Transcript of Encounter program by David Rutledge 25 July 2005
Encounter is a radio program that may be heard on Sundays at 7.10am (repeated Wednesday at 7.10pm) on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National network.
This highly acclaimed series, co-ordinated by Florence Spurling, explores the connections between religion and life.
With an emphasis on a high standard of creative production, Encounter invites the listener to make connections intellectually, emotionally and intuitively across a broad spectrum of topics.
The program regularly reflects on the religious experience of multicultural Australia. This includes small, lesser-known groups and gives access to voices and experiences that are not often heard in the mainstream media.
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New priests have been installed in the parish, and neither the priests, the congregation nor the local Aboriginal community are happy.
Michael Gravener: That place is so symbolic, and has such memories for people, that they mightn’t pray there, they mightn’t worship a Christian God there, but from an Aboriginal point of view – as we all know – space and place is very important.
Hilary Bone: It’s a place where many Aboriginal people have been buried – and the deaths go on and on and on – it is a sacred place, and it’s being defiled.
Paul Collins: It’s understandable that tension will be there; it’s very very difficult to move into a community that’s very well established, that has a long track record of social justice. But when you move in people who seem to want to impose their own model of the church, and their own way of operating upon the community, then you begin to realise that the tensions there will not only be simmering – they’ll be exploding.
David Rutledge: Welcome to Encounter. David Rutledge here, taking you this week to the inner-city suburb of Redfern in Sydney. Redfern is known for its large Aboriginal population, and over the past few months, it’s been making the usual national headlines about a community beset on all sides with the worst kind of chronic social problems: drug abuse, alcoholism, serial unemployment, and trouble with the police – the kinds of tensions that led to the riot earlier this year in February.
But Redfern is also home to a large Aboriginal Catholic community, and the centre of that community is here: St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Redfern Street. The whole area is bound up in Catholic Church and local Aboriginal history – right next door to the church is the Aboriginal Medical Centre, which stands on land that was handed over to the Aboriginal community by the Sisters of Mercy some twenty years ago.
The Aboriginal community doesn’t own the church – at least not under the state freehold system of ownership. But for the past thirty-five years, St Vincent’s has been a refuge and a home to hundreds of Aboriginal people who have lived – and sometimes died – within its walls.
Until recently, the church and the community had experienced three decades of service from one extraordinary parish priest: Father Ted Kennedy, who throughout his life has been a passionate advocate for social justice – and a very sharp thorn in the side of the Catholic Church hierarchy.
Ted Kennedy: Within the Catholic community in Australia there has been a deep, dark hole for a long time now, which amounts to a lack of genuine spirituality. By ‘spiritual’ I do not mean something ethereal, incapable of being translated into the common coinage of human experience. I mean the opposite: something that can live at the very centre of the human dilemma.
Religion can become the possession of an elitist group, whose power reinforces the power of all the other institutional forces in society. Its language then becomes spiritually hollow, incapable of criticising or challenging any of those forces. In so becoming, religion moves inevitably away from where people – especially the poor – live, move and have their being.
I want to confess that the Australian Catholic Church has built up a momentum that it heading away from the poor, and to the extent that it has done so, it has become unfaithful to the Gospel.
David Rutledge: Father Ted Kennedy speaking on ABC Radio’s Saturday Guest program in 1984.
Ted Kennedy was priest at St Vincent’s Church for thirty years; he came to Redfern in 1971, inspired by the reformist spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In his ministry to the poor and the marginalised of Redfern – particularly to the Aboriginal community – Father Ted extended unconditional support and welcome. The church and the nearby presbytery were a refuge – and sometimes a home – for anyone with nowhere else to stay, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Catholic or otherwise.
Ted Kennedy was also an outspoken critic of the institutional Church. In 2000 he published a book entitled Who Is Worthy, which is a searing attack on conservatism and clericalism.
Father Ted today is physically in decline – a series of strokes has left him bedridden and very ill. But the community at St Vincent’s Church is continuing the work that he started.
MUSIC – CONVERSATION – INSIDE THE CHURCH
Every Tuesday and Friday morning, the church puts on a meal for whoever wants to come along. There are three or four dozen people here this morning, inside and outside the church. It’s a real community event. And if you come along, you find that Ted Kennedy – even though he’s physically absent – is still very much a part of the community.
Glen Jameson: He’s done a lot for the community, especially when funerals and christenings – he probably christened half of all the Aboriginal people in Redfern – marriages, everything.
Bea Haines: He did lots of things like talk to everyone, found out what their circumstances were – like, if they needed help or anything – he was really caring and good with everyone.
Glen Jameson: She’s been here all her life; I’ve been coming here going on fifteen years now. I’ve met a lot of people, very good people here that help us out from time to time, and this church means a lot to the Redfern people, I’d say. Not many people have got money to go and get themselves a feed, so this is not just for the people that come to the church, this is for people in the are who are homeless. To lose this church to anything – be it mother nature or anything else – it’d really hurt the community, I reckon.
