Sitting down with the infamous Peter Kennedy on a crisp autumn day, I found a thoughtful, passionate man whose life story would make a fabulous Australian movie and, in fact, is the subject of an upcoming Queensland Theatre Company play.
Kennedy’s narrative has all the ingredients for great story telling - passion, intrigue, and a real David-and-Goliath battle against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In line with previous exploration about what makes a great leader, I wondered if his story was such a tale or if it was in his words, a tale of a ‘leader by default’.
The dramatic arc – Beginning
The dramatic arc - beginning, rising action, climax and denouement - of Kennedy’s story might feature an opening scene with a small boy dressed in altar boy vestments framed against the huge Australian landscape. Picture Peter riding home after Sunday Mass on an obviously second hand bike (passed down from his older brother Jim), carefree, happy and secure in the belief that all’s well with the world and the natural order of his life is divinely ordained as God’s will.
The son of an Irish Catholic school Principal, Kennedy’s peripatetic life spans from Texas in the south to Ravenshoe in the north. Australia in the mid to late 1940s offers the young boy foundational experiences in sync with the major cultural and religious institutions of the day. God (through the Holy Trinity) is in His heaven, meat isn’t allowed on Fridays, sins are committed and purged through three Hail Marys. Jesus appears through transubstantiation by the mysterious powers of priests dressed in haute couture, exotic gowns of colourful silk, painstakingly embroidered by delicate worn hands of local women (parishioners). Flowers are arranged, music is calming and uplifting, wafts of frankincense transport the young Peter into the sublime, the transcendent, to a place of complete stillness.
There’s a scene with Peter leaving school and appearing as a somewhat hapless young man working in a lackluster career before announcing his intention to enter the priesthood. His early priestly life is happy and uneventful, a spell as a Navy Chaplain adds colour, but nothing other than really just a young man serving God’s flock and loving the life it offers.
The dramatic arc – Rising action
It’s his appointment to St Mary’s in South Brisbane where the narrative’s rising action really kicks in. Peter’s world is turned upside down as his canonical work brings him face to face with the ‘poor and the broken’. It’s here his life takes a major detour. Until that time his life as a parish priest followed the orthodoxies of his religion. Peter tells us that it was through the first hand experiences of prisoners, the fragility and injustices of their lives that, in his words ‘changed me irrevocably’.
It was here that his stable world begins to disintegrate. Awakening to the hopelessness of the prisoners’ plight, his beliefs and values are brought into sharp focus forcing him to deeper understandings of the direct relationship between poverty and structural economic, political and social injustices. His worldview is expended with the realisation that ‘rich people have barristers to keep them out of jail’, prisoners are alone or return to life outside without proper support. This insight sets the South Brisbane community on a trajectory working for and with the dispossessed and the poor, attracting others from all over the city. St Mary’s becomes a hotspot parish with a reputation for anyone who cares deeply about such injustices.
The dramatic arc – Climax
The climactic scene in the dramatic arc is a fateful meeting between the Archbishop of the day, John Bathersby (Kennedy calls him the church’s CEO), yelling and insisting he, Terry Fitzpatrick, St Mary’s curate, and the St Mary’s community desist in their radical behaviour. In welcoming the poor and the broken, they go too far and are reported to higher authorities. Particularly galling to the Church hierarchy was blessing homosexual couples and encouraging women to take a leading ecclesiastic role in Church affairs.
In this scene, Bathersby tells Kennedy that he was never more certain of heaven and hell and purgatory and that Rome demands St Mary’s return to the traditions of the faith. There is more yelling and Kennedy leaves. Walking away from the Archbishop’s residence, Kennedy seals his fate. He sits in his car and we hear his despair, ‘oh my God, what have I done’. As a man of conscience, he walks away. He loses his vocation and he loses his life as a priest, a life he loves. The drama explodes and a schism ensues.
The dramatic arc – Denouement (final resolution)
The denouement depicts an older man now retired who occasionally gives homilies, he’s ever humble about his role in past events yet today he seems braver, more forthright. He says he’s liberated from being a priest and doesn’t believe the teachings of the church any longer. However, he sounds and appears spiritual.
He’s still deeply connected with the social-justice-minded community of St Mary’s but cites others such as Terry Fitzpatrick, St Mary’s former curate and the indefatigable Karen Walsh as the real leaders. Walsh’s work began with Micah, a social justice movement emanating out of the original St Mary’s. Micah, working with Common Ground, manages an affordable housing development at 15 Hope Street, South Brisbane. It’s designed for social inclusion with 146 units built as a sustainable housing solution for people who have experienced chronic homelessness and people earning low income, attesting to the community’s maxim that ‘what you do is more important than what you believe’. Peter is philosophical about whether losing his status as a priest has weakened his impact in the world as a leader. He rightly asserts that’s for others to judge.
Enquiring about where he sits spiritually today he points to the fourth century before the Constantine Church where the great mystics led one’s conscience. Kennedy’s spiritual journey now is into the mystics, teachers such as Meister Eckhart the great thirteenth century mystic, who in his most fervent prayer invokes, ‘God rid me of God’. Eckhart describes the feeling of unity, the place of complete stillness, where the experiences are beyond mind, beyond self, beyond knowing.
You’ll recall Kennedy experienced such a state of stillness as a child in the rituals of the Church and as a man full of wisdom in his late 70s, Peter cites the poet Rumi as access into this realm. ‘Soul receives from soul that knowledge, therefore not by book nor from tongue. If knowledge of mysteries come after emptiness of mind, that is illumination of heart’.
Kennedy’s description of himself as a leader by default underestimates a man who has not only led himself in his own journey as a seeker of truth, but also influenced many others through a story of a dramatic wrench encompassing courage, pain, loss and ultimately survival. He concludes, ‘Jesus who really spent his life with the poor and the broken, the sick – and I think that’s what Christianity ought to be about. And to give the Catholic Church its due, it is about that as well – about the outsiders, but it is also a very powerful institution’. To suggest he became a leader surreptitiously doesn’t actually take into account how deeply and irrevocably his social justice action is embedded in his very being and what the costs have been.
From his adoption and practice today of pre-Constantine theology and an everyday awareness of the frailty of being human in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Kennedy’s leadership chant ‘what you do is more important than what you say’ supports his leadership mantra to act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly. In other words, he’s the real deal, a great leader.
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Professor Judith McLean is the Chair in Arts Education, a joint appointment between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), where she holds the role of Scholar in Residence. Judith's career is distinguished by her breadth and diversity of experience as an arts educator, artist and cultural leader across Australia. She is currently a Director on the Board of Tourism and Events Queensland, and leads QUT's executive programs using arts based practices in the corporate and government sectors.