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Indigenous missions

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ  |  18 December 2012

Indigenious missions

There are many ways of seeing missions. Catholics describe the heroism of men and women who leave their own lands to bring the gift of faith to people who have never heard of Christ. They celebrate the happiness that Christ has brought to new Christians and the generosity of those who support the missions.

When historians describe missions, they often see them as part of the conquest by European powers of poorer nations. Together with military activity, trade and culture, Christian missions can change indigenous cultures and societies for the worse as well as for the better.

Both these ways of seeing missions need to be taken seriously. In this Explorations we look at what missions are about and at how history has shaped them. We shall also reflect briefly on mission to Indigenous Australians.

The beginning of Christian mission
For the early Christians mission was simply spreading good news. It came naturally. The good news that Christians wanted to share was the stunning realisation that God loves us so much that he shared our life and death in his Son, and promised that we would rise with Jesus to a new life. This good news changed their lives, and they knew that it could change other people's lives too.

When we think of missions, we often think of special individuals like St Paul or St Francis Xavier. But in the early Church it was everybody's business to talk of Christ. Members of churches were constantly moving about, as was Jesus during his life. He travelled around Palestine. He prepared his followers to speak of the Kingdom of God and sent them around the local villages. Paul wrote his letters as he moved from city to city, and mentions in passing many fellow Christians who travelled to other churches and spread the faith as they went. When persecutions broke out, many Christians escaped from their home towns and spoke of Jesus wherever they found asylum.

Preaching Jesus to people of a different culture
The earliest Christians were Jews. They spoke of Jesus to other Jews who also believed in the God of Abraham and Moses and prayed in the same way. It was a huge change when St Paul preached the Gospel to people from totally different religious and cultural backgrounds. He had to introduce people to Jesus, and also to tell them of God's promises to Israel that Jesus crowned. He needed to show, too, what Jesus meant to his listeners' own world.

This need to speak to believers in their own cultures led Christian missionaries to compose liturgies in Latin and other foreign languages, and engage with the educated elite of the Roman Empire. They also created alphabets, like Armenian and Georgian, so that people could read the scriptures in their own native languages.

Faith grows by degrees. The early Christians heard the good news of Jesus Christ and his way of life from visiting preachers who founded a local church with its own leaders. They gradually came to understand the Good News more fully and to see how their way of life made them different from non-Christians. Finally the Good News shaped their imagination so that they saw their world through its lens.

When Christianity was legalised, missionaries went among the tribes at the edge of the Roman Empire. If leaders were converted, their people often automatically followed them. But people needed deeper teaching if they were personally to appreciate the Good News.

Colonial missions
After European sailors and explorers came into contact with worlds new to them, Christian missions expanded. Portuguese sailors travelled to India and Colombus landed in Central America, followed by traders and armies, and later joined by missionaries. Most of the missions were Catholic because the naval powers of Europe were mainly Catholic. Similarly, in the 19th century, Protestant missions expanded, mostly within the British Empire.

In comparison to the early Church, these missionaries brought both their faith and their European culture. The liturgy was in Latin; the customs and ways of thinking were European. They often had the protection of European soldiers and travelled with Western traders, both of whom plundered the indigenous people.

Sometimes the missionaries accepted uncomplainingly their part in European colonisation. But in many places the missionaries tried to defend the freedom and the dignity of the people from exploitation. Both these attitudes can be seen in the classic movie, The Mission.

The churches founded in Asia and Africa relied on European missionaries to lead them. Few churches developed local leadership or embodied Christian faith in the indigenous cultures. By many, Christianity was seen as alien. But the generosity of the European missionaries and churches was extraordinary. Young missionaries who came to Africa, for example, sometimes brought their luggage in a coffin. In regions of Africa plagued by yellow fever, few survived for more than two years.

The beginnings of Indigenous missions in Australia
Christian missions to Indigenous Australians grew after the settlers had begun driving Aboriginals off their ancestral land. That original dispossession has coloured both the relationship between Indigenous and later comers in Australia, and the possibilities of preaching the Good News.

The first missionaries were mainly from Protestant churches, and saw themselves as bringing to Indigenous Australians the benefits of modern Western civilisation, of which Christian faith was the flower. The colonial authorities hoped that the Christian missions would control and protect people seen as a dying race. This context also informed the beginnings of Catholic missions. The missionaries were mainly from non-English speaking parts of Europe.

Gathering Indigenous Australians into missions provided control and protection. They were removed from the ancestral lands which the settlers had taken for farming and grazing, and so removed from the need for protection. The first Catholic mission was on Stradbroke Island in 1843.