David Rutledge: That’s Glen Jameson and Bea Haines. People have come here to Redfern from all over NSW. Tony Haines is Bea’s brother, he’s from Moree; and Freddy Reynolds is originally from Brewarrina.
Tony Haines: I’ve got five children and they’ve just about all been christened by Father Ted. He was an Irish guy, and the Irish people had similar beliefs to us.
David Rutledge: What do you mean, the Irish people had similar beliefs to you?
Tony Haines: Well, you know, they struggled in this country like we did – you know, with the Eureka Stockade – they were here in the colonies. That’s part of the reason why I reckon Ted identified with us: he believed that the Aboriginal people are disadvantaged, and he tried to help us. He’s had three strokes – and he’s still going.
Freddy Reynolds: I was born at Brewarrina, but I was taken away in the stolen generation era. Father Ted’s been a big part of my life – and not just only mine, other people here. He’s just like a father, you know, a big brother and all that, all put together. I can’t say much more than that – he’s a gentleman.
Tony Haines: These black people here are from all over Australia, not just from here. And old Ted was able to pick out what groups fitted in where. Like when I came to his 25th anniversary out in the yard there, he had alcohol out there, all different kinds, where he knew that people went in their crowds, and what they drank and what drew them together.
Cindy French: Father Ted, well, he was there when my mother had me, so he’s known my family for years and years, ever since I was a baby. He’s a beautiful man – like, if we know Father Ted’s coming here, you’d be lucky to fit everyone in this church, it’d be from here down to the lights away, you know? We love him, and I pray for him all the time.
David Rutledge: Cindy French.
Ted Kennedy’s ministry has extended far beyond the walls of St Vincent’s Church. The congregation has a large number of members who live outside Redfern – indeed outside Sydney – and this is an appropriate complement to Father Ted’s decentralised approach to priestly office. Rhonda Ansiewicz and Hilary Bone live in Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW. Their association with Ted Kennedy and the Redfern community goes back thirty five years, and once a month they still come down to St Vincent’s. Here’s Rhonda.
Rhonda Ansiewicz: The guidance Ted gave was in that he would defer us – and himself – to the Aboriginal people. If you wanted to work out something, or something was amiss, he’d say ‘ask Mum Shirl,’ or ‘go and ask Aunty Gladdie.’ And it kind of threw us all into this chaotic, unknown space, where you had to work through it yourself, you know, Ted wasn’t there to help. Like he’d offer you the space, and you could take it, but he wasn’t there holding your hand. And then relationships developed out of that.
It drew you into that vortex of suffering, of celebration, of struggle, of social justice. And that, for me, encapsulates a lot about Redfern.
Hilary Bone: There was this total absence of hierarchy. So when you walked into the church – Ted’s church, as it was and always will be, I guess – you felt at home. And I think the irony now is that we have this hierarchical church imposing power from the top down to the bottom. And with Ted’s church, it was empowerment, rather than being subject to the imposition of power.
David Rutledge: That’s a very interesting point you make there. Because a lot of the time, when people talk about Ted, they’ll describe him as a leader, a charismatic figure, and you kind of get this image of a high priestly figure, leading his congregation – through the wilderness, or wherever. You’re saying it wasn’t like that, that hierarchy wasn’t there?
Hilary Bone: No, that was the irony of the whole thing: that there was this leadership, but the leadership wasn’t structured, it was there because of the respect that people held for Ted. So that it was only in his absence that we began to see him as a leader, in that he was an inspirational figure. So that perhaps ‘inspirational’ is a better word than ‘leader’.
David Rutledge: Hilary Bone.
It could be said that one of the most remarkable things about Ted Kennedy has been that he managed to perform his remarkable ministry within the hierarchical structure of the church. Joe Castley is another long-standing member of the community.
Joe Castley: The great thing about Ted was that he knew when not to fight, when just to go his own way. And he had the status, and he had the brain, and he had the authority to be able to do that. So he existed as a sort of parallel church in Sydney for years and years and years.
David Rutledge: How was Ted able to plough his own furrow in that way? I imagine he would have faced resistance or direct opposition from the hierarchy, in simply performing the kind of ministry that he wanted to perform.
Joe Castley: Not only from the hierarchy, but from his fellow priests. He told me once – fairly recently – what awful loneliness it had been, that he felt cut off in his pursuit of the mission to the marginalised and to the poor, to the free spirit within the Church. He felt terribly alone, and it was appallingly difficult.
CONVERSATION -INSIDE THE CHURCH
Kel: My name’s Kel. This may not be like the Sacred Heart Mission down in Melbourne – but it’s still a good feed; everyone’s welcome, come as you are. They do a wonderful job here in Redfern. You might think Redfern’s a bit of a poor area, but people in Redfern survive.
