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‘You just don’t get it’: listening and responding to First Nations peoples



I have been told many times in my life, ‘you just don’t get it!’. Not always by First Nations people, but there have been many such occasions. It has not always been quick or easy for me, a white male, born into middle class privilege in Melbourne, to understand what I didn’t get. Fortunately, many have been patient and forgiving and sometimes I have insights into what I need to learn, receive and even sometimes ‘get’. Fifty years of a slow adult conversion.

Main image: Aboriginal flag waving (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

When Pope Francis recently said ‘500 years ago, all the worldly dreams of Ignatius were shattered in one instance’, I don’t think he was considering First Nations peoples. However, there is abundance evidence worldwide that colonisation, in all its various forms, can shatter many dreams of those colonised. Sometimes with immediate effect; sometimes with ongoing effects. Sometimes, as in the case of Australia and without any treaties, with long, intergenerational effects.

In August 1985, I accompanied a group of Aboriginal men from Balgo to the formal handover of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara people. We camped, as did many others from all parts of Australia, at the foot of the ‘Rock’. It was a moving occasion for a number of reasons. And, for me, it was the first time I had heard and seen the dance of the Kingfisher (Luurnpa) songline that linked Balgo with Uluru.

Sometime during our stay we were visited by Mgr Brian Walsh and another who were planning the Pope’s visit to Australia the following year. Would it be possible to have it at Uluru? Apart from mistakenly thinking that Uluru ‘belonged’ to the Darwin diocese (it actually is in the Port Pirie diocese), they failed to grasp that this sacred place was no longer under ‘whiteman’s’ control.

Pope John Paul II Alice Springs 1986

A little over a year later, November 1986, Pope John Paul II came to Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs. The Uluru idea had not born fruit and Alice offered a better alternative. A winding track was carefully designed in the park to allow visitors from various parts of Australia to have their own designated space and meet the Pope. However, in their intense preparations, the local organising committee, led by a formidable parish priest, forgot one critical thing. There was no allowance for the Pope to first meet the elders of the Arrernte people, the local traditional people. They had been forgotten.

Eventually, the Pope did arrive and meet the Arrernte elders before moving along the designed track. But in both Uluru and Alice Springs key leadership within the Church at that time — clerical, episcopal and male — did not get it.

They might have come with good intentions but they also came with assumptions born of a colonial and Church history and where male clericalism did not know how to reflect on its own power and authority. It did not know how to listen. Or, as someone once commented: ‘we did not know what Aborigines [sic] thought about it all. We would never have dreamed of asking them’.

Plenary Council

I believe one of the tasks of this coming Plenary Council is to begin and open up a safe, listening space with First Nations peoples where, as a Church, we can hear what we ‘did get’, what we ‘failed to get’ and what calls us now to get down on our knees and say ‘sorry’! And then, when we stand up, to show that we are committed to a new path and ‘getting it’. Not by ourselves but in a new partnership and relationship.

The paper, Instrumentum Laboris, in preparation for the coming Plenary Council, attempts to offend no one, at least in the descriptor nouns it uses: it refers to First Nations (6 times), Indigenous (10), Aboriginal (7), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (10). And it mentions ‘dadirri’, one of the few acknowledgements that other Australians have anything they can learn from First Nations peoples.

However, I found myself quite disappointed by the lack of depth, awareness and any sense of the need for an apology in this paper. Much less an openness to any serious conversion that is needed within the Church.

One reference particularly concerned me: 'While dioceses and religious orders have done much to share faith, education and pastoral services with Indigenous communities, much suffering has been inflicted by the misguided attempts (my emphasis) of those who were ignorant of this cultural richness.' (40)

If we think that our failures were no more than ‘misguided attempts’, we clearly show we have not learned from or accepted our history of ignorance, paternalism and, at times, racism. We have failed to see that, while we might ‘have done much’, there are many times when we failed and offended, mistreated, controlled and patronised. Too often, myself included, we have stood as bystanders and allowed terrible things to happen. In our efforts to do good we have failed to listen to our fears, our uncertainties, ignorance and vulnerabilities. Without a treaty or any formal agreement we have tried but floundered as we sought to know what best to do.

Greg O’Kelly SJ in writing about the Jesuit mission in the Northern Territory (1882- 1899) described the Jesuits in the Territory at that time who ‘spoke often of “dark deeds, that are never allowed to see the light of day” and “would to God that these (killings) were matters of past history!”’ (A History of the Jesuit Mission Stations in the Northern Territory 1882-1899, 1986, 9). This past, in many ways, still remains with us. It can lead to denial or guilt about our colonial past. But neither denial or guilt will ever free or liberate us. Only conversion will.

