The theme to mark this celebration, and also the beginning of Advent, is ‘A Celebration of Hope and Rebirth’. To that end, a resource, 30th Anniversary of Saint John Paul II’s address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, has been published by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC). I hope it was made use of in each of the parishes of our diocese on this day.
I quote from the Chairperson of NATSICC, John Lochowiak in the introduction of this publication, which can be found on the web:
Jesus spoke directly to the hearts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on 29 November 1986 in Australia’s heart – Alice Springs. The message was delivered to our people by his devoted apostle Saint John Paul II. We had travelled along our well-worn trade routes from every corner of Australia to encounter God on that day.
As Saint John Paul II spoke, a wind storm picked up the red soil from the Earth and swirled it amongst our people. The dust seemed to intertwine with the words of love, hope and empathy. The message touched our souls and it touched our skin. Never before had we felt so welcome in the house of Jesus as when Saint John Paul II said:
“You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And 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.”
The impact of this day on our lives cannot be measured. It provided the encouragement for the establishment of Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Ministries all over Australia and it lit the fire in our hearts which still provides the warmth, energy and strength for us to continue. We now have over 120,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in Australia and the support of our Australian Catholic Bishops on our journey of faith.
In our diocese we are attempting once again to ignite our Aboriginal Catholic Ministry. We have begun to meet regularly and Denyse Potts has taken on the facilitation of the ministry. I am convinced that we are the poorer if our First Australians are not actively part of our worshipping communities. They bring a unique and ancient spirituality with them, and it is us, who have come along to share their land, who can learn, benefit and reach out. We are part of the great longing of an ancient people, evident in Sunday’s reading from Isaiah (2:1-5). The people were longing for eternal peace. Is this not what we all seek?
I share with you some of the quotes from St John Paul II’s address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 1986:
Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear… Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.
If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now’
You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And 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.
… you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the spirit of God has been with you.
It is wonderful to see how people ... find points of agreement between their own traditions and those of Jesus and his people...
For thousands of years this culture of yours was free to grow without interference by people from other places. You lived your lives in spiritual closeness to the land, with its animals, birds, fishes, waterholes, rivers, hills and mountains. You did not spoil the land, use it up, exhaust it, and then walk away from it. You realised that your land was related to the source of life.
‘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. Always and everywhere the Gospel uplifts and enriches cultures with the revealed message of a loving and merciful God’
You have learned how to survive, whether on your own lands, or scattered among the towns and cities. Though your difficulties are not yet over, you must learn to draw on the endurance which your ancient ceremonies have taught you. Endurance brings with it patience; patience helps you to find the way ahead, and gives you courage for your journey.
The old ways can draw new life and strength from the Gospel. The message of Jesus Christ can lift up your lives to new heights, reinforce all your positive values and add many others, which only the Gospel in its originality proposes. 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.
Dear Aboriginal people: the hour has come for you to take on new courage and new hope. You are called to remember the past, to be faithful to your worthy traditions, and to adapt your living culture whenever this is required by your own needs and those of your fellow man.
Above all you are called to open your hearts ever more to the consoling, purifying and uplifting message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died so that we might all have life, and have it to the full.
I share these with you in the hope that you will be touched by the profound words of a man, a leader, who visited Alice Springs in 1986. The profound significance of this visit and his connection with the First Australians still captures my spirit.
Our diocese is in the country of the Worimi, Gamilleroi, Wanarua, Gweagul, Darkinjung, Biripi and Awabakal peoples.
We respectfully acknowledge their Elders, celebrate their continuing culture and the living memory of their ancestors. As we come together, we recall the gathering of the many tribes who make up the land on which we gather, worship, teach, support, care for, show compassion and mercy, perform rituals, socialise and remember our stories and their stories.
I read the following words from William J Bausch in an article written by Tracey Edstein during the week:
Stories define our humanity, lend identity to tribes and nations, ask our questions, pose our problems, cut us down to size and dangle mystery before our eyes. (Touching the Heart, Twenty-Third Publications, 2009).
This was captured in a letter from Pope Francis to NATSICC for the 30th Anniversary of Saint John Paul II to Alice Springs. Quoting John Paul II he wrote:
Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share then with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.
Pope Francis then went on to write:
For when you share the noble tradition of your community, you also witness to the power of the Gospel to perfect and purify every society, and in this way God’s holy will is accomplished.
As we enter the Season of Advent and the commencement of our Liturgical Year, I am mindful of our need to tell stories, and to engage with them. In preparation for Christmas, I invite you to enter into this sacred time with your families, friends, work colleagues and communities. Remember who you are as a people, and share the ‘stuff’ that makes up our identity. Without meaning, we are a wandering people in search of mystery.
The Indigenous peoples of our nation struggle with many complex issues, and as Christians, we are called to speak out and seek justice for those who struggle and appear to be lost.
I finish this week’s message with the Prayer of the Aboriginal People (prepared by Aboriginal people for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Alice Springs 1986)
Father of all, You gave us the Dreaming,
You have spoken to us through our beliefs,
You then made your love clear to us in the person of Jesus.
We thank you for your care.
You own us, you are our hope.
Make us strong as we face the problems of change.
We ask you to help the people of Australia to listen to us and respect our culture. Make the knowledge of you grow strong in all people,
So that you can be at home in us and
we can make a home for everyone in our land.
Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries
29 November 2016