Remembering Ted Kennedy

Fr Ted Kennedy, former parish priest of St Vincent’s Catholic Church in Redfern who died last week, will be remembered as one of the most fearless advocates for Aboriginal rights in Australian church history. This week we remember Fr Ted.

Program Transcript

David Rutledge: Tomorrow, 26th May, marks the beginning of National Reconciliation Week, and so it’s entirely appropriate that yesterday was the funeral of former Redfern Catholic parish priest, Father Ted Kennedy.

A troublesome priest for some, Father Ted lived a life of poverty and devoted himself to working alongside indigenous Australians. He preached reconciliation against exclusion and marginalisation of all kinds, whether because of race, income or sexual orientation.

Ted Kennedy was also a scathing critic of perceived privilege and insularity among the Catholic priesthood – but still some sixty clergy turned out to send him off yesterday.

Father Ted’s funeral was quite an event: a procession through the main street, and then on to the Block at Redfern, which brought together a thousand people to recall his part in their lives, and to pray for his soul. His passing was honoured by Australians, indigenous and otherwise, from around the country.


David Rutledge: Memorials from yesterday’s funeral of Father Ted Kennedy.

But Ted Kennedy’s influence wasn’t confined to the parish of Redfern. His uncompromising support for indigenous Australians has inspired many others. Just two of them are Chris Geraghty, now a judge of the District Court of New South Wales, and Tom Stephens, the Western Australia State Member for Central Kimberley-Pilbara. Both of them in earlier life spent time in theological studies at the Sydney seminaries of Springwood and Manly, but first met Ted through their families.

Chris Geraghty and Tom Stephens spoke yesterday with producer Noel Debien, who began by asking Chris Geraghty about Father Ted’s unconditional policy of welcome.

Chris Geraghty: I mean honestly, a hundred people any one night living in his presbytery at Redfern, and they weren’t all well-behaved. And Ted’s great pride, I think, at the end of his life, was that he was there for thirty years, and he never called the police once, and yet stirred – particularly people with money, or with education or with power, whether it’s political or ecclesiastical – stirred, he could be as hard as nails, and as tough as Ezekiel.

Noel Debien: For those who’ve not been there, what was Redfern parish under Ted Kennedy?

Chris Geraghty: It was a ministry that Ted conducted for the underprivileged, the deprived, the poor, the drunks, the druggies, the people that loved him and whom he loved, and it was a ministry that he conducted not just on his own, but with Mum Shirl and with a number of young clergy for a while. He was a great leader of young clergy. The collections were small, and he used to take them outside after mass and distribute them among the Aboriginals. It was a drop-in for any Aboriginal from anywhere in Australia, I mean they just thought it was home, and it was for them. So it was an unconventional parish where they didn’t have incense and Gregorian chant.

Noel Debien: Well Tom, his influence wasn’t limited to Redfern alone; how did you come into contact with Ted Kennedy?

Tom Stephens: Young seminarians like myself were being exposed to Ted’s work, Ted’s ministry, the work of Redfern, and introduced to the life of Mum Shirl and the Aboriginal people; introduced to Aboriginal Australia through that Redfern experience. And for me, Aboriginal people suddenly moved from absolutely peripheral to the view of what it was to be an Australian, to core and central, and stayed that way. I stayed that way for the rest of my life.

Ted was able to introduce us to a theology of the poor, that put right at the centre of the gospel, the call of looking after the anawim Yahweh, responding to the challenge being with “the poor of the Lord”, and that was a new insight that had not been available from the seminaries of Springwood and Manly. Even for those who chose not to go on to Redfern, I think it became a counterpoint to whatever else you did at the seminary. There were those that were being exposed to Ted Kennedy, the wide ministry that he was part of, and those that were learning about it by juxtaposition with the rest of us. It was an extraordinary point in the lives of so many people, and I’m lucky enough to have been significantly impacted by that. I parted ways from the seminary, I was not going to be able to continue my studies for the priesthood – in part, I suppose, because of my linkage to Ted.

