When the telephone alongside my bed at Quirindi Presbytery woke me out of a fitful sleep at 6:30 last Tuesday morning, I sensed, even before she spoke, that it might be Marnie, with the news that Ted had died.
To you, so loving an elder sister, Marnie; to those many nieces and nephews of “a wonderful uncle”; and to the aboriginal people of Redfern and elsewhere, I express a word of heartfelt sympathy.
These days, whenever I enter St. Mary’s Cathedral from the south doors, and gaze along the main aisle, I seem to hear still the sound of the didjeridoo and violin that led us in procession for Mum Shirl’s Requiem. That was early in May 1998: seven years ago. Who could forget the bucketing rain afterwards in College Street?
In a similar way, it may be that, from now on, whenever we listen to the Beatitudes from St. Luke’s Gospel the experience of today’s Requiem here under the Marquee, on the Block, at Redfern, will be revived.
For All Saints day, for weddings, funerals, retreats, confirmation: the passage known as “The Beatitudes” must be the most proclaimed liturgically of any Gospel. In the Beatitudes we are plunged into the disturbing presence of the One who, aligning Himself with those outside the Law, would be hounded to death on a cross. Our hearing these Beatitudes at Ted’s Requiem is to commune with him and his Lord. And as we take and eat the Broken Bread of the Eucharist we are again in communion with the same Lord, crucified and risen, and with Ted, now ill eternity.
Only a matter of weeks before he arrived at St. Columba’s, Springwood in February 1947, Ted had celebrated his 16th birthday. At the tender age of 15, he’d completed High School at Lewisham Christian Brothers’, gaining the Leaving Certificate, a necessary passport into first year Philosophy at the College. Even in that first year at Springwood I noticed how sensitively this new boy, Ted Kennedy, listened. He listened with interest, remembering details, years later.
That beautifully worded death notice in the Herald speaks of him as “an unconditional fellow traveller with the many whose lives he touched”.
Only a week before this I’d read similar wording in the final pages of Tony Hendra’s memoir, “Father Joe – The Priest Who Saved My Soul”. The Father Joe he writes about was a Benedictine Monk of Quarr Abbey, on the isle of Wight.
Let me share a couple of paragraphs …
I read these astounding words: “He touched the lives of so many people, in England and abroad, in his own Church and not … it is hard to give full weight to the extent of his pastoral influence”
Father Joe? My Father Joe?
I was never so arrogant and self-centred as to imagine I was his only friend and penitent. I knew he had other people who came to him for help and some “old friends”, as he called them, especially as he got older.
But – “touched the lives of so many people”, which if you put two and two together, must mean hundreds?
I’d always believed – simply on the evidence of his deep love and abiding concern – that what was the defining friendship of my life was also a prominent fixture of his.
It was immensely disarming and engaging to be treated as if you were the only one in his life; but then, for the time you were with him, you were. He loved the one he was with: spiritually promiscuous, utterly discreet.
One of his fellow monks, when I expressed surprise that I was Not The Only One, said: “Ah yes – everyone thought they were Joe’s best friend.”
And all of us were right. We all were.
I discovered as I read more tributes and asked more questions that he was best known for saving vocations, especially of priests battered by the storms of experimentation and controversy in the post Vatican II Church. But most of those who came to him were laymen like me, ordinary people in all walks of life, struggling, through the world. Many had known him even longer than I had, some for fifty years, some as long as sixty.
A sizable portion of his ministry was gay, people who’d lost lovers to AIDS or were grappling with it themselves, as well as those tortured by the Church’s relentless intolerance of different sexual orientation.
It seems that Tony Hendra’s Father Joe and our Father Ted had much in common.
It’s ironic that, for all his closeness to hundreds of people, Ted himself remained the most private of individuals. Of his own present or past he disclosed almost nothing. Maybe a teaspoonful every ten years or so, if you were lucky. For example, I’d always assumed that his second initial, ‘P’, stood for Patrick, only to read in his death notice ‘Edward Philip’. Why, I’m left wondering, Philip’? The Edward (which became Teddy or Ted) was, I gathered, for his mother’s brother, Edward Joseph McMahon, a priest of Sydney Archdiocese who died in 1937. But even of this I’ve never been absolutely certain.
One area, however, about which Ted was not reticent, was his intense love for certain poets: Judith Wright, James McAuley, AD Hope, Hopkins, lames K Baxter. At the top of the list was John Shaw Neilson. Once you knew the story behind this remarkable, miraculous Australian, you could understand why Ted found such inspiration in him. For on the one hand Shaw Neilson’s life was, at every turn, deprived, impoverished; his minimal education, his wretchedly poor eyesight, his labouring with pick and shovel along the roads in the harsh Mallee country of Victoria; his sheltering in a tent, unmarried. Yet Shaw Neilson’s poems survive and bubble like a spring of clear water in a stoney desert. A favourite for Ted was “The Poor, Poor Country” concluding –
“The New Year came with heat and dust and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and 1 mourned to see them go.
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky.
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.”
On the occasional visit to Sydney during the past year or so, I’d make my way to Burwood, walking from the Station along to number 79 Cheltenham Road, Croydon — The Bishop Ezechiel Moreno Nursing Home. It would be on my return journey, from the Nursing Home to Burwood Station that I’d become consciously aware of the blessing of being able to walk – freely and unassisted.
When I reached room number 7 on my last visit but one, I found the door closed. As I cautiously pushed it open a little, what I saw was a kind of epiphany: the Deposition from the cross. There was Ted suspended between floor and ceiling, held in an apparatus enabling the nurses to transfer him from bed to couch.
That ever-informed, ever-journeying, ever-telephoning Ted had become utterly dependent, unable to converse, to read, to do anything but lie there, day after day, cared for by efficient nurses, visited by friends and family — yet ‘imprisoned’
“….you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt on you and take you where you would rather not” (John 21 : 18)
As I sat there, those words of The Risen Jesus to Peter came to mind, as well as a verse from Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”
“I know not if the laws be right
Or if the laws be wrong.
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the walls are strong.
And everyday is like a year,
A year whose days are long”.
Attached to the wall behind his bed was a small crucifix. One did not need great powers of imagination to make the connection. On the wall at the other side of his room was a long, thin wooden cross, painted in red, black and ochre, a reminder, if one needed it, that here, stretched out helplessly was a “Beloved friend to the Aboriginal People”.
On the wall not far from the foot of his bed hung a large framed photograph of his dear parents. It was taken, I believe, at the grotto, Springwood, during a visit to the College in 1947 when Ted was in his first seminary year and Jack and Peg were evidently in their prime.
On Tuesday last, May 17, just after midnight, Ted breathed his last. He had been a week or so at Concord Hospital, the very suburb where, in December 1953, dressed in clerical black and roman collar, with his latin breviary on hand, Ted, aged 22, had commenced his ministry as a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese.
The news of his passing travelled quickly around Sydney and New South Wales and beyond. On the Friday’ when Mass came around and we heard the First Reading from Sirach Chapter 6, we could not but think of this “unconditional fellow traveller” of ours.
“A faithful friend is a sure shelter. Whoever finds one has found a rare treasure.
A faithful friend is something beyond price; there is no measuring his worth.
A faithful friend is the elixir of life” (Sirach 6:] 6-17)