Saint Ted Kennedy of Redfern, people’s priest, prophet and poet, today (24 May) was loudly and spontaneously proclaimed as a saint by thousands of people gathered in Sydney beneath a vast blue and white marquee hoisted on a patch of ground restored to Aboriginal people by Gough Whitlam.
They don’t need the Vatican to tell them he’s a saint.
Their proclamation, with cheers, applause and whistles, of Father Ted as a saint, with another Edward, former archbishop Cardinal Clancy as their witness and the greatest concentration of priests for a funeral Mass in recent memory, rolled out across the indigenous dancing ground, through the sacred gumleaf smoke towards the broken houses of poor people whose hearts he had touched to the core.
It was, as principal concelebrant Bishop David Cremin put it, one of the greatest expressions of faith and love he had ever witnessed in his long ecclesiastical career.
Seventy priests in white robes representing the Resurrection were so numerous they could not find a place to sit down. “The last time we had so many people here in white with crosses it was the Ku Klux Klan,” joked Aboriginal community leader Sol Bellear.
From early morning people began arriving in Redfern. Former Governor-General Sir William Deane, former Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan. And Aussie legend Tom Uren in his famous gardening hat. They sat in the body of the people. This was no time for standing on station or reputation – this egalitarian spirit continued through the Requiem Mass, culminating in a mutual declaration, a spontaneous roar that Father Edward Kennedy is regarded as a saint by his people, now and forever.
They had come, as Danny Gilbert said, to honour a ‘splendid and holy man’.
Speaker after speaker came forward to give details of how Ted Kennedy had changed their lives. Some played the guitar, clicked the clap sticks or sang their hearts out.
This was the priest who said, “The Jesus I know is no cold, hard Iron-Christ; nor does Jesus deserve to be reduced to smug, glib and uncompassionate irrelevances when the real meaning of His love is what people need so desperately.”
Proclamation of a saint by the people themselves has a long tradition in the Catholic Church.
Here at the funeral Mass we were seeing people in wheelchairs, old, young, fit or sick, black or white, not asking that Ted be ‘made’ a saint, but declaring their personal witness to his sainthood. Nor did I see any glimmer of demur from the rows of clergy, some of whom must have smarted at times from Ted’s straight-from-the-shoulder forthrightness.
A newspaper reporter asked me why Cardinal George Pell was not present. I said that perhaps he felt this was a time for ‘people power’, one not to be distracted by an eminential presence. If so, he would have been right. It was Saint Ted’s day. Plenty of time for ecclesial ruminations over the acclamation of Saint Edward of Redfern by the people who loved him.
This day was for celebration of a great life. In the words of the great man himself, “Life is made up of warm flesh-and-blood human beings, not rules made in an age long gone, or ill-fitting principles that were never made-to-measure anyhow.”
And it was these warm people who came that day to love, remember and honor their hero, ‘Saint’ Edward of Redfern b. 27 January 1931, d. 17 May 2005.
His miracles have already occurred.