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Reflections on my association with Uniya

Address on the occasion of the closure of Uniya

Fr Frank Brennan SJ

Kings Cross, 25 May 2007

I see we are still using the same old church lectern which has almost brought to grief many a distinguished speaker here at Uniya, including Ambassador Richard Woolcott and Governor Marie Bashir.

One of the delights of speaking after Sister Patty Fawkner SGS is that you know all the key bases will have already been covered. I can afford to be a little more anecdotal and nostalgically reflective.

On my office desk, I have this photo from the opening day of the Uniya office here at Kings Cross 18 years ago. In front of the fine Uniya painting by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr stands Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the Superior general of the Society, who launched us on our way. Beside him is Greg O’Kelly SJ who was the founding Chair of the Board. In front of him is Brother Paul Schulze SJ who was one of our great supporters. Looking at the photo again today, I mused that Paul has moved on to the life hereafter; Greg has moved on to episcopal life; Peter is about to move on from the Jesuit helm. All things come to pass, and now the time has come for Uniya to pass. I had no idea 18 years ago that I would he here this evening getting over the effects of acute renal failure speaking at the closure of Uniya. But who of us has the least idea of what we will be doing eighteen years from now?

I have fond memories of our founding Uniya here at Kings Cross in the parish of St Canice. Peter Hosking SJ and I travelled up from Melbourne. Two fine young women, Kate and Liz O’Neill dropped in to help us. It was only later that I suspected that their parents, the great parishioners Keith and Lisa directed them to go and help those helpless Jesuits. We forged wonderful relationships with so many of you here. Years later, Peter Hosking performed the nuptials for Liz and I performed the nuptials for Kate. Tonight we pay tribute again to Liz who was forever young in our midst. I also want to single out the late Donal Taylor SJ, the first Jesuit parish priest and superior here at St Canices. Donal had moved from Hong Kong to Australia late in life and was looking forward to a leisurely pastoral engagement on the other side of the harbour. His provincial asked him to cross the Harbour Bridge to be superior of these young Jesuit Turks who were being unleashed on Kings Cross. He came in obedience and he was a wonderful father figure for us.

We spent a long time discerning whether to come here to Kings Cross and to open Uniya, a Christian Centre for Social and Research and Action sponsored by the Australian Jesuits. Most Jesuit work was focused on Melbourne, and the Sydney works were all located north of the Harbour Bridge in those days. We were interested in coming to Sydney, not just for the Keating reason that if you are not here, you are camping out. Having been adviser to the bishops’ conference on Aboriginal issues for some years, I felt emboldened to ask Cardinal Clancy if the Sydney Archdiocese had any plant available for the establishment of such a centre. In the nicest possible way, we were told that there was nothing available. Perhaps a little brashly and with no budget, I then asked if the archdiocesan real estate agent could advise on church properties available for sale. A couple of weeks later, the phone rang in my office at Jesuit Theological College in Melbourne. A voice declared, “It’s the cardinal.” Before I could say, “Put him on”, I realised indeed that it was the cardinal. That is the way a cardinal introduces himself. Cardinal Clancy then said, “I think I might have something for you. How about the parish at Kings Cross/Elizabeth Bay? There is a small school building adjacent which could be suitable for your social justice centre.” I could not imagine anything better. All our prayers were answered. By year’s end we made the move.

Our mission was well articulated by Fr Kolvenbach when he told us:

Our option for the poor may often mean standing for some and always means standing against others. There are dangers here, also. We can all too easily follow trends in our choices of names and works and places. We can be easily seduced into thinking that we are doing great work for the poor when in fact we are chiefly using the neediness of the poor for our own consolation. It is good to remember that ‘Uniya’ is one of the most remote places on earth, its present site a wasteland, and the original mission something of a disaster. Among the remote, wasted and failed you have a proper place! There is no fashion or fame or favour to be found here. You are to discover the threads of society from the underside, from the perspective of those without status or power. Beware of the false consolations of being relevant or needed.

And yet there are times when you must seek to be heard, when you must choose to stand up and be counted, when you will become public figures, notorious or noted. The task given you, and asked of you, has its focus in social structures, in the laws and politics and cultures that prevail in this part of the world. The hard task before you, a task which will demand loving sacrifices, is the struggle for justice, a struggle which will give more life to those most in need.

Tonight we express our gratitude to each other and the many absent past staff, board members, volunteers, interns, supporters and our public who have been so loyal and connected through our publications and seminars, especially the annual Lenten seminars. We are forever grateful to the parish of St Canice whose parishioners have made us so much at home, and to Cardinals Clancy and Pell who welcomed us to the diocese first in 1989 and then again when we re-opened the doors of Uniya on Mark Raper’s return to Australia and my return from East Timor in 2002. Recalling the Uniya logo of the “Holy Family” in flight with an Aboriginal motif designed by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr from Daly River and rendered into a wall hanging crafted by Cambodian refugees under the watchful eye of Margaret Burchell IBVM, we reserve our most profound thanks to those we have been privileged to serve in solidarity, especially the indigenous people of our land and the asylum seekers and marginalised of our region.

The mission given us by Fr Kolvenbach is still our collective mission, regardless of the passing of Uniya. I have always thought that the Uniya way of doing things was always at its best when we were eye-balling both the oppressed and the decision makers. When you are eye-balling both, you cannot be sanctimonious and you cannot confine yourself to rhetoric or abstract principle. Let’s celebrate this mission afresh and recommit ourselves to the faith that does justice before we go our separate ways this night. Thanks for all we have shared and done together in the name of faith and justice. Given my delicate, and hopefully temporary, delicate medical condition, pray hold me excused.

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