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Moments of reconciliation

Michael McVeigh  |  18 December 2012

Moments of reconciliation

Over two decades have passed since Pope John Paul II's historic speech to Indigenous Australians in Alice Springs in 1986. We ask some Indigenous leaders what have been some of the most significant recent landmarks for Indigenous Catholics in Australia.

Graeme Mundine is a Bundjalung man from northern NSW, and has been involved in Church and Indigenous affairs for more than three decades. He is currently the Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Sydney.

Elsie Heiss grew up in Cowra and Griffith in NSW, and is part of the Wiradjuri Nation. Retired at the end of 2012, Elsie was involved in Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Redfern in Sydney, and later helped establish the centre for Indigenous Catholics at La Perouse.

Vicki Clark is a descendent of the Mutthi Mutthi people from south-west New South Wales. She first started as coordinator of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Melbourne in 1990, and continues in the role today.

'The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks all languages. It esteems and embraces all cultures. It supports them in everything human and, when necessary, it purifies them...

'That Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians. It meets your deepest desires. You do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture. To develop in this way will make you more than ever truly Aboriginal...

'Take this Gospel into your own language and way of speaking; let its spirit penetrate your communities and determine your behaviour towards each other, let it bring new strength to your stories and your ceremonies...

'All over the world people worship God and read his word in their own language, and colour the great signs and symbols of religion with touches of their own traditions. Why should you be different from them in this regard, why should you not be allowed the happiness of being with God and each other in Aboriginal fashion?'
29 November 1986, Pope John Paul II's message to Indigenous Australians

1986 - Pope John Paul II's visit to Alice Springs
Pope John Paul II's visit with Indigenous people in Alice Springs in 1986 was a watershed moment for the Church in Australia. In his message to the people (see the breakout on page 24), the Pope affirmed the Catholic Church's commitment to Indigenous people and their struggles for recognition in Australia, and affirmed their experiences of God expressed through Indigenous traditions and stories.

Graeme's thoughts
"No other Pope has asked for that meeting. There has been interaction between Aboriginals and the Pope. But this was one of the most influential leaders in the world, and he specifically asked to meet with us."

"He went up onto the stage to give that great speech. In the meanwhile, the storm was brewing and you could see it coming. It started to rain a bit while he was finishing his talk, but as soon as he finished talking the rain came down in bucket loads. The river flooded that year, and the local folk lore story is that when the river flows it means you'll always return."

Elsie's thoughts
"Before the Pope did that tour, we were unknown. I wore my cross inside my blouse, from the fear of being ridiculed for being Catholic. Not just by non-Aboriginals, by my own people. Because of what the Catholic Church had done in the past. And because if you were Christian there was something wrong with you. You were supposed to believe in the Dreamtime as an Aboriginal.""

"The Pope opened the doors for us to stand up and be counted. To say we're proud of being Aboriginal and we're proud of being Catholic."

1991 - The establishment of NATSICC
After some consultations between the various state bodies, it was decided that a national body should be set up for Indigenous Catholics in Australia. NATSICC was formally established in 1991, with Graeme Mundine as the first chair.

Graeme's thoughts
"The good thing was that we had some good bishops already on side. Some of them, like Archbishop Barry Hickey, even grew up with Aboriginals. They knew we weren't a threat to them. We wanted to work with them in trying to better the place of Aboriginals. It was an exciting time."

1993 - The National Aboriginal Mass, Yarra River, Melbourne
Over 300 Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, joined by over 1000 others, attended Mass on the Yarra River to mark International Year of Indigenous People. This Mass commemorated the first ever Indigenous Mass held at the 1973 Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne. Vicki Clark was one of the organisers.

Vicki's thoughts
"Working with other communities on the liturgy was very special. Embracing all the various different communities and cultures, ceremonies and rituals, looking at how we did it in the old way, and how we could do it in a new contemporary way, that was very special. We had many international liturgists around the world who were making comments about the liturgy."

1998 - The Catholic Church's Apology for the Stolen Generations
After the Bringing Them Home Report brought to light the stories of Aboriginal children removed from their families, and the role of church organisations in that removal, the Catholic Church apologised for its part in the tragedy.

