Stephen Crittenden speaks with Father Ted Kennedy – Catholic Priest at St Vincents Redfern, longtime agitator for aboriginal justice and author of ‘Who is Worthy?’
A priest who for 30 years has worked at the coalface of practical reconciliation from St Vincents Church in Redfern. Just a few weeks ago the church’s normally casual atmosphere was overtaken by a crowd that jammed the place to the rafters, in acknowledgment of the work of Father Ted Kennedy, and to celebrate the launch of his book, "Who is Worthy?".
Well in a few moments we shall join Stephen Crittenden for an extended conversation with Father Ted. But before we hear from the man, let’s hear something of what others felt about it.
MUSIC "Good morning sisters and brothers. Welcome to St Vincents in Redfern on this beautiful Palm Sunday. But before we begin – to settle us all down after that very inspiring mass we had – more music. Year of God’s favour by Peter Carney."
"I call upon an Aboriginal leader who has been a good friend to Father Ted in this church for many years, Judge Bellear to extend the traditional welcome."
Judge Bellear: "Thank you and the best to you Ted. I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal people who have lived in this area since time began.
This church, built on Aboriginal land is still owned by the Aboriginal community. Maybe not owned under the freehold title system of this State, but for the last 25 years the Aboriginal community of Redfern have felt a strong moral ownership of this church and its grounds. This feeling of ownership and the use of land, has been made possible because of the courage and compassion of Ted Kennedy.
When the Aboriginal Medical Service was looking for new premises to accommodate it’s expanding service, Ted quickly offered to house the service in the old school.
I have been asked by the Service to express their total appreciation to Ted for the long and enduring support he has given them.
And I welcome you all to the launch of Ted’s book."
SINGING "There can be no more appropriate person than Sister Veronica Brady to launch Father Ted’s book."
Veronica Brady: I remember Hamlet said’ I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of Infinite Space’.
That’s the core of this book. Nobody can say who we are before God. Nobody can say that God is not one who loves and forgives. This is a solid theological book I say, not being a theologian. But it’s also profoundly political. Because if we reflect, well what’s going on at the moment in Australia; as I say it’s a battle for the soul, and it’s deeply theological.
Those people who believe that justice is nothing more than revenge. Those people who punish those who are poor. Those people who believe we can write the so-called losers out of history, and only focus on the winners. Those people do not stand before their conscience, those people are arrogant, those people are worshipping a god that made to their own image."
John Cleary: Sister Veronica Brady, and something of the flavour of the book launch for Father Ted Kennedy in Sydney.
Well Father Ted is one of those Priests who trained at St Patricks College in Manly and was inspired by the spirit of Vatican II, the great reforming Council of Pope John 23rd held in the early 1960’s. That reformist spirit led him, in the early 1970’s, when many of his colleagues were leaving the church in frustration to the poor and marginalised Aboriginal community of Redfern.
It was also a spirit which often put Father Ted at odds with the institutional hierarchy of the church. A few days after the launch of his book, Stephen Crittenden spent some time with Ted Kennedy, now in his early 70’s and suffering the after-effects of a stroke at his home in the Southern Highlands of NSW.
Stephen Crittenden: Ted you begin your book with a rather extraordinary sentence, "some time ago I suffered a stroke which triggered in me a decision to live the rest of my life as if I were already dead." And you say that you’ve decided to speak out without fear or compromise.
But I think it’s true to say isn’t it that you’ve been at war with above all I guess clerical bureaucrats – right from the very beginning of your priesthood?
Ted Kennedy: Yes I think I may have, yes.
Stephen Crittenden: And I mean why is that? Why have you kind of set out on your own and chartered your own. And in fact how have you been able to set out and chart your own course?
Ted Kennedy: I think it’s mainly to do with the Vatican Council that I was a young Priest, at the time of the Vatican Council. And I think with a lot of my friends, we had a vision of what the church might look like after the council. And I think I did find that many of them were persecuted. And that the power people had missed out completely on what the council was all about. And that I think made me firm up quite a lot of my decisions. I did find I think that I wasn’t helped by the company of the men that shared the same vision with me, because many of them had left the priesthood.
In that sense therefore I was left alone and fighting causes that I think I would have expected to have friends around me to help me.