David Rutledge: If you come along to the Tuesday and Friday meal at St Vincent’s Church, you’ll find great community spirit – but also, at the moment, a lot of anger. In July last year, a new priest took over at the church: Father Gerry Prindiville, and a few months later he was joined by his assistant, Father Dennis Sudla.
Father Gerry and Father Dennis are followers of the Neocatechumenal Way, a highly conservative formation within the Catholic Church. We’ll hear more about the Neocatechumenate later in the program, but suffice it to say that St Vincent’s is now experiencing a style of priesthood that’s very different from the Father Ted Kennedy model.
The new priests have taken a stand on the issue of respect for the church and its proper use. Appropriate decoration has become a contentious issue. There’s been carpet put down in places over the bare floorboards, and there have been wrangles over what should go up on the walls. Behind the altar here, there’s a photo of Shirley Smith or Mum Shirl, who died in 1998, and she’s revered among the Aboriginal and the white congregation as a genuine saint (if not an officially canonised one). Among other things, Mum Shirl was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Medical Centre next door. The new priests feel that the photo of Mum Shirl is inappropriate, and the community has had a fight on its hands to keep it up on the wall.
On the adjoining wall here, the priests have put up an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour – a more traditional Catholic icon. And the two images rather neatly represent the tension that’s developed at the church since Father Ted retired; whether they also represent hope for some kind of mutual accommodation in the future remains to be seen.
Father Gerry Prindiville is also opposed to the community holding its twice-weekly sharing of the meal inside the church. This has angered the parishioners who organise the meal – one of them being Mary McMahon.
Mary McMahon: I know that the current priests don’t want us to be here, doing what we’re doing today…
David Rutledge: …which is the sharing of the meal?
Mary McMahon: …sharing of the meal, which we do two days a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays in the mornings. And we must have close to a hundred people each time – and you can see people sit around and talk, it’s not just taking a sandwich and going, or anything like that; it is a real sharing of the community spirit. And that is Ted’s legacy, really – and they are very keen for us not to be here, because they think that it’s not seemly.
David Rutledge: Have they made that plain?
Mary McMahon: They have actually said – well, one of them, Father Gerry Prindiville, has said that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate that we are in the church. Whereas we think that the living and wounded Christ is here, in ourselves and in the people, and that there should be no more appropriate place than Christ’s house for us to be.
Mario Bezzine: There’s all these volunteers; they have family, they come in their spare time; these people just work for the poor, not for the church.
David Rutledge: That’s Mario Bezzine, who lives just up the road from Redfern in nearby Waterloo.
Mario Bezzine: Usually the churches, they’re all very rich, you know? I’m from Malta, you see, like they make the churches rich, you see gold and that. Say, like, somebody is sick, and you say ‘if my daughter gets well, I’ll give you my gold ring’ – that’s how they work sometimes.
But here, they want to leave it like that, because it represents the poor. They don’t want the church to look nice, they just want more help for these people. Because there’s a lot of people who are hungry – I mean, this was their own invention, these people who help here. I’m just a poor person who helps a bit by washing and that, but I think it’s disgusting when there’s so much money in the Church.
They don’t have a key – the people who work for the poor, they don’t even have a key for the church. You have to go and tell the priest to open and close the church for us – when we’re finished we have to go and tell them. I think that’s disgusting, when there’s people who have been here thirty years helping here, doing the same job. What do you think? I think that it’s very hypocritical. The Church is supposed to help the poor; these people are putting their money where their mouth is, but the hierarchy, they’re just sitting on their fat butts – excuse me – and doing nothing, like usual.
Mary McMahon: The carpet, which none of us likes, is here; we’ve always had bare boards. They’ve also put a dais there, which we also find inappropriate, as we don’t believe the priest should stand up above the rest of us. Some of the members of the community have removed a couple of those daises, and they’ve always been replaced. I think that one might be actually nailed down so that people can’t do it.
I suppose we’re seen as iconoclastic in a way, that we don’t want the clericalism, which Ted was never in favour of. We don’t want that sort of clericalism, I think it’s the cold hand of Rome, really.
David Rutledge: It’s interesting you mention the bare boards. And I guess these bare boards are part of the vision, right? These boards are theologically significant in themselves?
Mary McMahon: Absolutely. Many Aboriginal people have died in this church, and their bodies have been on these boards. And they died in many different ways, but often in the loving arms of people who tried to support them in their last few hours or minutes. And to try and cover it up with trashy carpet – or any sort of carpet, even expensive carpet – is just missing the whole vision of what the Church should be doing with all the people, you know? So yes, the bare boards are really significant – and we would like them to stay, and not be covered up.
David Rutledge: Mary McMahon – and since that interview was recorded, the Sydney Archdiocese’s Charitable Works Fund has told the St Vincent’s community that it will be withdrawing its funding for the twice-weekly sharing of the meal at the church.
