A striking feature of the recent Vatican ceremonies elevating Mary MacKillop to sainthood was the central involvement of Aboriginal Catholics. Earlier this week Eureka Street published the text of an address given by Father Frank Brennan last Sunday at the American Academy of Religion in which he spoke movingly of his experience being with the Aboriginal contingent which attended the canonisation in Rome.
He also gave some insights into the troubled history of interaction between Aboriginal and Christian religiosity in Australia, and he referred to the ‘deep, nurtured and nurturing spirituality’ displayed by many Aborigines in straddling the two very different worlds.
Someone who patently has this sort of spirituality is prominent Aboriginal elder, Tom Calma, who is featured in this interview. Though brought up a Catholic, he no longer sees himself as a Christian, and has gravitated towards his Aboriginal spiritual heritage. But he still envisions a positive engagement between Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality, and urges the Churches to be open to a hybrid Christianity that embraces both.
He spoke with Eureka Street TV at a conference held in July 2010 to mark the centenary of the Melbourne College of Divinity. The overall theme of the meeting was ‘The Future of Religion in Australian Society’.
Calma is one of this country’s most accomplished indigenous leaders and activists. He is an elder of the Kungarakan tribal group on his mother’s side whose traditional lands are south-west of Darwin, and on his father’s side is a member of the Iwaidja tribe whose country is on the Coburg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.
For almost forty years he has had a distinguished career in various parts of the public service. From 1995-2002 he was a senior diplomat in India and Vietnam, and oversaw the management of the Australian Education International Offices in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
After this he served as both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and as Race Discrimination Commissioner.
He was instrumental in setting up the recently formed National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples which will be the major indigenous consultative group for the federal government. He is a member of its Ethics Council.
Tom Calma sits on many boards, and is in demand as a speaker around the country. He is Patron of the Rural Health Education Foundation and the Poche Centres for Indigenous Health, and is Deputy Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation. In June 2010 he was appointed to the Board of Directors of Reconciliation Australia.
He delivered the 2009 Mabo Oration, and made the formal response in Parliament House to the Prime Minister’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations. In May 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles Darwin University in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of indigenous and multicultural Australia, primarily in the areas of education, employment and training programs for indigenous and remote communities.
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Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.