Kennedy enters the Dreamtime

If the Church is to be a sign of the kingdom, it must give the respect due to princes to the outcasts of the world. Never again must we allow a rhetoric of idealism, a policy of compromise, but the end result being `business as usual’. – Fr Ted Kennedy, who died yesterday, from a 1975 letter to the Archbishop of Sydney.

Legendary priest and friend to Aboriginal people, Fr Ted Kennedy, has died in Sydney’s Concord Hospital, aged 74.

To former Catholic priest Patrick Dodson, Fr Kennedy is ‘great saint material’. “Ted has been a real sign of what the truth and love of Catholic teaching is all about. He managed to incorporate the best of Catholicism into his personal life, which was evident in the way he related to the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden. Ted was always respectful of authority, but not afraid of it. He was always prepared to share his own belongings with anyone in need. It’s a sad, sad, sad loss,” Mr Dodson told Online Catholics yesterday.

Ted Kennedy was born in Sydney on 27 January 1931. He attended the Christian Brothers, Lewisham and entered the seminary at about 18 years of age, remembers his sister, Sr Marnie Kennedy. “He was always a gospel-focussed person, and never let inessentials dim that vision,” she says now. “He was willing to risk anything. He had a vision for what was possible.”

He was ordained by Cardinal Gilroy in 1953 and spent some time as chaplain at the University of Sydney. This was an adventurous time at the University. Fr Edmund Campion has described it as the ‘decade before the event, we had tried out, at the University of Sydney, the major themes and meanings which historians would come to call the Vatican II reforms. It was history in the making.”

After Vatican II Fr Ted developed a paradigm of a team based ministry, such as had emerged in France at that time. “He believed that the old model of individual priests visiting people in their homes would no longer work,” Sr Marnie said. “He wanted a model which saw three or four priests living in community and ‘fanning out’ to serve the different interests and needs of all the people.”

It was this model that Fr Ted established when he was sent to Redfern by Cardinal Freeman in 1971. He began his team ministry with two other priests from the Archdiocese and in time invited religious including MSCs, Poor Clares, Charities, Sacre Coeurs, de la Salles and Marists to join them. Fr Ted also asked the lay people to join with him in ministering to the community.

Lawyer and parishioner Danny Gilbert was one of them. “Ted was a man of extraordinary faith and love,” Mr Gilbert told Online Catholics. “He believed passionately that the freedom of the human spirit, in all of its imaginative manifestations of love and affection, to be the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. He would often quote an early father of the Church, St Iraneus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

“In over 20 years, I never once heard him ask anyone for money nor tell anyone how they should live their life. He believed in the full integrity of the human conscience,” Mr Gilbert said.

Out of his vision for a participatory ministry grew Fr Ted’s special understanding of the gifts of Aboriginal people. “He saw into their hearts and recognized the goodness of Aboriginal people,” says Phil Glendenning, executive director of the Edmund Rice Centre. “And he knew it was the way out for all of us.”

What Kennedy saw was the freedom from fear that, paradoxically, can arise from terrible oppression. His advocacy for Aboriginal people often brought him into conflict with authorities. “He experienced the fate of many other prophets in being marginalized himself as he sought to minister to those on the edge,” said Bishop Pat Power, of Canberra Goulburn, yesterday. However his spiritual stature was always recognized at the highest levels. “The Church and the world should give thanks for the grace-filled life of Fr Ted Kennedy. He was a true priest showing the face of Jesus especially to God’s ‘little ones’,” said Bp Power. Phil Glendenning agrees. “Fr Ted was a true champion for what the Church should be about. He was a tireless defender of aboriginal people’s rights and dignity. He represnted the conscience of the Catholic Church in this part of the world.”

In the 70s and 80s, St Vincents’ Redfern became something of a sacred site for Aboriginal people who came to the city to find lost and stolen families. “I can still remember the arrivals from all over Australia, people coming in on the morning trains,” says Sr Marnie Kennedy. “They had nothing and nowhere to go. At one time there were a hundred people living at the presbytery,” she says. “People lived and died there.” Fr Ted set out to return to Aboriginal people something to aid their self-determination, establishing with Mum Shirl the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Housing Cooperative and hostels.

Fr Ted’s health began to deteriorate in the late 90s when he suffered a small stroke. He retired from active ministry in 2002. However Fr Ted’s connection to Aboriginal people remained and indeed his sensitivity to their suffering almost enters the realm of the mysterious. “I was reading to him in hospital last year, from an article by Tony Stephen who is a friend,” Sr Marnie recalled, “when he suddenly had a seizure. It was the major health crisis and the beginning of the end. Later I learned that the Redfern Riots had just begun,” she said.

It is perhaps a special grace that Fr Ted Kennedy died this week, in between Pentecost and the upcoming Sorry Week. His funeral is likely to be next Tuesday, and will be celebrated by Bishop David Cremin. Late yesterday, Cardinal Pell said through a spokeswoman, “Fr Ted Kennedy was a good and courageous priest who inspired many people. He was a man of strong convictions who worked hard to help those on the margins. He will be sadly missed by his friends and former parishioners.”

Commentator Paul Collins yesterday supported Pat Dodson’s view of Kennedy as ‘great saint material’:

“Ted Kennedy was a saint, as genuine and as real as Blessed Mary McKillop. His whole life was one of generosity and ministry. In thousands of ways he served others, most of the time hardly known to anyone except those who were recipients of his goodness.

“His prophetic commitment to Aboriginal people stirred the guilty conscience of white Australia profoundly. His book on freedom of conscience, Who is Worthy? showed how profoundly Catholic he was. His last years of physical suffering were sadly compounded by the fatuity of those who tried to wreck his work.

“But his ministry and priesthood stand as a shining light. He was a true prophet and a saint”, Dr Collins said.

“Epitaph”

Weep not for me for Death is
but the vehicle that unites my soul
with the Creative Essence, God.
My spiritual Being, my love is
still with you, where ever you are
until forever.

You will find me in the quiet moments
in the trees, amidst the rocks,
the cloud and beams of sunshine
indeed, everywhere for I, too, am
a part of the total essence of
creation that radiates everywhere
about you, eternally.

Life, after all, is just a
passing phase.

Kevin Gilbert
Wiradgeri poet

Issue 52, 18 May 2005
http://onlinecatholics.com.au/issue52

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