Parishioners at St Vincent’s Redfern are angry about what they see as the clericalism that’s becoming a feature of life at the church. But the problems have gone further than arguments over church decoration. Relations between the priests and the Aboriginal parishioners have deteriorated, and this became particularly apparent during the riot in February this year. Rhonda Ansiewicz.
Rhonda Ansiewicz: The day after that young boy was killed, which precipitated the riots, Marnie Kennedy stood up after Mass and said to Father Gerry: ‘what are you going to do to support the Aboriginal community, who are in a terrible state of crisis?’
David Rutledge: This is Ted Kennedy’s sister?
Rhonda Ansiewicz: Yes. And his response was ‘it is a police matter, and that is where it will have to be dealt with’. There was no – where Ted would have been down at the Block; he would have been there to hold people, he would have stood with the Aboriginal people, to try and help them through that terrible trauma. There was none of that from Gerry; it’s as if it’s a bit frightening to go out onto that area.
Cindy French: Yeah, things have changed, people have changed, the church has changed – not itself, but the people that come in here. You know, this is our land, this church helped all of us out, and it’s helped everyone that comes here, seen practically nearly all of us born and reared up. It’s just when the new priests come, everyone’s going their own way, you know? And you can ask 99% of the Aboriginal people here – and white people – believe he should be kicked out.
David Rutledge: Cindy French.
It’s becoming apparent that both the congregation and the priests at St Vincent’s are showing the strain. The community has a website called Church Mouse, where you can read about various distressing incidents that have allegedly occurred during the Sunday Mass – incidents that demonstrate a high degree of stress on both sides. Hilary Bone.
Hilary Bone: The incident that I personally experienced was going up to take the Eucharist. And having had the instruction from the priest, that you will consume the Host in front of him, there was just this inherent fear in me, that he is a father figure, and there was something about his personality that I found very distressing. So that I literally stepped to one side – I was sitting in the front pew – to take the Eucharist. And he flew at me, and was very abusive. And there was some physical intervention by somebody else in the community. That was just a pretty awful incident.
The other one was when he refused to give the bread – the Host – to some Aboriginal children. And that was never the practice of Ted, to discriminate on any grounds.
David Rutledge: On what grounds did he refuse them?
Hilary Bone: I think at the time the grounds were that he couldn’t be certain that they had been baptised in the Church. And so another parishioner and I took our Host, and broke it, and gave it to the Aboriginal girls. And that also led to some vocal outburst from the priest.
But I can see that for them, the tensions are just as great as they are for us – but for very different reasons.
David Rutledge: Hilary Bone.
Father Gerry Prindiville is a member of the Neocatechumenal Way, a radical and conservative formation within the Catholic Church that many parishioners are pointing to as the root of the current problems at St Vincent’s. Gerry Prindiville was appointed to Redfern by the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell – and both he and Cardinal Pell have declined to be interviewed for this program.
The Neocatechumenal Way (or Neocatechumenate) was founded in the early 1960s in the slums of Madrid, by an artist named Kiko Arguello, who together with a small group of companions set about restoring the ancient catechumenate, or process of adult Christian initiation, that had been developed by the early church to bring adult converts to Christ. The Neocatechumenate today claims to number nearly 17,000 communities in 105 countries around the world.
The Neocatechumenate exists within the parish structure, so its followers will organise themselves into a group of thirty or forty people within an existing congregation – which is what’s happened at Redfern. The focus of the group – put very simply – is to work towards deepening and maturing in the faith. That process of faith development proceeds by stages of instruction and initiation that can continue over several years, during which time the group places a high degree of importance on mutual support and loyalty.
The Neocatechumenal Way has attracted a fair degree of bad press over the years. Its critics say that in its appeal to what it sees as a historically authentic form of Christian practice, the Neocatechumenate fosters elitism, a closed-shop mentality, indeed a sectarian mentality, according to which the formal requirements of the group take precedence over social or political concerns, and private spirituality becomes more important than any kind of activity in the public realm.
One such critic is Church historian and author Paul Collins, who has just published a book entitled Between The Rock and a Hard Place, in which he takes issue with various forms of Catholic fundamentalism.
Paul Collins: A sectarian response is the response of a group of people who are afraid they’ve almost lost the battle, and the only way they fell they can respond is by tightening the borders, putting up protective mechanisms around themselves, so that they actually don’t have to interact with the also-rans and the great unwashed out there in the wider community. It’s a little bit like the kind of approach that we’ve taken in Australia generally, in saying “we are going to protect our borders”.
I think that that is an essential denial of what the Catholic Church is about. The Catholic Church, throughout its history, has been about dialogue with the community around it. It certainly has to offer a critique of modern life and modern values, but that does not mean that it turns itself away; people will hear your critique, and engage with your critique, if you engage with them in a form of dialogue. But they won’t hear it if you simply turn away from them and condemn them with some type of megaphone from within your own fortress.