Stephen Crittenden: Has that been a disappointment?
Ted Kennedy: Well it was a great disappointment I think. Yeah. I mentioned in that book you know those years straight after the council were years of great sorrow for me. In a sense I think I was relying on friends to work out another vision. And then of course I think they were forced out of the church. In a way that they would not have been had the church taken on completely what the vision of the council was. We seem to have been at that point caught between two worlds – one dead, the other waiting to be born. But of course I think that part of my anger, that the promise written in to the council documents gave us every opportunity of hope for a world waiting to be born. But I had never realised there would be so many stalwart reactionaries who would hold back any sort of sign of progress.
Stephen Crittenden: You’re very critical of the teaching that went on at Manly. And you actually say it produced a generation of theologically bankrupt priests in Sydney.
Ted Kennedy: Yes. That’s right. I think that some of the blame of the, of a runaway church, I’m talking about vast numbers of people who’ve actually withdrawn from the church. I think that’s partly due to the fact that in the Australian scene the priests were reduced to an extraordinary sort of monolithic concept of Christianity. And what they preached was such standard boring stuff that you can’t keep preaching such boring material and expect your congregation to stay.
Stephen Crittenden: You conjure up a marvellous image in your book that took me right back to my childhood at school. Of whole classes of very young school children being taken to weekly confession almost like sheep being sheep dipped. That is absolutely resonant for me of what it was like.
Ted Kennedy: Right. Yes. Something had happened didn’t it. It couldn’t continue. Yeah.
Stephen Crittenden: Look another interesting thing about that time it seems to me Ted, was that the very time that the church in Australia seemed to run out of steam was the very time that Catholics were beginning to make it socially and politically. Do you think that’s true?
Ted Kennedy: Oh yes. I’m sure that’s very true. I think it’s very important to look hard at that whole question of affluence. It took the edge off spirituality I think. It was never true of course I think that Catholics were very interested in the poor. I think there were all sorts of pretences. But in fact I think Catholics by and large in Australia have been a group of people who have been on the ascendancy right from the start, you know. The think burgeoned out extremely later I think. But I do make a point in the book that the Bishops of Australia were very negligent regarding Aborigines. And I think they always have been, and only with the arrival in Australia of the Popes has there been any active sense of concern for Aborigines.
Stephen Crittenden: You mentioned the visit of Pope Paul VI then in 1970 as being almost like a bombshell.
Ted Kennedy: Yes. But even prior to that, there were these attempts on the part of the Roman congregation for Propaganda Fide to energise the Australian church.
Stephen Crittenden: To do more for Aborigines?
Ted Kennedy: Exactly, yes.
Stephen Crittenden: As I was driving down here to the southern highlands to do this interview with you today, I was listening to Paul Keating being interviewed on the ABC by Margaret Throsby. And he was talking briefly about his Catholic childhood. And he said an interesting thing – he said, the Catholic church has got a lot of problems but racism isn’t one of them. Now it seems to me that in fact the whole tenure of your book is that that’s not correct.
Ted Kennedy: Yes. I agree with that. I believe that racism is a real problem among Catholics in Australia. And even though we’ve attempted in some ways to pretend it’s not true, the facts are it is true. And so we’ve got deep elements of racism in the school system. It happens in all sorts of deep ways in the St Vincent de Paul Society for instance. I don’t know one St Vincent de Paul man or woman who is known to accept Aborigines into their own home as friends. They seem to be trained against that, just by the event of throwing themselves in to a system and evading the basic requirements of Christianity That along with a lack of education in the theology of justice.
See the St Vincent de Paul Society by and large I think is just filled with old men from a different age, and so both in terms of theory which is the theory of justice, but also in practise you find there’s a long distance away from that personal accepting of Aboriginal people as people, human beings. That seems to be the style I suppose that’s set in the practise of Catholics in Australia. That they like to keep the poor at a distance.
Of course they’re pretty famous for providing cash and secondhand clothes, and dispatching these to the poor by way of a group of people who act as runners, you know. There’s no personal interaction.
SINGING "There’s a sparkle in your eyes yet that never has gone out. You’ve a wise imagination though there’s little room for doubt. There’s a madness in your laughter, and a wildness in your dance. If we can but share your passion, we’re in with half a chance."
