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Altyerre-Catholicism's sacred dancing ground

  • 03 December 2019


How did the form of Catholicism adopted by the Mparntwe Arrernte people of Alice Springs Australia become what it is today? Catholicism was introduced by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) from 1935, but the image of modern Catholicism practised by Mparntwe Arrernte Catholics varies in significant ways from what they were taught in the mission.

The meeting at Manaus of the Amazon River with its main tributary the Rio Negro, named because of its distinctively black water, presents a metaphor for the relationship between the two imaginaries Altyerre and the Cosmic Christ. When the rivers meet, they do not mix, but run parallel for six kilometres, maintaining their own character, because they move at different speeds, with different temperatures and different water density. Eventually they coalesce, mingling the life inherent in each, forming the Amazon, which supports more abundant life in its flood plain before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. They can do this because they are both constituted of water, a fundamental requirement for life on our planet.

This image conjures the coalescence of the ancient Arrernte imaginary called Altyerre and the Judaeo-Christian imaginary inculcated by the missionaries. Each is constituted of a network of beliefs and practices, or imaginary, and at first sight the two imaginaries are quite distinct and cannot mingle. Yet they have come together. Each imaginary, I would argue, enhances the other.

Eaerlier this year, some members of the Catholic Church at the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon in Rome threw an Amazonian indigenous icon of a pregnant indigenous woman and other icons into the Tiber River. They severely criticised the Pope and his supporters for condoning the inclusion of pagan images within the Church, and issued a public statement: 'It is our duty to follow the words of God like our holy Mother did. There is no second way of salvation. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. (Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ governs all.)'

My image of the combining of the Rio Negro and the Amazon would clearly not be accepted by these extremist Catholics. But Pope Francis is right to honour the prior religious practises of the Amazonians, just as the Bishop of Darwin is supportive of a process that since 1935 in Central Australia has seen the development of Altyerre-Catholicism. Amazingly, almost on the same day the Amazonian Madonna was being thrown