That’s the problem, I think, that outfits like the Neocats have: they go on as though the only way to deal with the contemporary world is to insulate yourself somehow or other from that world.
David Rutledge: Let’s have a look at the particular context of St Vincent’s Redfern. How well would Neocatechumenate theology prepare one to minister in a parish such as Redfern – a centre for social activism with its own very strong cultural identity?
Paul Collins: Well, I think that if you were looking for the diametric opposite of that community, as founded and formed by Father Ted Kennedy, you couldn’t have got it more accurate than to bring the Neocatechumenate in. that, to me, is a very irresponsible thing to do, to bring people like that – it’s unfair to them, to begin with.
They are also, in many ways, totally out of touch with the reality of the Aboriginal community – with the history of that community, what has happened to it, what it’s struggling with – and that’s why the white community exists there: in order to assist, and to stand beside, and to work with the leaders of the Aboriginal community. If you were looking for a group that were out of touch with that reality, you couldn’t have got a better group than the Neocatechumenate.
David Rutledge: So why put a Neocatechumenate priest in charge of a church like St Vincent’s?
Paul Collins: Well, I think you would have to ask Cardinal Pell that question, not me, because he is the one who apparently is responsible for bringing them in. I suppose – and I can only guess – that his intention was that this was perhaps a community out of control. It’s at least plausible that Cardinal Pell believes that it is by confronting people whom he sees as dissident with people whom he sees as orthodox, that somehow or other orthodoxy will prevail. But I personally think that that is a pretty optimistic hope on his part.
David Rutledge: Paul Collins.
In spite of its questionable reputation in some quarters, the Neocatechumenal Way doesn’t always spell disaster for the congregations in which its followers appear.
Chris Saunders is the Catholic Bishop of Broome in Western Australia. Several of his parishioners – and two of his priests – are members of the Neocatechumenate. His experience of their work and their ministry has been largely positive.
Chris Saunders: It’s certainly a radical movement – my position has been to look at it so far and say “well, is this the work of God?” And by way of response, I would say that it will not prosper if it is not the work of God. And everything I see about it – the way they love one another, the way they support one another, as a way of helping people to walk more deeply, in a more committed fashion towards Christ.
David Rutledge: In this process of mutual support, though, do they in any way create a congregation within the congregation? This is something else that you hear about the Neocatechumenate – I know for example that they hold their own Easter vigil, and they hold their own Masses on Saturday night. Is that something that you feel could cause problems?
Chris Saunders: I think that potential is there. I can understand in some circumstances, if you weren’t prepared continually to exercise a critical faculty, that that may arise. But that’s certainly not the case here – and in many other parishes where I’ve seen it working, it’s not the case there either.
I’m – technically, at least – parish priest here in Broome. The two priests that I have here are both of the Neocatechumenate, and I’m prepared to let this community have its own Masses on the Saturday evening. And I must add that a number of those people – quite a large number of those who go to their own communal Mass on Saturday evening – also come to the celebration of the Eucharist again on Sunday morning. There’s not a lot of Catholics who go to two Masses a week.
David Rutledge: What about the question of cultural sensitivity? This is something that’s come up as well: this idea that in the Neocatechumenate seminaries, candidates for the priesthood are brought together from all over the world, and it can be that they end up in parishes where they’re completely unprepared – and untrained – to meet the demands of inculturation. You mentioned to me earlier that the Neocatechumenate priests in your diocese, one’s Zambian and one’s Australian with an Italian background – and there they are in Broome, working closely alongside Aboriginal communities. How has that been evolving?
Chris Saunders: In the parish at Broome, during their administration here, they’ve been instrumental in beginning and supporting an Aboriginal Catholic ministry. They have recognised, publicly and openly, that Aboriginal people need to find a particular way to express the deeper tenets of their faith in an Aboriginal manner. I have had no Aboriginal people come to me and say that the ministry of the priests that I have here – or the presence of the community here – walks over our traditional sensibilities or our cultural attributes. In fact I’ve had just the opposite: that these priests and this community have been supportive of us in finding our way to express our Catholicity.
David Rutledge: If – as I guess you’re saying, then – the criticisms that we hear of the Neocatechumenal Way aren’t necessarily true of the Way in any fundamental sense, do you think it’s true nevertheless that if you’re a Christian and you have an inward focus, and you feel that protecting your identity as a Christian or as a Catholic from secularism means that you have to withdraw from the secular world – if you’re that kind of Christian, then the Neocatechumenate will be very attractive to you?
