Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The Pope in Alice: 25 years on

  • 29 November 2011

On this day 25 years ago, 12 of us Jesuits were privileged to join thousands of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who met with Pope John Paul II at Alice Springs.

Two nights before, we had camped at Uluru. On the way to Blatherskite Park, where the Pope was to speak, I was invited to accompany a busload of people from Kununurra and Turkey Creek in the Kimberley because they did not have their own priest with them. The community leaders gave me a red T-shirt which depicted their Dreaming. We all wore yellow headbands and waited patiently for the Pope's arrival.

He had been delayed by the breakdown of his Mercedes Popemobile, which was unsuited to the hot conditions. Workers resorted to throwing iced water over the engine but failed in their attempts to get the vehicle running. Eventually the Pope arrived on the park's Caterpillar Dreaming track in the back seat of a plain white Australian Ford sedan, which was more becoming than the foreign vehicle.

There had been months of planning and negotiation about this meeting on the Yipirinya Dreaming track. People came from all over Australia.

There had been some consternation early in the planning because the offices for the papal visit had been donated by a major mining company. But Aboriginal leaders were assured that the Pope's message would not be qualified because of the generosity of the corporate sector.

A week prior to the visit, there was unresolved conflict between the Church's national advisory committee of Aborigines and Islanders preparing the visit, and the local Aboriginal community. The committee wanted only Aboriginal and Islander children to have access to the area where the Pope would be welcomed. But they heeded the call of the local Elders with the result that Alice Springs children of all races who shared in the local Dreaming were permitted to participate.

The Alice Springs Mayor said, 'It's wonderful. The Aboriginal people are doing the right thing. It's not the locals that have caused any problems. It's people from the south who wanted to segregate the races.'

The tension between the local church community and national Aboriginal church leaders evaporated by the time the Pope kissed the tarmac at Alice Springs airport. He was welcomed by eight traditional owners who greeted him in Arrernte language. Among the group were the late Wenten Rubuntja and Charles Perkins.

Protocol dictated that the Pope could not be attired in