I heard the other day that Father Kevin Sweeney had died. I would have liked to attend his funeral. He brought peace to my father’s troubled soul. He married me to my former husband. He gave me a job teaching, when I had no qualifications. And he let me write sermons for him. Was I the first, or perhaps the only, woman to have delivered a sermon in a catholic church? In Melbourne!! What would a patriarchal hierarchy make of that? Fr Sweeney was a mild and unassuming man, simply devoted to his spiritual life, reared in the days when the Church and orthodoxy dominated the life of every Catholic. He felt honoured to have become a priest, “a priest for ever, in the order of Melchisadek”, he said to me once, a liturgical reference to an Old Testament passage. As he aged, the world changed around him – it became cynical, faithless, immoral and immodest. But Fr Sweeney managed to deal with all the changes with equanimity, perhaps even compassion.
New parish, new priest
I first came in contact with him while I was still at school. Our parish arose out of land which had been agricultural but was developing into the northern suburbs. It was still small – Lalor was only 3 blocks when we first went there, when I was 8. The railway station was a shed on a sandy rise, serviced by a diesel motor train which met up with the electrified line at Reservoir about 4 miles south of the scrubby paddocks of Lalor, the direction towards the metropolis of Melbourne. We were part of the rural parish of Epping a mile and half further north. But the baby boom was underway, and, while rooms were being added to St Peter’s at Epping, a new parish at Lalor was mooted, to be named St Luke’s. The parish priests of Epping started fund raising to get the first buildings of a parish in the suddenly expanding suburb of Lalor.
That brought a great benefit to me and the other kids I grew up with. It meant that we grew up in a community, not in the alienation and isolation of families in the sprawling suburbs south of us. Lalor grew as we grew, we had paddocks to roam and half-built houses to play in, and, as our parents came together in the fundraising house-parties, dances and suppers, we were often together overnight, too – not surprising to find a dozen kids asleep in one house, to be picked up the next day. There was a quality akin to a litter of pups for us, as the parish buildings began to appear.
Which of them came first, I wonder? Soon there was a school… then a presbytery? Or was the church first? And I was 16 in Year 12 when the first parish priest of Lalor was appointed. Our first priest and his first appointment, as it happened. This mild-mannered man with no great charisma nor, at first appearance, any great gifts, was assigned a parish half formed, out of the huge suburban growth that filled the northern suburbs with a polyglot population faster than the buildings could hold them. He was always unflappable, never stressed.
Dad, sad and ruined, and reclaimed
My father reclaimed his spirituality towards the end of his life. An alcoholic and lifetime smoker, it was a great irony that he settled down and gave up the grog, as a penitential act, with Fr Sweeney as his confessor (spiritual guide) – only to develop bronchial cancer, and die within a year of his diagnosis.
From the time of Fr Sweeney’s appointment, we would have Christmas Eve lunch with him and his curate, Fr Tobin. Dad worked for the Herald and Weekly Times, setting type at night for the morning Sun. As it did not appear on Christmas Day, he had Christmas Eve off, but had to work on Christmas Day to bring out the Boxing Day edition (and it was a matter of great amusement to us to count the number of printing errors littering the Boxing Day paper as intoxicated typesetters drank through the night). Suddenly and totally sober, and while he was still well, he soon discovered how boring and fatuous the company of the inebriated is, and he re-evaluated his idea of himself as the one the other drunks found interesting. He wanted to give up smoking, too, as further penance, but Fr Sweeney discouraged him from the spiritual pride of it. After the cancer set in, the smoking didn’t happen any more anyway.
Ours was a dysfunctional family in many more ways than my father’s alcoholism. None of us ever acknowledged Dad’s capacity for the inner life. We all tended much more towards scorn with each other than to empathy. Now my heart feels grateful beyond saying that Fr Sweeney gave him what we couldn’t. Except for one touching day… Dad seemed agitated and upset… Mum was at the scorn game… but something registered in me that his mood was unusual… and I walked with him down to the presbytery. It’s where he wanted to go, and he wanted reassuring company as he went.