Chris Saunders: It may be – but I know that this community here is not only inward-looking in terms of supporting each other, but outward-looking in terms of evangelisation. Far from hiding from the world, they live in the world. I mean, this is largely lay movement, and the lay people in it have jobs, they have careers, they have families, they do all the sorts of things that other Australians do. They simply spend a lot more time living with the word of God, for instance.
David Rutledge: Given your positive experience with the Neocatechumenate, why do you think it has drawn these claims of sectarian tendencies, and these claims that whenever the Neocats turn up in a congregation, then you get division and claims of exclusion – because this is what you hear, time and time again. Why do you think that is?
Chris Saunders: Well, you do hear that, and I must say that I have heard that more regularly in the past than I have in the present. The Tablet from London – the Catholic newspaper – ran a series of articles some years ago, that were rather condemnatory of the movement. And I remember being rather sceptical about the whole organisation – until I met some of the people here in Australia who represented it.
I think what has happened is that you have a new movement, a new way, a new understanding of living the Catholic life, that is extremely radical. There may have been some birthing pains, and some terrible beginnings or bad experiences – but as this organisation matures, I see what depth and beauty it can bring to the enlivening of the Catholic faith. And I notice recently, also, that the Tablet is changing quite radically its views regarding the Way.
David Rutledge: The Bishop of Broome, Chris Saunders.
STREET SOUNDS – REDFERN
Ted Kennedy: In many Australian towns, the Catholic Church is securely planted near the local police station, courthouse, town hall or council chambers. Drawing from one ecclesiology – still the increasingly accepted one here – it would be said that the centre of the local church is there.
But go to the outskirts of the town: past the dilapidated houses on the town fringe, past the rubbish tip, and there you’ll find the Aboriginal community. Drawing from the opposite ecclesiology, I would want to say that the centre of the local church is there.
Such divergent theologies of the meaning of church stem from two equally divergent interpretations of the figure of Christ, and of the nature of sin. The first places little or no consequence on the social context in which Christ lived. The kind of God he is made out to be leaves him as one with no real choices in life. The figures of power in a Jewish elitist nation, and a Roman colonised state, are all accidental. They are like quaint drawings on a cardboard stage set, which is no longer needed now, and so discarded. What is then important is not when, or how, Christ came to be killed; it is only the fact – in churchy billboard language – that Christ died, and for us all. Private morality is the only morality that counts. Human oppression cannot easily be brought into focus as a question of morality, let alone kept in permanent view.
So your civic activities are confined to the politics of morality, rather than the morality of politics as such. It was this – the morality of politics – that Christ was concerned about.
In the radically revised theology of the meaning of Christ, social sin comes up clearly as the first reading of sin. It was social sin, not private sin, that brought death to Christ. The sin of injustice is the primal sin, that which constitutes the very meaning of sin – the sin of the world. It is that from which any other form of sin is but a derivative. So that racism, and national and social elitism in all their forms, emerge as primary targets in all Christian living, as they were for Christ.
Any so-called Christian spirituality that does not come to grips with this from the start is guilty of privatising, pedanticising, and thereby trivialising the Gospel – religious, but spiritually hollow.
MUSIC – HYMN
David Rutledge: Father Ted Kennedy, ABC Radio’s Saturday Guest back in 1984.
Ted Kennedy has had a lot of very confronting things to say about latent racism in the Australian Catholic Church, particularly in its more conservative formations, where the claims of political and social groups are sometimes seen as just another manifestation of secular modernity – the dread spectre of identity politics, wherein claims for Aboriginal rights sit alongside claims for women’s rights and gay rights.
But to what extent is latent racism the problem at St Vincent’s Redfern? Paul Collins.
Paul Collins: I would be more cautious about attributing that to conservative Catholics. I think that they are pretty much onside with the mainstream social justice aims of the Catholic Church. It is significant that one of the things John Paul has been very firm about throughout his papacy has been his support for indigenous people – minority indigenous people – in Western cultures like Australia or Canada or the United States.
Given that conservative Catholics do tend to have their antennae up very closely with what the Pope is saying, and with the kind of emphases that he has, I suspect that they would not be necessarily anti-Aboriginal.
What I really think the issue is here – more than a question of social justice, I think the question here is: who controls that building there in Redfern? Who controls what goes on inside that building? That’s there the essence of the problem lies, and what I think more conservative people feel is that that is a parish that is out of control. And what they feel they have to do is bring it back under control.
The danger is, of course, that in doing that, they will in fact destroy the wonderful social justice ministry that has been set up there, and will in fact alienate the Aboriginal community.
Hilary Bone: That is the thing that is unique about this parish. They’re ordinary human beings, but there is a large number – in fact, the majority of the people – who come to that church, they open their homes, and they live alongside Aboriginal people in various ways. They may not be physically present with them, but many of them do open their homes. These are the things that happen that other people are totally unaware of.
