Moving send-off for a long-time parish priest in Redfern
By Bob Gould
I’ve just come back from a Requiem Mass for Father Ted Kennedy an important political and religious figure in Sydney who was an acquaintance of mine for a very long time.
This tribal religious, cultural and political event tells one a lot about the current state of the Catholic community in Australia, which is a pretty important question politically, as Catholics make up 30 per cent of the population and ex-Catholics like myself are about 10 per cent of the 25 per cent of non-believers. I have written about this at more length in Race, nationality and religion in Australia.
This was a very Catholic event. My Catholic religious observance ended when I was about 16, more than 50 years ago, but I seem to go to a lot of Catholic funerals and requiem masses for people I respect. I described one of them, for Fred Hollows, in my piece, Two approaches to Aboriginal affairs.
This essentially religious event, which was also a kind of political statement, took place in an enormous marquee on The Block at Redfern, the centre of urban Aboriginal life in Sydney. Sadly, The Block is now largely demolished as a result of stubborn government policy.
It was a very large event with between 1200 and 1500 people, probably 150-200 of them Aboriginal. There were 70 priests in white robes, in procession. They were Ted Kennedy’s co-workers and his post-Vatican II, pre-George Pell and Ratzinger generation.
The 70 priests were about a fifth of the priests in the archdiocese of Sydney. I know quite a few of them. Some were of my generation at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield where I went to school in the 1950s and a few were youngish radical priests in their thirties and forties. There were probably 300 nuns at the event, and at least as many ex-priests and brothers as current priests. The ex-priests mainly left in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
It was a rather grey-haired gathering, and it was very Celtic and Irish-Australian.
Bishop Cremin, who said Mass and gave the main eulogy, is Irish. He reminisced about running into Ted Kennedy in Dublin when they were both visiting the site of the 1916 rising.
The last Requiem Mass I attended at which Bishop Cremin officiated was the moving event in St Marys Cathedral about 25 years ago for the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Bishop Cremin and several others freely borrowed from Patrick Pearse’s speech at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, the Fenian leader: “while Ireland holds these graves …” and “righteous and noble causes produce righteous and noble men …”
During the procession of priests into the event I spoke to a priest of my acquaintance who said, with tears in his eyes, “this is the real church”, clearly referring to the growing split between the unity of Catholic faithful moulded by the Second Vatican Council and the reactionary forces that are increasingly dominant in the Catholic Church.
Judging by the mood and demeanour of the Catholic faithful present, while these people are clearly loyal Catholics, there’s a considerable schism developing between them and the dominant reactionaries.
It was a moving event for me, as a tribally-identifying ex-Catholic (in the religious sense). I feel no urge to go back to the church. The philosophical question of the problem of evil, which precipitated my break with religion, still exists very sharply for me. When I examine my conscience in the Catholic sense, at my core I’m not a believer for those philosophical reasons.
Nevertheless, at an emotional event such as this requiem for Father Ted, it takes quite a lot of effort to resist the urge to join the responses. The post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy in the vernacular has its own kind of magic and despite my conscientious rejection of Catholic belief I feel at home in the more plebeian and less avaricious environment of the rather joyous Catholic ceremonies, much more than I would, say, at any assembly of the Hillsong go-getters’ church attended largely by Australian Tories.
The religious aspect of the event was underlined in the chaotic and very determined way that maybe 75 per cent of this congregation poured out to go to communion, the religious high point of the Mass for Catholics.
Ted Kennedy was an unusual and serious man. He was by way of being Australia’s main expert on the great English Catholic figure John Henry Newman, and I renewed my old acquaintance with him in the early 1990s when he used to come into my shop, often around midday on Sunday, probably after Mass and buy books about Newman and poetry.
As Ed Campion points out in his Sydney Morning Herald obituary, Ted Kennedy wrote a book published by Pluto Press called Who is Worthy, a sustained polemic against the theology of George Pell. Ted Kennedy wrote it five years ago before Pell took over in Sydney and became a cardinal. I still have quite a few copies of that important book as a publisher’s remainder for $10.
Judging by the stubbornly radical and almost joyous religious demeanour of the Catholic faithful at the event, the currently dominant right-wing forces in the Catholic Church will have difficulty shifting the Catholic community to the right, at least in Sydney.
Catholics as a tribe have a capacity for vigorous participation in rather long ceremonial events. The mass at The Block and the subsequent reception went from 10.30am to 2.30pm, after which the cortege took Ted’s body to Waverley Cemetery, the traditional burying ground for notable Sydney Irish-Australians.