That may have been the beginning of his confessor relationship with Fr Sweeney. I don’t suppose that many people, particularly in a cynical age, would comprehend just what a redemption that was. Penitence and absolution in itself is a powerful dynamic, and it is only a modern view to think of it as therapeutic – even if it is. The great gift Fr Sweeney gave Dad, however, was more even than that. He gave him the gift of listening to him from the heart, of accepting him as he was, of loving him and sweeping him into a surety of divine love.
He makes me a primary school teacher
I was 21 when Dad died. Before that I had finished school, and went to university, despite the misgivings of my father – what could have prompted Dad, I wonder, to say that he was worried that I would lose my faith and my virginity at such a den of iniquity? Well, I did lose them, but much later. At university I was too repressed by dogma and unrealistic idealism to have much fun there. Now Dad was deceased, I was going to be married, I had not finished my degree, and I didn’t have a job. So Fr Sweeney made me the 6th grade teacher at St Luke’s primary school. How much training did I have? None. And of course, the parents of the children I was to teach were never consulted.
I have to admit that such trust was fuelled and instigated by Sr Joan. It’s not possible to describe Sr Joan in a paragraph or two. Let me just say that she said to anyone anywhere that I was the most intelligent child she had ever had, and her opinion of me travelled ahead to the nuns at the secondary school, and now to Fr Sweeney. She had me for Grades 5, 6 and 7, all three in a huge composite class of about 90, which she handled alone, when she was headmistress of the old parish at Epping. Now she was headmistress of Lalor, when both parishes had become large metropolitan centres of catholicism, and I was to be her assistant.
Sr Joan didn’t delegate easily. She was a powerhouse herself, and didn’t suffer fools. She divided the Grade 6 enrolment into two grades of 27 and 54, hers being the larger grade, which was both a relief and a snub to the other teacher. And the large one was for me to teach. Because she wasn’t a good delegator, she was overworked, handling both the administrative role of principal as well as the teaching role. Trusting , it seems, the “great intelligence” she had discovered in me as a child, she spent her time in admin leaving me to do most of the teaching, though without quite giving it up. She would make a grand entrance, stay for a while, and bounce out again, any old time. There wasn’t any planning in how we shared the curriculum, nor did I receive any guidance on how to go about it. She just trusted me. She didn’t trust the other, qualified, teacher with even half the enrolment, she only let him have a third of them, while I was supposed to manage and teach 54 prepubescent boys and girls. She trusted me and so Father Sweeney trusted me.
Most of those children did survive their last year of primary school well enough, but it was no thanks to me. I got married at the end of the first term, anyway, and left the parish.
I’m sure no such appointments occur in Catholic schools any more. But I had four angelic 6th grade altar boys at my nuptial mass, celebrated by Father Sweeney. I have often wondered if Fr Sweeney had promised my father to look out for me.
Maturity, meditation and meeting him again
Time moved on. Marriage, mortgage, two children, us living on 15 acres on a rural property in Gippsland. My husband commuted to Dandenong where he was a middle level IT manager in an international corporation. The house was small, but the land and sheds allowed us to sprawl, and we loved the freedom of it all. The night time show of stars was brilliant, and our sleeping conditions were dark and quiet, so soothing to body and soul.
By that time I had a practice of daily meditation, and had accepted my guru. Some years before I had gone through a great disillusionment with the Church, coinciding with deep depression and suicidal fantasies. That difficult time freed me from many of the constrictions and proscriptions that a dogmatic upbringing had wrought on my life and perceptions. There was some emotional turbulence in establishing a self-regulating way of relating to my life. Counselling was a first step, and still-mind meditation gradually calmed my mind. During all that time, many changes had happened at Lalor. The old Irish influence had been replaced by an Italian influence, and there was an Italian order of priests and masses in Italian. Too bad about the Greeks and the Latvians and the Lithuanians. My mother had aged, had sold her house in Lalor, and had come to live with us. Father Sweeney had been rotated to various parishes.
