remembered for the good bloke and priest that he was.

There are those in the church today who would rather forget that Ted Kennedy ever existed. Ed Campion has put an end to the possibility of that.

To Ed I want to say on behalf of everyone here and everyone who admired or loved Ted, we owe you a great debt. It can’t have been an easy book to pull together. Ted was always untidy and hard to collect. He remains so in death. I am sure it would have been very difficult to know where to draw the finishing line.

You have honoured us all and you have added yet another page to your invaluable canon on the life and times of the Catholic Church in Australia. To my mind, this is an extraordinarily significant page about a splendid and holy man. Perhaps, more accurately, a splendidly unholy man.

I am so pleased you dedicate the book to Marnie. She mourns his loss and she mourns a church that steadfastly refuses to hear her beloved brother. It will renew her faith and her vitality.

So thank you Ed.

And thank you all for listening.

It is my very great pleasure to launch Ted Kennedy Priest of Redfern and to now ask Ed to say a few words.

Danny Gilbert
12 July 2009

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply