As I write this message, I am aware that we are participating in National Reconciliation Week.

This week is bookended by:

26 May – National Sorry Day, first held in Sydney in 1998, remembering and acknowledging the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities, and which we now know as ‘The Stolen Generations’.

27 May – The anniversary of the 1967 referendum giving the Australian Government power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and recognise them in the Census

3 June – The 1992 Mabo decision, the culmination of Eddie Mabo’s challenge to the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ (the land belonging to no one) and leading to the legal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Tradition Owners and Custodians of lands. This decision paved the way for Native Title.  

This year’s National Reconciliation Week’s theme is Be Brave. Make Change. It is an invitation for all of us to tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation, so we can make the change, in our daily lives – where we live, work, play and socialise - to benefit all Australians. 

Last year I discovered, on Bishop’s Staff Day, when we visited many local Aboriginal sites, that not many of our staff had a good understanding of the stories of what happened to the Aboriginal people when Australia was colonised, and the lasting impact it had, on them and in turn, on us. The importance of this staff day and similar days for people of our now diverse country is for us to become aware of the truth of our history. This truth-telling, giving voice to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, reminds us that historical injustice is still an ongoing source of intergenerational trauma.

On 26 May 2017, at the conclusion of the 2017 First National Constitutional Convention at Uluru, council member Megan Davis delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a consensus document on constitutional recognition, developed by a 16-member Referendum Council of Indigenous and non-Indigenous community leaders.

The Uluru Statement is the result of dialogues held across Australia about how to formally ‘recognise’ First Nations people in the Constitution. The Uluru Statement from the Heart asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling. You may recall the key words of Voice, Treaty, Truth.

Over several years, our diocesan Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Ministry Group has been working on a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). We now have a Reconciliation Action Plan Reference Group, with oversight for the launch of a whole of diocese Reflect RAP, which has been approved by Reconciliation Australia. We are hoping to launch our Reflect RAP in August. The Reflect RAP will give us time to prepare reconciliation initiatives for future RAP’s – Innovate, Stretch, and Elevate. Reconciliation is a journey consisting of these four stages of continuous development – Reflect, Innovate, Stretch and Elevate. The RAP is based around the core pillars of relationships, respect, and opportunities.

Aboriginal Catholic Ministry has been part of our diocesan community for decades and now we are getting ready to make some formal commitments, to journeying with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As we serve our community, our parishes and agencies are already nourished by the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, yet so much more is required in order to bring about reconciliation and healing through the building of relationships.

Over the weekend we celebrated the feast of the Ascension, and the second reading from St Paul to the Ephesians (1:17-23) speaks about us being enlightened:

Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might:
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

So, we as a church, have a grave responsibility to have wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord in all things. This land we call home, was once known as the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday Pentecost Sunday, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide us. The Spirit has been with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since the beginning of time, and it is up to us to take up as many opportunities to learn from them.

When Pope John Paul II spoke to Aboriginal people at Alice Springs, 1986, on this Great South Land of the Holy Spirit, he reminded us of the sacredness of being connected to the land and to each other:

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 animals, birds, fishes, waterholes, rives, hills and mountains. Through your closeness to the land you touched the sacredness of man’s relationship with God, for the land was proof of a power in life greater than yourselves. 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 silence of the Bush taught you a quietness of soul that put you in touch with another world, the world of God’s Spirit. Your careful attention to the details of kinship spoke of your reverence for birth, life and human generation. You knew that children need to be loved, to be full of joy. They need a time to grow in laughter and to play, secure in the knowledge that they belong to their people.

I have no doubt that we continue to learn how to be children of God, and how to be transformed so that God’s mission is evident to those who encounter us.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.