What St Vincent’s Redfern has meant to me

For the first few years of my coming to Redfern to Mass, St Vincent‘s meant chiefly the value I placed on the friendship and support of Ted Kennedy.

I had been closely associated with Ted during his time as Chaplain at Sydney University and had come to appreciate the genuineness, the generosity, the breadth of mind, the commitment to freedom and justice that marked his Catholicism.

I had been a Jesuit for thirteen years, leaving the Order in 1962 after just one year of Theological studies, and had been deeply excited by the ferment of thought and the liberation of spirit that were renewing the Church at the time. I found in Ted the essence of what I had come to value, a quiet openness to what the best thinkers were presenting to the Church, and an inspiring capacity to look afresh at aspects of Catholic life and thought, discerning what was authentically Christian from what was simply the cultural perspective of another age. His fearlessness in abandoning what was unnecessary and in appropriating what was new and genuine gave me complete trust in him. He was what I wanted the Church to be and yet he pointed so clearly to ways in which it wasn’t what it should be.

At St Vincent’s, then, I felt at home. Ted’s homilies focused on insights of the best scriptural scholars and offered the sustaining power of the Scriptures. They showed from Church History ways in which modern Catholic doctrine and liturgy had been impoverished by deviating from authentic Christianity. They pointed to ways in which Church power had been, and was being, abused to the detriment of the faithful. They offered rich insights into the history of the Australian Church, (especially into the work and spirit of the early orders of nuns) and made being an active member of the Church a natural thing. They insisted on the modern insight that authentic Catholicism is “the faith that does justice’, and on the necessity to the Church of a “preferential option for the poor’. They showed Ted’s love for the Aboriginal people and challenged us to share it. They attacked political insensitivity to, and even malice towards, the Aborigines. And constantly they made use of (usually Australian) poetry to show how the imagination puts us in touch with the truth of our hearts and opens our eyes to a truer vision of ourselves and our values.

At St Vincent‘s, too, I was able to feel safe. For years I had hated with a passion the injustices the Church had inflicted on those who did not subscribe to comfortable orthodoxies. The harsh treatment, for example, which Rome in the early twentieth century had meted out to scripture scholars daring to break ground that (for the Catholic Church) was new filled me with resentment; and similar injustices to theologians which, in the name of Holy Orthodoxy, continued throughout the century and climaxed, perhaps, with the Pope’s refusal to grant Tissa Balisuriya the right to appeal against the ridiculous and unjust charges against him sustained my animus. There had been a history of such injustices in the Australian Church, too, (not to mention the many material injustices inflicted by autocratic bishops on generations of nuns) and in Sydney I had been involved in the public meeting which had censured Bishop Muldon for his harsh and unjust treatment of Mother Gorman R.S.C.J. In Melbourne, Archbishop Pell’s cruel silencing of Michael Morwood (then M.S.C.), because in Tomorrow’s Catholic he did no more than develop and popularise ideas that were current throughout Christianity, was a recent example that we in Sydney then thought concerned us only from a distance. At St Vincent‘s, encouraged by Ted and living amongst fellow spirits, I breathed the congenial atmosphere of opposition to such injustices.

Over the last few years, however, perhaps because Ted wasn’t there so much, I became aware of a new reason for valuing St Vincent‘s – I became aware of just how precious to me the community was. It was a community made up mostly of lay people, many of them with a strong and informed sense of what they wanted the Church to be, but there were also a surprising number of religious, some looking after the running of the parish and working with Aboriginal people in the area, some coming regularly from other places. All of these people were there because they wanted very much to be, because they shared deep values of freedom of conscience and commitment to social justice, values that they did not find satisfied, or find such scope to express, in other parish churches. And precisely because of their commitment to those values they were an independent mob – the larrikin, even the subversive, hiding not very far below the surface of the most decorous of them. They were articulate, too, a fair number of them taking the chance, before the end of Mass, to make announcements about things of importance to them as committed Christians – and above all they were inspiring, encouraging me to work and act for justice in ways open to me. They were informal too, and full of good will to each other (indeed loved each other) and this often made them unruly, especially before Mass or during the giving of the Peace. But Mass at St Vincent‘s is never predictable and I quickly learned to accept (with a tolerance that surprised me) the most unexpected things happening.

I became aware, too, of how grateful I was to the Priests who supplied for us and kept us together as a community during the long period when Ted was too ill to be with us very often. There were several M.S.C.s, several Jesuits and a Passionist, there was a Sri Lankan and a Papuan, some of them gentle, some of them very passionate men, but all ready to enter in their degrees into the relaxed spirit of St Vincent‘s. Mostly, however, there was dear Father John Ford who built a special relationship with us week after week after week. I hope there’s still a role for him at Redfern.

We welcome Fr Peter Carroll M.S.C. now as our new parish priest and we hope he finds a happy and fulfilling ministry among us. His generosity in taking it on so readily and our gratitude to him for doing so both promise that he will.

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