On Wednesday 13 March, one of Australia’s most renowned theologians, Fr Anthony (Tony) Kelly CSsR, was farewelled at a requiem Mass held at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Family, friends, colleagues and former students gathered to celebrate Fr Tony’s life and the profound impact he’d made as a theologian, author, teacher, mentor and poet.

The main celebrant of the Mass was Bishop Paul Bird CSsR (Bishop of Ballarat), with concelebrants Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Archbishop Mark Coleridge (Archbishop of Brisbane), Bishop Terry Curtin and Fr John Hodgson CSsR (Provincial, Redemptorists of Oceania).

‘He lived with an ethic of love,’ said Fr Michael Gilbert CSsR, who delivered the homily. ‘Teaching theology was to be the principal apostolate of his life. He taught at many theological institutions, particularly here in Melbourne,’ he said. ‘And Tony served with distinction.’

Born in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1938, Fr Tony was the second of eight children and grew up opposite the Redemptorist Monastery on Woodstock Street, Mayfield. At the age of 13, he expressed a desire to join the Redemptorist, making his first vows in 1957 and being ordained in 1963. The order sent the young priest for further studies to the Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo in Rome, where he gained his doctorate in theology. Upon his return to Australia, he taught at the Redemptorist Seminary in Ballarat and later at Yarra Theological Union in Box Hill, where he served as president for 10 years.

In 1999, Tony was appointed Professor of Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. In 2004, he was appointed by Pope John Paul II as a member of the International Theological Commission, and in 2010, he was made a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. His areas of expertise included the interdisciplinary framework of theological method, trinitarian theology and the Thomistic tradition. He was influenced by the works of Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar, among many others, and enjoyed placing his theology into an Australian context.

We knew that he had brought us into the mystery and led us to taste it.

Fr Tony was beloved by his students for his deep, passionate love for the great mysteries of the Trinity and Christology, and his tireless pursuit of God. It was this pursuit, according to former student and later colleague Emeritus Professor Anne Hunt OAM, that consumed Fr Tony and enabled him ‘to speak, to preach, to teach and to write about God and with such eloquence and grace’.

‘What he put before us [students] was exquisitely beautiful and entrancing, but impossible to capture or to summarise. But we knew that he had brought us into the mystery and led us to taste it,’ reflected Prof Hunt.

‘The many doctoral students who flourished under his direction and profited from his supervision would recall the keen intelligence, but also the humour, the humanity and the humility with which he directed them.’

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who served as master of Catholic Theological College while Fr Tony was president of YTU, reflected on their decades-long friendship, describing Fr Tony as ‘an intellectual and spiritual pilgrim’. ‘His books were regular reports on where he was on the journey,’ he said.

‘He never ceased being a pilgrim, unafraid of the hard work the pilgrimage required.’

‘Australia was largely the arena of his life and work, but he was very much a man of the Church universal—a citizen of the world in that sense,’ Archbishop Coleridge reflected. He described his friend as ‘a cosmopolitan man, both learned and cultured’, and someone who ‘taught us more of what it means to be truly and joyfully Catholic’.

‘One reason why his theological voice was so engaging and incisive is that it rose from a broad and deep human culture. Tony didn’t do theology in a vacuum, nor did he banish imagination or a sense of wonder from the task. He was a poet and painter as well as a theologian, which gave him not only unusual range, but also an eloquence not granted to all scholars.’

Over his lifetime, Fr Tony published some 30 books, and authored innumerable book chapters and articles published in both local and international journals and magazines. He was also a prolific writer of poems, prayers and hymns. He partnered with accomplished Australian composers, playwrights, scholars and artists in articulating the sacred in the secular.