David Rutledge: But Hilary, how threatened do you think that situation could be, given that the parish is under such immense pressure now – has been since Ted retired? Quite a number of the white parishioners I’ve spoken to have said that they’ve walked away from the situation, they don’t go to the church any more, they fought these fights after Vatican II and they don’t really want to go through it all again.
Hilary Bone: Well, the tragedy is that this community – and I’m not just talking about the group of people who are there now, which has diminished to some extent; I’m talking about historically the thousands and thousands of people who still are part of Redfern, in that they’re living out their lives with that theology inspired by the theology that they received there – the sadness is not that people appear not to be physically going in there on a Saturday or Sunday; the tragedy is that this is a community that I would be surprised if it’s mirrored anywhere else in Australia.
And the Church is going to lose something of intrinsic value – and it will never, ever get it back. There won’t be somebody to come forward again and be able to – by example only – create a community of people who have this incredibly wide influence. It’s not just them, but the wider influence of their lives; they’re interacting and inspiring an incredible number of people. So it’s much, much bigger than the physical church.
David Rutledge: Hilary Bone.
Nobody at St Vincent’s will deny that Ted Kennedy, in his retirement, has left a very large pair of shoes to fill. So is it the case that any priest coming to Redfern after Father Ted is going to be trying to live up to unreasonable expectations?
Hilary Bone: There are other priests out there who want to – and have offered to – come and minister to that community. And they have been denied that opportunity, they have expressed their interest to do that. But we don’t need Ted Kennedys. All we need now is a priest who understands our history and is prepared to just be there with us, so that other people can experience what we’ve experienced. But certainly the legacy of Ted will live for many, many, many, many years, and it doesn’t matter who we have there – as long as it’s not someone who is bent on destroying what is there in existence already.
The community has explored every single option, and been incredibly tolerant, and incredibly willing, to do everything within their power (and their power, of course, is very limited) to make this work, somehow or other, so that the poor unfortunate Neocats – because that’s what they are, having been placed there, they must be feeling the same sort of frustration, even agony, that this community is. And again, it’s simply saying to the Church, well, we have explained what’s happening, and we have done everything within our power. But our power is very, very limited, compared with the power of the person who has created this really unfortunate situation.
Joe Castley: I think any number of priests of sufficient flexibility of mind and good will could have been accepted there. I really don’t think it’s a question that after Ted, nobody could possibly hope to succeed. People brought their lives to Redfern to be blessed; they didn’t come to be told how to live their lives.
David Rutledge: So if we have a situation, then, where the ministry that Ted Kennedy instituted is continuing in and through the congregation, why not simply move away from the church? Why not simply say “alright, the Neocatechumenate – Archbishop Pell can have the church, we’ll go off and do what we want to do somewhere else – in Redfern, maybe, but we’ll leave the church”?
Joe Castley: Personally, I’ve done that. And others have gone, too, to different places. But the sense of community is still very precious there. There’s still that mutual support, I suppose, is what keeps them there – and the sense that there’s still, for them, something better, richer, freer, there than they can find in the parishes.
Rhonda Ansiewicz: I would say: why should we move on? This is something very precious and unique in the Catholic Church of the world, and it is worth struggling for. And the Gospel story is about struggle.
Those among us who have said to you “we’ve done the battle with Vatican II and we can’t hang around on this one”, they’re actually saying “we’ve done the battle of the church, and we can’t see any light in it any more”. I believe that it is up to us to maintain the true Catholic values – Christian values – that Jesus taught us: that we are there to stand against oppression and the abuse of power that is very much the Catholic Church of today.
We have a mandate, in a sense, to stand up for the poor, because the Church certainly doesn’t appear to be doing that very much now.
Hilary Bone: The physical place of Redfern, also, is a place where many Aboriginal people – in fact, hundreds of Aboriginal people over those thirty/thirty five years – have been baptised, have been married, have been buried, and the deaths go on and on and on. And it’s a sacred place, it is a place to be revered –and it’s being defiled.
David Rutledge: Hilary Bone, and before her Rhonda Ansiewicz.
And so how is the situation at St Vincent’s likely to play out in the longer term? Paul Collins thinks that compromise on both sides is going to be necessary.
Paul Collins: It’s very, very difficult to see what the future is in this situation. Just the weekend that I was there, it was reported that Cardinal Pell has said that he is not prepared to back down, and that he is not prepared to move the Neocatechumenate from Redfern. The danger is, I think, that if the community digs itself too deeply into a hole of resistance and antagonism and anger – somehow or other, a form of dialogue has got to be maintained.
If it isn’t, and if the community is destroyed, in my view a very wicked thing will have been done. But I am unfortunately a Church historian by training, and I’ve seen wicked things done in the Church before, and I’m sure that they will happen in the Church of the future. So I think it’s a very, very difficult situation, in which both sides are probably going to have to give something. But I remain to be convinced whether that is going to happen.
Michael Gravener: I would like to think that we could work together. But that might be very naïve, because we are miles apart, even though we are of the same Church.
