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Paddy Kearney — a good and faithful servant

Douglas Irvine remembers his friend, the much respected and loved social justice activist, champion of the poor and faithful Christian, Paddy Kearney, who died unexpectedly last Friday, 23 November 2018 in his home city of Durban. 

Paddy Kearney died quite unexpectedly on Friday afternoon, 23 November: the month in which we specially remember and celebrate all saints.

He had felt unwell that morning — in fact he had developed pneumonia and his GP advised that he should go into hospital. Paddy asked his brother Brian to take him there. When they arrived, Brian helped him out of the car and asked whether Paddy wanted him to assist with his admission. Paddy said it wasn’t necessary. He went into the reception area, sat down on a chair and continued to sit there. He had suffered a massive heart attack. A short while before he was still making phone calls about the forthcoming launch in Cape Town of his latest book, A Life in Letters: Selected correspondence of Denis Hurley, which Paddy had co-edited with Phillipe Denis and Jane Argall.

I have told this story of his death in some detail because it exemplifies so many of Paddy’s qualities:  his gift for organisation (to the last!) coupled with personal discipline and quiet determination; his eye for detail; his modesty and refusal to dramatise himself; his consideration and concern for others; his devotion to his family; his ability to work with so many people in so many ways and of course that deep engagement with Denis Hurley that had become central to his life.

On Thursday morning he had returned to Durban from Johannesburg, where the book of Hurley’s Letters was launched on Wednesday evening at the Rosebank Catholic church. Paddy’s presentation was typically succinct and informative; both elegant and down to earth, a masterly demonstration of his skills as a teacher and communicator. It had been a wonderfully successful, happy and celebratory occasion hosted by WAACSA (We Are All Church SA).  Paddy was delighted by it all. Not only had he reconnected with many old friends and colleagues in the “struggle”, but the book stock was sold out and we had to take extra orders — something to gladden any author. He spent Wednesday night with my wife Colleen and me. We three had a long friendship stretching back to the early 1970s.

Paddy was formed within the Marist tradition and deeply imbued with its focus on education and social justice. Born on 28 August 1942 he was educated by the Marist Brothers at St Charles in Pietermaritzburg (as was the young Denis Hurley) and after matriculating he joined the Institute of Brothers. When he left after some ten years as novice and brother, he completed a B.Ed at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg and lectured in the Education faculty.  In 1973 he obtained an M.Ed at Ohio University in the USA. An outstanding student, his scholarship and painstaking research would have ensured a distinguished academic career had he taken that road. However, in 1976 he took up an appointment at Diakonia, the newly formed ecumenical agency for social action in the greater Durban area.

Paddy’s activities were multitudinous but I want to focus on three core achievements, linked in an intricate and creative dialectic with Denis Hurley’s life and vision.

At the first Catholic Synod in Durban in 1968, Denis Hurley established a Justice and Peace Commission for the Archdiocese, on which I served. We soon realised that our mandate couldn’t be carried out adequately on a purely voluntary or part-time basis and told the archbishop that we needed full–time workers. His highly creative response was to see that both in principle and in practice an ecumenical initiative could be the most effective way to pool limited resources and to promote Christian social action. Paddy, who was a member of the Commission, was prevailed on to help establish such an agency. Working in a voluntary capacity he organised consultations with community and church groups to test and build support for the proposal.

In 1976 when Diakonia was founded by seven member-churches, Paddy was appointed secretary and co-organiser. Four years later he became its director. In 1994 Diakonia merged with the Durban and District Council of Churches and he was appointed director of the new Diakonia Council of Churches, serving in that position until he retired in 2004.

Over a period spanning almost three decades Paddy built an agency with an impeccable organisational and financial reputation and solid achievements recognised locally, nationally and internationally. In the late ’70s and early ’80s the Diakonia Centre in St Andrew’s Street (now Diakonia Avenue) became a resource and haven for community activists, a beacon of light and support during the state of emergency. And in the early 1990s it served as a resource for the peace processes in KwaZulu-Natal. As the Diakonia website notes: “There was a time when anyone in Durban suffering as a result of the actions of the apartheid government would be told: ‘Go to Diakonia: they’ll help you.’ And help would be found”.

Paddy Kearney tells the story of the Diakonia Centre (filmed shortly before his death)

Although personally self-effacing, Paddy had a keen eye for dramatic symbolic gestures.  Among the many projects that Diakonia initiated, the annual Good Friday procession for justice received national and international coverage. This activity, started in solidarity with treason trialists incarcerated in Durban Central Prison, exemplifies the innovative public and strategic approach to justice and peace which Paddy engaged in during those dark and oppressive times. Paddy was himself detained without trial in 1985, leading to a landmark judicial decision which placed the onus of proof of reason on the police — a decision which was to provide protection to many others in danger of detention.

In the democratic era Diakonia has continued to work for the poor and marginalised, partnering with local government, churches, people of different faiths and other political and social leaders.

When he retired in 2004, Paddy moved on to two new projects: establishing the Denis Hurley Centre (DHC) and his own research and writing focused on Hurley’s life and vision.

Paddy conceptualised the DHC. He was the project coordinator and key fundraiser and subsequently became chair of the board of trustees. The centre was opened officially on 9 November 2015, Archbishop Hurley’s 100th birthday. It is a landmark building situated between Emmanuel Cathedral, the Grey Street Mosque and the Victoria Street market, an area swarming with street traders and taxis. It honours Hurley not only as a hero of social justice but also as a leader with a visionary commitment to ecumenical and interfaith action and friendship — which we see today as central elements in Pope Francis’ agenda for the Church.

The DHC aims to serve the poorest people in Durban in cooperation with people of all faith traditions — perhaps most notably at this time it is the Muslim community. It is also making a major contribution to the eThekwini inner-city regeneration programme. The DHC is a living monument to Hurley — and now also to Paddy.

The product of his very active retirement, Paddy’s many publications as author or editor in themselves would have constituted a significant life achievement.

His biography of Archbishop Denis Hurley, Guardian of the Light — Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid (2009), was described as a “magisterial work” by Robert Blair Kaiser, Time Magazine’s Rome correspondent during the Second Vatican Council. It won the Andrew Murray-Desmond Tutu Prize for best Christian theological book in English in 2010. Paddy’s related publications include the abridged version of the biography, Denis Hurley: Truth to Power (2012), which makes the story of Hurley’s prophetic role accessible to a wider readership.

Paddy Kearney’s achievements have been recognised with many honours and awards, including an Honorary Doctorate in Theology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2009, the eThekwini Municipality’s ‘Living Legends’ award in 2014, the Bonum Communae award from St Augustine College in 2017 and earlier this year a papal medal, Bene Merenti.

But his final accolade is surely quite simple: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.