The attitudes that many Australians have held, and some continue to hold, towards First Nations people, have consistently failed to recognise them as fully human, much less as our teachers, friends or close companions. The Catholic Church, as did all the Christian Churches, went along with government policies as the various Churches competed with one another for the right to evangelise particular groups. The growing Irish Catholic communities of the south-east Australia, showed little interest in outreach to First Nations peoples. That was left to others, mainly European missionaries.

As the colonisation of this country spread over the whole land, white Australians only allowed First Nations peoples to live on that land that white Australians did not want (but sometimes, later, found it did want and then took). The best and most fertile land we have kept for ourselves. All Christian Churches have benefited from the dispossession of First Nations peoples. This is a legacy that we have yet to publicly acknowledge.

Our Catholic history

Not that all our past Catholic history is one of sin and shame. There are many examples of long standing, mutual and trusting relationships within our Church context. Many priests, religious and lay have given their lives in service and friendship. There are many examples of deep grace: trust and affection, forged across that two-way cultural border crossing. They are stories to rejoice and celebrate. As a Church, we have been the source of blessing and been blessed in many ways.

One example is how religious women responded when leprosy emerged amongst Aboriginal people in north Australia in the twentieth century. There was a large scale panic to prevent infections moving south (think covid anxiety writ-large but focussed just on Aboriginal people). Police moved any infected people to local leprosariums and in some cases arrested Aboriginal people to achieve this goal. Three locations involved the Catholic Church: Bungarun near Derby in the Kimberley, Fantome Island in north Queensland and Channel Island in the Northern Territory. These leprosariums were cared by John of God, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart sisters, respectively. This is a chapter in our Australian Church story that is largely forgotten but not forgotten by those who suffered and were cared for during those times.

One person who contracted leprosy and died on Channel Island was the Tiwi woman Martina (a name ‘given her as her own was not easy to pronounce’). She was the first ‘wife’ bought as a young girl by Father F.X. Gsell, prior to his becoming the bishop in the Northern Territory. (See: The Bishop with 150 Wives, 1956). As Gsell tells the story, ‘my strange and paradoxical measure was adopted on the spur of the moment’ (91). It was a decision that was to radically change forever the marriage and social structure of the Tiwi.

As with the example of Martina, the power that male clergy and bishops, especially, have exercised in Catholic missions has been enormous and it lasted for decades. The priest’s role blended their own particular and personal missiology (sometimes quite idiosyncratic), along with partnership with government funding and policies (which kept changing) but one that often allowed the priest total control over a community and with extreme powers as ‘superintendent’ and ‘boss’. The Tiwi, women especially, might be grateful for this ‘on the spur of the moment’ intervention by Gsell. However, it is just one example of white, clerical power which allowed the Church to make significant decisions which had serious long term, intergenerational implications for First Nations people. One particular and significant decision was the attention given to First Nations children and their removal from their mothers and families.

The removal of children

Two key Australian anthropologists, Catherine and Ronald Berndt, performed their vast work across various missions in the immediate post-war period. They summarised two key ideas that had come into circulation from the early days of colonial contact: ‘you can’t do much wth the adults, you just have to concentrate on the children’, and, ‘the only way to do anything with the children is to get them away from the adults’.

In order to implement these ideas, most of the missions, not just Catholic, in north Australia in the early twentieth century had dormitories where children were placed after being removed from their families. The last ones closed in the 1970s. There were government dormitories as well, such as on the prison settlement of Palm Island.

In many ways these dormitories exhibited similar characteristics to the Indian Residential Schools in Canada, two-thirds of which were run by the Catholic Church. Between 2008 and 2015 Canada held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the impact of these dormitories on their First Nations people. And, in 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada accepted the final report of that commission, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.

This commision sought to examine the long term effects of these dormitories and what might a national commitment to reconciliation look like. The final report distinguished physical genocide, biological genocide and culture genocide and concluded, ‘In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things’.

While it would be far too simplistic to equate the long-term health and assimilation effects of both dormitory systems as similar, the long-term effect of dormitories on First Nations people in Australia has never been fully explored. Senator Herron, in responding to the Bringing Them Home Report, which focussed on those children who were separated from their families (the Stolen Generations), submitted to a government senate committee that those who were placed in dormitory accommodation ‘were not distanced from their families and grew up in knowledge of their backgrounds’ (2000).