John Cleary: Singer Peter Carney at the launch of Father Ted Kennedy’s book "Who is Worthy". And Ted Kennedy is speaking with Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: How did you find it in Redfern? I mean you’re coming to up, what 30 years in Redfern, working with the Aboriginal community there. I gather there have been times when you’ve had Aborigines from the community there, living in the church virtually. And that that’s always caused a great deal of upset from more upstanding members of society.
Ted Kennedy: That’s right, yes. Yes right from the start we’ve had Aboriginal people coming in and staying, and that also causes problems with institutions. The South Sydney Council as it was then, found great difficulty in allowing Aborigines to come and make use of the resources that were designed for schooling. We invited Aborigines in to first of all the old hall at the back of the church, which is now the medical centre. But you know the South Sydney Council were really very angry with us and sent letters to the Cardinal who was then Cardinal Freeman, requesting that the Aborigines be removed.
And when I explained that they had no place to go; most of these had come down from horrible places like Queensland in the Bjelke Petersen time, and they had nowhere to go. And so right from the start I suppose, in the first few months, we had built up numbers like 80, 90, 100 people coming to stay the night.
There was this great conflict I think between bureaucracy both church bureaucracy but also the council bureaucracy, and I suppose there has never ever been any resolution of that problem. But in those days, 30 years ago I mean, the whole thing was so deeply entrenched in practices and in customs that just kept Aborigines right out of things.
Now Aborigines are much more I suppose more socially visible.
Stephen Crittenden: Because that’s a problem for Australians too. I mean anyone who makes radio and television in Australia knows that the minute an Aboriginal story comes on it’s instant switch-off.
I saw a comment logged on the ABC switchboard this week: ‘it wouldn’t be a typical day at the ABC if there wasn’t a bloody boring story about Aborigines.’ That’s a problem that politicians have too, isn’t it. I mean when they feel that Aboriginal issues have to be out of the news in order for people to feel comfortable.
Ted Kennedy: That’s very true. And the depth of the animus that is shown I think, is yet to be discovered I think. The depth is so great, it’s unending really. It just, for instance I have only now been in hospitals for the last few weeks, and I’ve come across several racists just because I’m in the same ward. Racists who have clearly thought out their position and decided that they don’t want to have anything with Aborigines. You know people who tell me that they don’t want to have anything to do with Billy Dean the Governor General – because of his fondness for Aborigines. This is an extraordinary thing that sometimes it seems to pour out of them with deep invective.
Stephen Crittenden: Is it fear?
Ted Kennedy: Oh it’s fear alright, but there’s this need that whites have to keep back what they fear is a sort of overwhelming swell that’s going to come about unless the rights for Aborigines are kept down in some way or another you know. It’s a fear but it’s a fear of loss, without any concept of what that loss might look like.
Stephen Crittenden: And you say there’s no end to it.
Ted Kennedy: I feel there’s no end to it, yes. It’s a very very deep thing.
Stephen Crittenden: There’s so much sloganising happens about Aboriginal issues. You know we constantly hear people talking about how Australian’s sense of spirituality can be renewed by Aboriginal spirituality. Or we hear constant sloganising now of course about saying sorry, and about reconciliation. Do you have any hopes for any of that?
I mean I notice you don’t talk in your book about some idea about renewal through Aboriginal spirituality.
Ted Kennedy: No I don’t. Because I’m a bit afraid I think of a language being adopted that hurts no-one. Reconciliation I think is a very wonderful concept, but there’s always a danger of whites particularly of just using it. To a point where they can get rid of the very concept. You know as if something can be patched up in a short while, and in a once-only event, and then they can forget all about it. That may be the reason why I don’t talk about it, reconciliation. I mean if you saw Aborigines being invited to white people’s homes that would be to me, a sign of real hope in the interests of white society as such. But unfortunately there is by an large a failure on the part of white people to give total friendship – with very few exceptions.
Stephen Crittenden: Your book is very concerned with I suppose a theology built around Jesus sharing at the table with undesirables. And that that is absolutely at the centre of what it’s all about.
Ted Kennedy: Exactly. That’s right.
Stephen Crittenden: And they don’t have to be forgiven first.
Ted Kennedy: That’s right. Yes that’s very central to what I believe. But it’s not the central practise of Christians – practising Christians. To practise Christianity is deemed to be another thing altogether.