Noel Debien: Ted actually had quite a direct influence on your career, and where you are now in Western Australia. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Tom Stephens: Yes, it was while I was suddenly no longer heading towards the priesthood, because of the decisions that had been taken by the church authorities at the time – the church hierarchy at the time said things to me like ‘you know Dick Buckwell’ – another priest of the day; he was the priest that took me down to Redfern from Springwood – ‘you know Terry Fox, and you know Ted Kennedy, you know all of them. You couldn’t possibly be suited for the diocese of Wollongong’.

Ted’s linkages to Patrick Dodson, to Peter Willis, a Palatine priest working in the Kimberley, saw me suddenly leaving Sydney and going up into the Kimberley to work, employed by the Aboriginal community on the edge of Kunnanurra, a town in the far north of Western Australia, and that led me straight into politics, and I ended up there working almost immediately with the struggles of Aboriginal people for their right to vote – an Aboriginal bloke running for parliament, Ernie Bridge, who went on to become the first Minister in an Australian government in this country – and as well in the land struggles, the land rights pursuits, the issues of protecting sites.

Nukambar was on the horizon as I arrived, and the Kimberley Land Council became something that linked me to a political struggle that soon saw me go from that work with the Aboriginal people, outside parliamentary politics, straight into the parliament in double-quick time – but directly as a result of the introduction that Ted Kennedy had been to the call of the gospel, immersion in Redfern, that experience of Ted Kennedy and the experience of the church where he put at centre point, a call of the poor of the Lord.

Noel Debien: Where does somebody like Ted Kennedy fit in the Australian church?

Chris Geraghty: I think he sits at the very centre of it. I think that he’s a prophet, I think that he’s got a firm grasp on Christian understanding of God. He was not a dogmatic person, and he didn’t live his life by dogmatic formula, but he was the kind of person who would take a formula out of its envelope, read it, and re-interpret it and try to conduct a discourse with the world about this particular insight that Christianity provides.

Noel Debien: But he was “orthodox” in the best sense of that word too, wasn’t he, as a Catholic priest?

Chris Geraghty: He was faithful. He was enriched by the church’s traditions. He was not confined in any way by the church, because if one reads the conditions and history of the church, you’ll know that it’s up and down, and round about and a huge amount of development and redevelopment and change and refinement, and he was aware of all that. And I must say the people who persecuted him and criticised him, were people, in my estimation, who are completely unaware of the traditions of the church that go back beyond the first Vatican Council in 1870.

Noel Debien: He was a man, though, who fought strongly on primacy of conscience; this is one of the abiding themes of his work. How for you, as a politician, does the message of primacy of conscience and being a Catholic, sit together in your public work, Tom?

Tom Stephens: Well for me, Ted introduced me to the solid basis upon which you could confidently go into an appreciation of yourself, and your response to the call of the gospel. And the reason he was able to introduce us to that so solidly is because of the confidence that he had from his own appreciation of the history of the church. I’m sure Cardinal Newman had impacted dramatically on Ted’s understanding of himself, and the church and the people of the church. And for us, and for me, it gave us a lot of confidence, as you moved into a church where that primacy was being questioned by others, and led to pretty solid dialogue at the time when I was a seminarian.

For me as I went into politics, it left me always with the confidence of knowing what was central to me. I knew why I was in politics – I knew, from my exposure to Aboriginal people and their needs, that that had led me into politics – and I was confident always, about what I was doing over the twenty-two years, twenty-three years that I’ve been doing it; that sense that colleagues might have a view of the way you should do things, but their view was not as important as your own response to the call of the gospel. That’s something that I have to say ‘thank you Ted’, for the confidence that he exuded in his own life and was able to see reflected perhaps not as strongly in the lives of others, but nonetheless it flickers in the lives of people like myself.