David Rutledge: That’s Michael Gravener, a St John of God Brother and a social worker at the Block in Redfern.
Michael Gravener: I’ve had conversations with one of the priests at Redfern now, who’s in one sentence called me an atheist, called me non-Christian, told me that the work we do is just secular work – very negative, attacking sort of connotations. So I don’t believe that they actually think the St Vincent’s community actually has a place.
There’s a bit of a myth about St Vincent’s being the largest indigenous church. If you go there on Sunday, the amount of Aboriginal people actually there is quite minimal. But that place is so symbolic, and has such memories for people, that just the people in the area who live there know that that is their space. They mightn’t pray there, they mightn’t worship a Christian god there, but for them it’s the safe place that they need. I mean, we all have safe places in our lives, and a lot of Aboriginal people, particularly in Redfern, who suffer years and years of trauma and abuse from all different areas and aspects of life, they know that this is their safe space. I hear it all the time, on the streets.
I suppose it’s a bit of a hard concept for Western church thinking, but from an Aboriginal point of view – as we all know – space and place is very important.
David Rutledge: So how likely do you think it is that they could lose the church?
Michael Gravener: Well, it’s quite likely, really. The world of Western capitalism and land and all that – the Church hierarchy in Sydney has absolute power over that, I suppose.
But I suppose we all dream of the possibilities of restorative rights – as the Sisters of Mercy gave the land next door, back in the 70s, to Aboriginal people…
David Rutledge: …this is the Medical Centre?
Michael Gravener: …the Medical Centre that’s now gone up on land that was once the Mercy Sisters’. The Mercies obviously saw it as an act of reconciliation in handing that land back to the people of Redfern, and they did. And it’s taken twenty years to get a decent medical centre. So that’s a wonderful thing, and I live in hope that the Church will see that the reality of that Medical Centre being there, the reality of what’s happened in the last thirty years – that somehow, in good Christian spirit, something wonderful will happen and change.
That might sound naïve, but I’m a great believer in my Church. And if it was Jesus Christ hanging around, he’d be the one who’d be saying “well come on, let’s hand it back to them, let’s do the right thing by these people”.
David Rutledge: On ABC Radio National you’ve been listening to Encounter.
Guests this week were Rhonda Ansiewicz, Mario Bezzine, Hilary Bone, Joe Castley, Paul Collins, Cindy French, Michael Gravener, Glen Jameson, Bea Haines, Tony Haines, Mary McMahon, Freddy Reynolds, and Chris Saunders. Father Gerry Prindiville and Cardinal Archbishop George Pell declined to be interviewed for the program.
Thanks to all those who took part, and thanks also to those who didn’t appear in the program but put a lot of time and energy into helping it take shape: Bob Audrey, Elisabeth Burke, Jack Callaghan, Kate Gavern, Beth Goodwin, Peter Griffin, Judy Hunt, Marnie Kennedy, Claire Maguire, David Pascoe and Florence Spurling. And thanks to Mark Don this week for studio production.
Guests on this program:
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
St Vincent’s Redfern community
Historian and author
Catholic Bishop of Broome, WA
St John of God Brother and social worker, Redfern
Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today
Author: Paul Collins
Publisher: ABC Books (Sydney 2004)
Who Is Worthy? The Role of Conscience in Restoring Hope to the Church
Author: Ted Kennedy
Publisher: Pluto Press (Sydney, 2000)
Website of the St Vincent’s community
The Neocatechumenal Way
Interview with Fr Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy speaks with Stephen Crittenden on Radio National’s The Religion Report in May 2000.
Two Golden Microphones
CD Title: Rock and Roll Station
Artist: Nurse With Wound
Label/CD No: United Dairies UD CD039 (1994)
Thinking Of Changing The Rectangle To A Less Regular Shape
CD Title: Aileron
Label/CD No: Statra Recordings STA 232010 (2001)
Something To Do While Driving
CD Title: Aileron
Label/CD No: Statra Recordings STA 232010 (2001)
Offertory Veritas mea
CD Title: Music for St Anthony of Padua
Artist: The Binchois Consort (cond. Andrew Kirkman)
Label/CD No: Hyperion CDA66854 (1996)
CD Title: Raising Earthly Spirits
Label/CD No: Soleilmoon CD04169 (1993)
Ach Golgotha (Maldoror Is Dead)
CD Title: Nature Unveiled
Artist: Current 93
Label/CD No: Durtro CD009 (1992)
King in My Empire
CD Title: Rhythm and Sound w/ the Artists
Artist: Cornell Campbell
Label/CD No: Burial Mix CD BMD-2 (2003)
CD Title: Rhythm and Sound: the Versions
Artist: Jennifer Lara
Label/CD No: Burial Mix CD BMD-3 (2003)
Review of the program in Online Catholics