Paradoxically, while I had mentally left the Church, and my children had attended state schools since they had started, I asked my husband to cooperate in giving them a Catholic upbringing as they finished their schooling in the country. My own meditative values seemed too subtle to offset what I saw as a vacuum in the state school playgrounds, and I wanted them to have a philosophical benchmark to make later decisions by. They would not be as immersed and indoctrinated as I was – only exposed to Catholic teachings. So, when my children were about 10 and 11, we started parochial life, but I was a meditator and yogi, rather than a Catholic in any traditional sense.
And then my brother died, in horrific circumstances, and we turned towards the comforting memory of Father Sweeney in choosing who to bury him. He was the one who brought the various branches of our family together, and was a supportive presence for my mother.
After that, he came to stay with us several times.
One night I found him standing at the fence to the paddocks, under a wonderfully starry sky. I may have been prickly company for him, because I was prone to challenging his beliefs. For instance, I asked him whether he still said his office everyday, as it was a formal requirement of Catholic priests, under pain of mortal sin. I think he said he did! But did he really think a man would go to hell if he missed it or no longer bothered with it? I seem to remember a fudged sort of non-committal reply. And that night I must have been quite rude, because I said that his sermons were dull and boring and would not stimulate the spirituality of a child. And it wasn’t just him, I said, that is “you and all Catholic priests – your sermons are formulaic and superficial and about compliance rather than the inner relationship of the individual and God.”
“I suppose you think you could do any better?” he said, feeling the sting of my barb.
“You bet I could.”
“Well, go on then – show me.”
And so he challenged me to write him some sermons. He gave me structural guidelines – it had to be relevant to the mass for the day and incorporate reference to the readings from the Old Testament, the Epistle, and the Gospel for that mass.
Indeed it did challenge me, as often those readings are patriarchal and authoritarian, and my approach is not and was not either of those. But I was not swayed from my starting point, which is that there is only Consciousness or Spirit and each individual is entranced by that spiritual nature once he or she gets back in touch with it. I found that it was quite easy then to see even the ancient biblical writers pointing to the same thing, using the social context that their people would comprehend. And so my sermons were 180 degrees different from the pedestrian sermons I was used to hearing in Mass, about not lying, not beating your wife, or about coming to mass and confession – instead mine invited the reader to drop all barriers between self and God. And the biblical readings, despite their oppressive tone, supported that invitation.
I delivered my first one to him, and then he asked for a second, and then a third and a fourth, and by then I was wondering what he was doing with them.
One Sunday I went down to Melbourne and sat in on his Mass, just to see what he was doing with my sermon. I saw, when he went into the pulpit, that he pulled out a sheet of paper – and was absolutely gob-smacked to hear him read my sermon from top to bottom, verbatim.
I had thought he might consider them as gist for his own thoughts, but no, apparently, it was I who had been giving his sermons for the last few weeks.
Did he not know how subversive he was being? Allowing a woman to speak from the pulpit, and, not only a woman, but a practitioner of yogic spirituality! And that, in calling upon the listener to take responsibility for his or her spirituality, the sermons queried the legitimacy of any institution that would claim to be God’s sheriff.
He said he was planning to make a collection of the sermons and get them published, and wanted me to keep writing. But in a peculiarity of my own personality, I never did. 4 or perhaps 6 was as many as I offered, and then we just drifted out of contact. He got in touch with me to invite me to his golden jubilee, the 50th anniversary of his ordination, and I didn’t respond. And so now, a bit too late, I give my apology to this sweet and mild mannered man, a compliant son of the Church, who nevertheless was bold in his inner life, and who trusted when all reason must have said, don’t trust. Farewell, Father, sweetest of all clergymen.