I found it of more use in the call of the social gospel rather than the bioethical debates, but I also found it important to me in the bioethical responses that have kept me seeing the context of looking after the needs of the weak and the vulnerable. I was in the West Australian parliament when we were able to abolish the death penalty in the early 80s. That was something that made me respond to that call at the time, vigorously, because of my experience with the prisons of Western Australia and to have known through my Redfern experience, people who had been charged and convicted of murder, and yet to know in Western Australia that they still were subject to the death penalty. And they’re things that were created in my consciousness, my appreciation of the role of conscience through that Redfern experience, in a very vibrant way.

Noel Debien: We’ve seen a swing to the right politically across the world, we’ve seen a swing to the right even within church governments. Is there a sense, though, in which Ted is of a period in the church – the 60s, the 70s, the 80s – is he something that’s passed?

Tom Stephens: I think to the contrary. I think what we’ve got here is a church, an extraordinary tree, upon which dead branches emerge from time to time, and the church leadership takes you down a dead-end from time to time – but the core message, the central message of the more solid branches, the trunk of that tree, Ted Kennedy represents. Ted Kennedy’s message was really much more rooted in the solid traditions of the church than some of the distractions that aspects of the hierarchy may be expressing today with some pomp and volume, but not with the authentic ring of the gospel that Ted was able to beat out.

Chris Geraghty: I’d like to say, in addition to that, that Ted was fearless. And I think that the hierarchy who are drawing back, I think destroying the message of the Second Vatican Council, are really fearful people. And I think the Roman church, and I think other churches too, are quite fearful now about the influences of the world, and they’re drawing back and refusing to dialogue with the world. Ted would never have anything to do with that, he wanted to talk to the world and wanted the world to talk back to him.

Noel Debien: What is his legacy? How is it going to continue?

Chris Geraghty: What legacy can anybody leave, in the end? I mean, we’re just human beings, aren’t we? We live and die, we go into the earth and most of us are forgotten very quickly. I don’t think Ted will be forgotten readily. It’s going to continue in the love and respect that he’s given to the Aboriginal people, that was outpoured at his funeral. It’ll continue in the strength that people have to confront people that they disagree with, and who they understand are not preaching the gospel. It’ll continue in Redfern, it’ll continue in the clergy.

Noel Debien: Is this about ideas, is that what it’s about?

Tom Stephens: It’s in part about ideas, but also very significantly about a way of living. And Ted had a way of living that was a real selflessness that he modelled, and through that modelling had others inspired to try and replicate it in their various ways of living. And at the funeral today, from all parts of the Australian compass, we had people from Melbourne and Victoria and large numbers from South Australia and from Queensland; there were people from Far North Queensland – in my case I saw in the congregation, a number of people from Western Australia – rippling out around this country, trying in their own lives to take up some of the ideas, but also take up a way of being with other people in this country to see the primacy of the Aboriginal people in this country, to accept the Aboriginal community as being central to what it is to be Australian, to recognise their first call upon us, and then from that to be inclusive of others, particularly those in need, particularly those that have been alienated. That was Ted’s – not just his idea, not just his theology, but it became central to his being.

David Rutledge: Tom Stephens, the Western Australian State Member for Central Kimberley-Pilbara, and you also heard NSW District Court judge Chris Geraghty, talking there with Noel Debien.

Guests on this program:

Chris Geraghty
NSW District Court judge

Tom Stephens
Labor Member for Central Kimberley-Pilbara, WA


Who is Worthy? The role of conscience in restoring hope to the church
Author: Ted Kennedy
Publisher: Pluto Press ISBN 1 86403 087 9

Further information:

Fr Ted Kennedy (Obituary) by Fr Edmund Campion

The Hon. Tom Stephens

Article: Priest denies Redfern church is “for the Aboriginals”

Article: Paper highlights destruction of parish that was called ‘beacon of hope’

Neo-Catechumenal Way (Australia)

ABC Encounter “Poor Church” (on St Vincent’s Redfern)

Interview with Ted Kennedy

Website run by supporters of Fr Ted’s Aboriginal Ministry in Redfern

Presenter: David Rutledge
Producer: Noel Debien

Source: The Religion Report, Radio National, ABC Radio
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