The Spirit of Redfern’s Ted Kennedy a Decade on

Here is the text of Fr Frank Brennan’s homily for Ted Kennedy’s tenth anniversary mass.

The Spirit of Redfern’s Ted Kennedy a Decade on
Fr Frank Brennan SJ
Pentecost Sunday 2015

Acts 2:1-11
1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

Thank you for the privilege of being your preacher this morning here at St Vincent’s Redfern as we come together on Pentecost Sunday to honour the memory of our beloved Fr Ted Kennedy who died 10 years ago. I first came here to Redfern in 1976 as an impressionable young Jesuit novice. I was Mum Shirl’s driver. I learnt a lot behind that wheel visiting every court and prison in the region.

I am wearing my ordination vestment which was made by my mother and designed by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, the Aboriginal artist from Nauiyu Nambiyu by the Daly River in the Northern Territory. Ted wore this vestment at Mum Shirl’s funeral, and Bishop David Cremin wore it at Ted’s. I have just returned from Boston where I spent a very snowy winter. On return I went fairly directly to Daly River because I have dedicated my latest book on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians to Miriam Rose’s nephew who tragically took his own life six years ago. I went to present the book to his family. Most of you never knew him, but most of you will remember his baby face. He was the baby held by Pope John Paul II when he met with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Alice Springs in 1986. Sadly that boy felt there was no one to hold him later in life. He found no place of belonging, no foothold in either the Dreaming or the Market.

After Ted had suffered his crippling stroke, he wrote his reflection Who is Worthy? He wrote about ‘the decision to live the rest of my life as if I were already dead. I am now more inclined to state things as they are, or as I see them, without fear or compromise.’ This Pentecost Sunday, he would want all of us to incarnate the same Spirit – the spirit of truth and the spirit of courage.

I was reflecting on the prayers of the faithful composed by His Honour Chris Geraghty for Ted’s funeral. In those prayers, Chris described Ted as ‘a pebble in the comfortable boot of the establishment, a man who spilt his guts for others’. Contemplating the Abbott Cabinet with its five Jesuit alumni, I daresay that Ted would have been an even larger pebble in this even more comfortable boot that finds an easy fit between Catholic social teaching and the demands of modern politics.

Ten years on, there are many things which are very different from Ted’s day. Some of these things even he would have found unimaginable. But he would have spoken of them without fear or compromise. Consider just a handful of those changes: a pope from the South who simply asks, ‘Who am I to judge?’; a 62% vote of the Irish people in favouring of expanding the definition of civil marriage; the long awaited beatification of Oscar Romero whose identification with the poor did not win immediate Vatican approval; the call by civic leaders for an Australian cardinal to return home and answer questions posed by a royal commission; and the election of a black US president who could stand on the Selma bridge 50 years after Martin Luther King reminding the American people that Ferguson was not just an isolated incident, but neither was such killing any longer endemic nor sanctioned by law or custom. That president was able to remind the whole world that the march is not yet over: – ‘consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built’.

Back home here in Australia, Ted would not have tired of reminding us that the indigenous imprisonment rates are now even higher than they were at the time of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody – twelve times the national average, with the rate for indigenous juveniles now sitting at 24 times the national average. Ted would have sounded a note of languid despair that we are still asking if or how constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians might be achieved, rather than simply asking when.

Amidst all the change, Ted would have remained constant opening this Church to the streets of Redfern, providing a sanctuary for all on the streets, and feeding the Eucharist at all hours to those who come to watch and pray. Like the disciples and their listeners in the Acts of the Apostles, we can proclaim the message of hope in such a way that everyone who gathers can hear in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God. Gathered as we are, we look around and behold different gifts, different service, and different workings – but always the same Spirit. With Ted and Shirl, we join in the prayer of today’s Sequence:

Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.

Like them we are assured ‘Solace in the midst of woe’. The Pentecost gift of the Spirit is not a cleanser to wipe away woe from our hearts or from our world. It is rather a tonic to provide solace in the midst of woe, even those woes of intractable social injustice and institutional decay.

In the words of Chris Geraghty’s funeral prayers, we pray that the Father might ‘soften hearts, strengthen backs, and let blood flow again in veins so that your oppressed poor may inherit the earth and have a share in its wealth’. We know that we continue to be locked up for fear of others and out of fear of those who are other. Jesus this day conveys the Spirit’s gift of peace here and now. We are sent from here into the world. We are commissioned to forgive those who seek mercy and to retain the sins of those who deny justice to others. We pray for the Spirit in our hearts so that we might emulate Ted’s decision to tell it as it is without fear or compromise, extending this commitment even to kindly bids to protect ourselves from our own uncircumspect selves. Filled with the Spirit, may we leave this Church fearless, unconcerned for ourselves, stirring consciences, building consensus and offering solace to all in the midst of woe.

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