Graeme's thoughts
"We went to the bishops and said, "You've got to be up-front about this. There's no doubt that we were involved. We may not have been the ones that took these kids away in most cases, but we were on the receiving end so we dealt with these kids." And they did it quite well, I was proud of them for doing it that way."

Vicki's thoughts
"A lot of community groups and organisations were paying attention to the Bringing Them Home report and its recommendations. It was important for Indigenous people that there was this recognition of the wrong, and that congregational leaders did an audit of their records in their archives and made them available in a collection. This made it easier for Aboriginal people to find their stories.""

2004 - NATSICC Healing Mass, Redfern NSW
The death of 17-year-old Indigenous boy Thomas Hickey sparked a tense situation in the Sydney suburb of Redfern. The community came together for a healing Mass, organised by NATSICC.

Elsie's thoughts
"We wanted the community of the Block to know that we were there for them. The Mass was run by our chairperson at the time Melissa Brickel. We had people from the community, non-Catholics and other religious organisations come along. People cried, people hugged. I think it was a special time to get down there with the people.

2008 - World Youth Day
Elsie Heiss was Chair of NATSICC as Australia prepared for its biggest ever Catholic event. The Message Stick, which travelled around the country with the World Youth Day Cross, ensured Indigenous Australians were an integral part of the preparations. The relay began in the community at La Perouse in Sydney, where Elsie worked with the Indigenous community.

Elsie's thoughts
"The sun rose at 6.30am over that Mass, and it was just spectacular. We had Aboriginal dancers and didgeridoo players, and everybody was bright-eyed and bushytailed by the time the Mass started. It was lovely. It was like God saying, "This is the beginning of a great event.

We were down at Barrangaroo as the welcome committee for the Pope's arrival just before World Youth Day. The young kids were dancing. He was so enthralled with everything. You could see by his eyes that we put on a good show.

Everything that happened during that week was about Aboriginal people in this country standing up and saying, "This is who we are". For many years, we weren't even recognised as Aboriginal Catholics, and there we were, up there with the Holy Father."

What's next for Indigenous Catholics?
"Indigenous Catholics leading their own faith communities While there are Aboriginal priests and even bishops in other Christian denominations, there are no Aboriginal priests in the Catholic Church. There are many Indigenous leaders in the church who have the depth of understanding of both Catholic and Indigenous spiritualities to preach to communities about God, but none of them can stand up in front of communities and lead Mass. Finding a culturally appropriate way for Indigenous people to lead communities is a key question for the Church.

We're getting white people who preach at us, who talk at us, who tell us what God is all about. Where are our voices? While we have white fellas up the front leading, it'll always be their church, not our church." - Graeme

Inculturating the Mass
"Having a culturally appropriate liturgy is a major desire for Indigenous people. An Indigenous Australian Mass was held for the first time at the Eucharistic Congress in 1973. However, some believe it was only permitted to be used that once, while others believe it should be available in Indigenous communities all the time. A petition was tabled at the recent NATSICC Gathering in Melbourne, calling for the Bishops to give permission for the Mass to be used in all Aboriginal communities.

What is happening through the liturgy is that we're going back to the eras of destroying our culture. The Church should have learned its lessons from those mission days." - Graeme

Greater independence for Aboriginal Catholic ministries
"Most Aboriginal Catholic Ministries around Australia are still reliant on dioceses to provide them with financial resources.

Aboriginals still have to go to them cap in hand... They need to build up these Aboriginal Catholic Ministries financially, so they'll be able to stand on their own feet. And they can decide where they'll put their resources into the future." - Graeme

Deepening engagement with Catholic communities
"Schools and parishes have deepened their engagement with Indigenous peoples over the last two decades. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday is part of the Church's annual calendar, with resources sent out to communities around the country. Other schools and parishes have message sticks to mark their relationship with Indigenous people. But the need for engagement continues with each generation.

What else is there we can do now? The Church isn't even asking the question any more. I would really like to see a gathering of Aboriginal people from around the Catholic community talking about this very thing." - Vicky


Topic tags: indigenousaustralians, thecatholictradition, prayer, liturgyandthesacraments, australianidentity

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