Many First Nations people would seriously disagree. A Catholic church leader who grew up in a mission dormitory described her experience: ‘Aboriginal children were separated from their parents. We were taught the strict way. Stopped our culture [and] language from being taught ... it was long and sad life for us, missing out on our family’s life. Sometimes we had good times. But it was too much. At night I cried and made myself tired and went to bed. That’s why some people are sick. We miss out on family, teaching, hunting, singing and dancing’. She wrote this in 2008.

The Church’s denial

On National Sorry Day, 1988, the Australian Catholic Bishops sought forgiveness from the Stolen Generations ‘for any part the Church may have played in causing [them] harm and suffering... despite the best of intentions, reflected the prevailing attitudes of the era...’ There was no mention of its mission dormitories.

This ‘blight’ on our nation is part of a much larger ‘original sin’ where colonisation began without treaties and was maintained by many forms of violence, ignored by bystanders and supported by institutions, including the Church, that separated children from their families and their cultural heritage.

As a Church we have yet to apologise and show that we have got it!

What does Ignatian Spirituality offer us?

Our Ignatian tradition draws us back in the Spiritual Exercises to the First Principle and Foundation. We are reminded that ‘human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord...’ and that all creation is gift. We pray in that First Week of the Exercises for grace to receive an inner freedom that allows conversion to be revealed and then generously accepted. But how do we listen to the presence of the Holy Spirit in this ancient land and over many millenia and what sort of conversion is it asking of all who now live here and who are not First Nations people?

When Pope John Paul II spoke to First Nations people gathered in Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs in November 1986 he presented a grace we might seek: ‘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.’ (2,6,12).

Ten years later, National Sorry Day, May 26 but, again, only in reference to the Stolen Generations: ‘We sincerely regret that some of the church's child welfare services... assisted governments implement assimilationist policies and practices... the stolen generation of Australians is indeed the forgotten generation... the abhorrent practice of removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families will remain forever a blight on our nation.’

The grace is for First Nations peoples to make their distinctive contribution, not one other Australians might want or ones First Nations people might imagine the dominant culture might want. And, then, for that contribution to be joyfully received ‘by others’. By ‘others’ I believe the Pope was clearly referring, at least at first hand, to ourselves, members of the Australian Catholic Church.

What is this gift and contribution?

Personally, I can think of many gifts First Nations people have given me and others. I can see it in their expressions of language, song and dance. Their rituals and ceremonies. Of what they bring to our sporting and cultural arenas. Their humour, affection and friendship. And, above all, how they see the gift of creation.

First Nations peoples reveal that life, from beginning to end, is bound in ‘relationship’. It is key to living in and with all of creation — human, earth, sky and sea. People are born into this relationship from the first moment of their conception and life is then woven into a ‘past that is beyond the past’, the ancestral tjukurrpa (or using similar words or that rather poor English translation, ‘the dreaming’). Relationships are deeply linked to land and language. They constantly evolve and deepen as they link people across generations and within them. And it is why every part of this continent holds something special as different languages emerged, intimately linked to distinct and different geographies of space and place. The vast songlines that spread across this land united groups but they also respected borders and differences.

In this cultural and sacred context, one cannot be born but in relationship. And that is why many Aboriginal communities invite other Australians into their world of kinship (one, unfortunately, many of us deny, resist or avoid). This encompassing space of kinship moves in a horizontal direction, including everyone in family generations but designating special roles of leadership to elders and those who have particular gifts recognised by their communities, such as their healers. There is a designated place for hierarchy but only at service of the community and to protect those sacred values that need to be understood, respected and celebrated.

Baptism as Christian kinship

When Pope Francis presented his vision of a synodal Church, one based on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, he faced and continues to face, much resistance. It is not that synodality removes hierarchy but situates it as rising from below, in service of the whole baptised community. What synodality emphasises is that all Christians share the gift of Baptism and its initiation into the fullness of Christian life. Baptism is the beginning of our Christian kinship.

It is out of that baptismal kinship that various ministries flow in the Church to nurture the whole Christian Body. When Pope Francis offered the image of an inverted pyramid, he was not seeking to remove the importance of authority but locate it within a koinonia that lived and experienced being a community of faith.

And this is, perhaps, a significant grace Pope John Paul II was revealing to the Australian Church. A grace being offered when we listen to First Nations people and let them share with us what millenia of kinship can reveal about living our Baptism, our living of synodality and as Australians.

This may not be as challenging as it seems. When we Australians tap into our early colonial roots we take pride in the spirit of the Aussie battler, the importance of mateship, the resistance to authority and a willingness to express an egalitarian and generous spirit that so clearly emerges when disasters strike. We are a country that responds and shares whether in times of flood, fire or COVID-19. It is quite possible that First Nations peoples, despite the mixed blessings of our colonial history, have already influenced us to live in that more synodal, Christian way.

