Others among the congregation of more than 1500, such as Tom Hammerton, who had lived with the priest and his Aboriginal parishioners in the Redfern presbytery, saw Ted as a mate.
Danny Gilbert, the lawyer, quoted Patrick Pearse, a leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland: “Splendid and holy causes are served by splendid and holy men.” Father Kennedy’s life cause, the liberation of the human spirit, was splendid and holy. So was his heroic faith, “untrammelled by dogma” and his authority, bestowed not from clerical office but from what he had to say.
Love flowed through the tributes at Redfern yesterday. And grief. And politics.
“We have lost a fierce friend to encourage us, a powerful God botherer, an untidy, grimy prophet, a Jesus figure in our midst,” said theologian and District Court judge Chris Geraghty, leading the prayers of the faithful.
Catholic prayers of the faithful can rarely have been like these. Sydney has never seen a funeral quite like this. Father Kennedy, who served at St Vincent’s, Redfern, for more than 30 years, died last week, aged 74.
Some community members had wanted a requiem Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral. After all, the eye surgeon and atheist Fred Hollows had been buried from there with a eulogy from Frank Hardy, an old communist.
But Ted Kennedy had long fallen out with church leaders. His book, Who is Worthy?, was a response to a position taken by Cardinal George Pell. Anyhow, Ted’s sister Marnie said, her brother had wanted to be buried from Redfern, among the people he loved. So the service began with a Aboriginal smoking ceremony at little, time-worn St Vincent’s, where Father John Ford spoke of Ted as “another great Australian saint”.
The Aboriginal people wanted to carry the simple casket, topped with gum leaves and kangaroo paws, to The Block for the main service under a huge tent but funeral directors urged that they use a hearse.
Someone said that so many suits had never been seen before in Redfern. The great and the good were joined by the tired and the troubled, who Father Kennedy had seen as good anyhow.
Sirs Gerard Brennan and William Deane, former High Court judges and governor-general, tried to sit up the back but were ushered forward.
Aboriginal elder Max Eulo encouraged smoke from gum leaves. Old sculptor Tom Bass sat near old politician Tom Uren. Gabi Hollows, Jack Mundey, Bob Gould, Bill Crews, Martin Sharpe, Senator Aden Ridgeway, rugby coach Dick Laffan and Keysar Trad, representing the Australian mufti, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly, reflected the ecumenical nature of the gathering.
Cardinal Pell, on duty elsewhere, had said that Father Kennedy “was a good and courageous priest who inspired many people” and “a man of strong convictions who worked hard to help those on the margins”.
Organisers ran out of seats for the nearly 70 priests who concelebrated the mass. Bishop David Cremin said people of many faiths and little faith had found Jesus in Ted.
Father Pat Kenna said the room in which he had died had a small crucifix on one wall and a wooden cross in red, black and ochre, the Aboriginal colours, on another.
Judge Geraghty led the prayers for this “pebble in the comfortable boot of establishment, a man who spilt his guts for others”. Ted had reminded “those of us with earthly or heavenly power of their ridiculous weaknesses, their cruel blindness and petty pomp”. He had shown “the true worth of corporate salaries and the stupidity of the BRW rich list. Our Father Ted comes before you with a life poured out for all, with empty pockets and dirty hands”.
Redfern was Ted’s territory, Judge Geraghty prayed – “the focus of pain, of anger, echoing with the cries of suffering, a place of protest, of empty needles, of crushed cardboard wine casks”.
The people prayed for “another true shepherd”, another “courageous leader to renew the face of the earth”.
Ted Kennedy left for Waverley cemetery at 2pm, 5½ hours after the the first service had begun.
The presence of his absence was everywhere.