Because Christian missions needed government financial support they naturally met needs identified by the State. In particular they became involved in education and worked with children. Horrific theories current in the times sometimes led missions to be complicit in the removal of children from parents. But for all the limitations of their work, the missionaries earned the affection and esteem of many Indigenous people for their generosity and kindness.

In the missions Indigenous people were taken out of their own nomadic culture to hear the Good News in a Western agricultural society. Some Catholic missionaries had dreamed of accompanying the people in their nomadic way of life, but found it too difficult to live and to build a church.

The Indigenous churches, too, depended on continuing leadership by missionaries. Bishops, clergy and religious came mainly from religious congregations whose centre lay generally in the large cities. There were almost no Indigenous priests or religious.

Contemporary missions after Vatican II
The Second Vatican Council reshaped Catholic attitudes to missions. By the time of the Council, colonised peoples had won freedom and self-government. Christian missionaries, who were identified with colonial rule, easily became suspect. As a result, missionary churches could no longer rely on overseas leadership.

As colonial rule receded, the intertwining of European culture and faith became evident. In highly developed religious cultures like Japan, India, China and the Middle East, comparatively few people had turned to Christianity. In order to commend Christ to the people, Christians would need to enter their cultures deeply, see where God was working within them, and to appreciate how belief in Christ would crown their culture. Confucian Chinese who accepted Christ in the Catholic Church, for example, would need to see themselves as more Chinese for becoming Catholic, and not as less so.

It had become clear that the orthodoxy and the clarity of the preacher's words are not sufficient for their hearers to understand the Gospel. Their own culture will also be important.

So preaching the Good News can never be reduced to some speaking and others listening; some instructing and others obeying. It is a conversation to which preacher and hearer each contribute, and each is open to be surprised. Each will learn from the other about Christ and the Good News.

These thoughts recalled the early Church for whom mission was the work of each local church. The Australian Church was right to send missionaries to India, for example, just as it is now right for the Indian Church to send priests and religious sisters to Australia. But the central mission of the Indian and Australian Churches is to speak of Christ to the people of their own nation.

The Council also saw mission from a broader perspective. Previously many people saw their point as to convert indigenous people and to form them as Christians. They saw the other things missionaries did, like starting health clinics and schools as simply preparing the way to preach the Gospel. The Council saw them as part of sharing and showing the Good News through a process that included meeting people's basic human needs for food, shelter and education, defending their human dignity, learning from their wisdom, preaching and encouraging them in the growth of their faith.

Indigenous missions after Vatican II
Vatican II coincided with dramatic changes affecting Indigenous Australians. From the 1960s Indigenous Australians and Islanders won the right to vote, later saw discriminatory clauses in the Constitution repealed by referendum, began struggles for equal pay and for land rights, and sought, and finally received, an Apology from the Prime Minister for the removal of children from their parents.

The mission system, including Catholic missions, gave way to communities where Indigenous people had more say. Although some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today continue to feel the hurt of past Church practices, particularly around the separation of children in mission dormitories, within the Christian churches many remain strongly committed to their faith.

Two Papal visits - by Paul VI in 1970 and John Paul II in 1986 - sowed the seeds of change for Indigenous Catholics. Paul VI emphasised that Indigenous Catholics must find a place in the Church for their culture. This had consequences for the celebration of the liturgy. In Australia it had previously been celebrated in Latin, a foreign language to all. Now it was celebrated in English, the native language of most Australians but not of Indigenous people.

In 1973, after consultation with Indigenous groups, an Aboriginal Mass was celebrated at the Eucharistic Congress. It was translated back into English, keeping the idiom and tone of Indigenous music and languages. This inspired a period of exploring the possibilities of Indigenous liturgy. But now most communities use the prescribed English text, incorporating aspects of Indigenous customs into the rite.

Although there are still no Indigenous Bishops, and few priests or religious, the visit of Pope John Paul II and his electrifying speech in Alice Springs gave much impetus to Indigenous lay leadership within the Church. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council formed in 1989.

Focus on reconciliation in Australia has led Indigenous Catholic groups to focus on helping other Australian Catholics to recognise that Indigenous Australians are not immigrants who should adopt the language and customs of Australians of European descent, and to own Indigenous spirituality and worship as an essential part of the Australian Church. This remains an ambitious dream. But the words of Pope John Paul II to the Indigenous people at Alice Springs insist that it is a call to all Australians:

'The Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.'

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council


Topic tags: indigenousaustralians, thecatholictradition, church-thepeopleofgod, religiousandculturaldiversity

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