Some years ago I was walking in the city of Melbourne when I noticed a group of First Nations people. As I got close to them I heard them speaking Tiwi. I don’t claim to know much Tiwi but I could recognise it. I introduced myself and, to my joy, found I knew one of them, the son of an old friend from the Eucharistic Congress of 1973.

We recently celebrated the feast of Pentecost. A time when the early Christian community became a community of, and for, the world. At that moment, people of different cultures heard the Holy Spirit talking in their own languages. And for me, in that brief moment on the streets of Melbourne, I heard something rise deep within me, a consoling grace, as I recognised the sounds of this ancient language.

My genetic DNA is nearly 100 per cent Celtic and yet my soul seeks to belong ever more deeply to the mystery of God’s creation in this Great Southern Land. ‘What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’, asked the lawyer Richard Windeyer in 1842. A question repeated by the historian Henry Reynolds some 170 years later.

Perhaps, in the light of the Uluru Statement, this question is no longer a ‘whispering’ but a louder, more confident and insistent voice. And, in listening to this voice, not only might we become a better and more reconciled nation but also more of that joyful and synodal Australian Catholic Church that Jesus calls us to be.

Fortunately, not everything can be faced and answered at this coming Plenary Council. Deeper conversion takes time. But it is possible the members of the Plenary could begin to hear a deeper voice speaking in their hearts. There may arise a new courage to start a process of truth and reconciliation, reporting the process of this journey to the second Plenary Council planned for Sydney, July 2022. We can only begin that journey if members of the Plenary Council come and are open to listening to that deep inner voice. Can we, as the Australian Catholic Church, now begin to get it?



Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy SJ is the former Provincial Superior for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus. He holds Honorary Senior Researcher positions at The University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, James Cook University (Townsville) and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research (Perth).

Topic tags: Fr Brian McCoy SJ, NAIDOC Week, Plenary Council, Pope John Paul II, Stolen Generations, missions, Arrernte



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Existing comments

Someone once said to me that if one is 'inside' a culture one is never really aware of it, if one is 'outside' a culture one never really understands it. If one wants to understand a culture it's a matter of listening for what is being said rather than hearing what is being heard. It's not easy, but it's the the prerequisite for empathy and a relationship between equals.

Ginger Meggs | 07 July 2021  

This is a wonderful overview of the culture of our invading forbearers in my view. As I grew up and went to catholic schools I do not remember anything said about the aboriginal people of Australia, nothing. I think this essay could be promoted throughout the national catholic education system.

Kevin Vaughan | 09 July 2021  

'The growing Irish Catholic communities of the south-east Australia showed little interest in outreach to First Nations people.' If this were so of early Irish immigrants to these parts, it was in no small measure due to the exigencies of their own survival in a milieu of government-planned geographical isolation, Establishment suspicion, hostility and discrimination, manifest in systemic exclusion from employment, educational and health opportunities controlled by that same Establishment - all, it's worth noting, basic human rights. It is good to see, though, Fr Brian McCoy's acknowledgement that the Catholic Church's missionary endeavours among our "First nations peoples" were not an all-defining Catholic history of "sin and shame", and that there are, indeed, "stories to rejoice and celebrate." One of Fr Brian's earlier Xavier College alumni, the Pallottine Fr Anthony Peale, made ground-breaking contributions, recognised by Sydney University, to the translation of the Gugadja/Kukatja language into English from his priestly life among that north-west tribal people, the elders of which people in the early 1970-71 when I stayed with them in Balgo testified to the salutary roles played by the priests, brothers, nuns and lay associates of the Palottine and St John of God Orders ever since Pallottine missionaries first ventured from Broome via Hall's Creek, southwards, in the late 1930s to the edge of the Tanami Desert and "made camp" with the local people, helping them resist the predatory incursions of "bad fellas" from white society on the run from the law, providing medical assistance, basic schooling, and training in the skills required to run their own horse and cattle industry. I witnessed, too, in 1971, a mission "superintendent", Fr Ray Hevern, intervene decisively in an internal tribal war where spears, boomerangs and other deadly missiles were flying thick and fast. I experienced respect and gratitude on the part of the children and the elders towards the priests, brothers and nuns - quite a different experience from the dominant accounts of '70s journalists, local Black Panther activists, and some government officials - narratives largely instrumental in creating a new mythology and political 'orthodoxy' of overall white missionary "paternalism" and "oppression".

John RD | 16 July 2021