SINGING "Now the year of God’s favour has begun."
John Cleary: This is The Religion Report and well known Catholic Priest and longtime worker with inner urban Aboriginal communities Father Ted Kennedy is speaking with Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: Of course your arrival in Redfern in the early 1970’s coincided with the beginnings of that urban Aboriginal activism that developed – centred on Redfern. People like Foley, people like Mum Shirl. Were those people influential on you, or were you being influential – I mean how did that work?
Ted Kennedy: They were very influential on me. Not I on them. They’d already established their own pattern of behaviour and they’d gained some ground I think, well before I arrived.
Stephen Crittenden: Mum Shirl of course is a great hero of yours.
Ted Kennedy: Well she was, yes. But she’d been active for many years before I ever met her. But she was very grateful because I did, I think I just provided some sort of house room for her to move. She would say that until we arrived in Redfern, I mean I with two other priests. Until we arrived she was relying on various people but not necessarily Catholics at all. She was very relieved I think because she herself believed deeply in Catholicism. And so we gave her some kind of room to exercise her apostolate.
Stephen Crittenden: And that’s how you saw it – as an apostolate?
Ted Kennedy: Yes. Well I saw it as that, but she saw it as that too. There was something profoundly spiritual about Shirley that I don’t know if we are ever going to see the likes again. A most extraordinary woman who’s compassion just never seemed to run out. She had this extraordinary sensitivity to basic needs. I used to see her talking to Aboriginal women particularly. They didn’t even have to tell her what had happened in their life, because she knew. I mean she’d known exactly what Aboriginal women had been through. There’s no need to talk about what they all knew together. You know, whether it was to do with the fact that they’d all known what it means just to starve for days on end. Or what it was to try to set up a household. You know, without any resources at all.
Whether it was to do with they knowing how to try to move from one spot to another without any transport. You know without any resources at all. And how much they depended on each other. You see hospitality that blacks give to each other is something which we should be as whites able to support. That’s ideally what we should be doing I think, just helping blacks help each other.
You know if a black family arrives in Sydney tonight and is cold; what they would most appreciate is a black family providing them with accommodation. Now often those black families that are willing to do that, can’t because they haven’t got space. So it would be better for us I think to try to help black families get into a position where they can give hospitality to other blacks.
Stephen Crittenden: What about though Ted, the story that’s looked, the commonest story you ever hear from white Australians who say "a group of Aborigines on the edge of such and such a country town got given housing and they destroyed it in six months".
Ted Kennedy: Yeah. Well I usually say you kick a car if it doesn’t move. If a car won’t move we tend to get very angry with it and we don’t realise that often that’s just how blacks think about the accommodation that they’re provided. They need much more space. And yet we offer them very small amount of space. So many people are needed in their life so that the numbers swell very quickly. And what they need therefore is a house with several bathrooms or several toilets. They never seem to get that you know.
Stephen Crittenden: Your book’s full of poetry.
Ted Kennedy: Yes.
Stephen Crittenden: You’re obviously very keen on poetry in general.
Ted Kennedy: Yes I am. Yes.
Stephen Crittenden: I might get you to read one of the poems you’ve included in your book by the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis.
Ted Kennedy: Who died only very recently.
Gone too without a trace,
I thought of the soldiers’ diatribe,
The smile on the Governor’s face.
You murdered me with rope, with gun
The massacre my enclave,
You buried me deep on McClarty’s run
Flung into a common grave
You propped me up with Christ, red tape
Tobacco, grog and fears.
Then disease and lordly rape
Through the brutish years;
Now you primly say you’re justified,
And sing of a nation’s glory
But I think of a people crucified –
– The real Australian story.
John Cleary: Father Ted Kennedy, talking with Stephen Crittenden and his book "Who is Worthy" is published by Pluto Press Australia.
John Cleary: Well that’s it folks, but news before we go that it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, and in the United States the singer is to take action against the Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the use of his lyrics to the song "All Along the Watchtower".
That’s it from us for today, thanks to Michael Dwyer and John Diamond. Now here’s Geraldine with what’s on Life Matters.
The Religion Report is broadcast Wednesday at 8.30am, repeated at 8.30pm, on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s national radio network of ideas.