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Embracing First Nations voices in the Church



Pope Francis’ 'Querida Amazonia' (Beloved Amazonia) has been warmly received by many members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic community. The tone of the exhortation is reflective of the position that underpins our vision for the Church in Australia — a Church that is open to the gifts of First Nations Catholics, honest to the past and embracing of a new way of thinking that utilizes the principle of subsidiarity.

Aboriginal girl holds up a prayer candle in vigil (Getty Images/Luis Ascui)

It will take some time to digest and fully understand the implications of 'Beloved Amazonia', but the synod and accompanying document are all leading us to a pivotal time in the global Catholic Church and particularly the Australian Catholic Church. The Church in our Great Southern Land is currently undertaking a plenary process that carries the hopes and dreams of the 130,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics.

Many had expected 'Beloved Amazonia' to include a definitive statement on the issue of accepting married men into the priesthood to address the needs of remote Amazonian Indigenous communities, drawing obvious parallels to the needs of our communities in Australia. Instead the Pontiff espoused ‘a specific and courageous response is required of the Church’ to meet the needs of Catholics. Some have seen this statement as an attempt to obviate further difficult discussions, however, those of us involved in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) feel it is reflective of the need to take a wider perspective and consider options and avenues that have not yet been fully explored.

As an aside, a point that is often lost in these discussions is to acknowledge the commitment and dedication of the priests and religious that are currently working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban, regional and remote settings. Everyday these priests work tirelessly in communities with very little respite. They are owed a debt of gratitude.

Undoubtably, having Aboriginal clergy would embody Catholic Social Teaching’s Principle of Subsidiarity, a teaching that NATSICC and the Catholic Church subscribes to and strives to bring to life. Subsidiarity advocates that those closest to the community and the issues faced should be empowered to make decisions and become leaders. In doing so we embrace the value and the transcendent worth that comes from God in each and every individual. But it cannot be seen as the only way to empower our people.

This single course of action alone ignores and minimises the important roles of women in our communities, families and Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Ministries (AICMs) in Australia. Just as cultural responsibilities may deter some Aboriginal men from becoming priests in some communities (but not all), we are culturally and morally bound to respect and revere our matriarchs. Additionally, Aboriginal deacons have long been revered and integral to Aboriginal Catholic Communities alongside our young people that culturally become leaders within families. The empowerment of women and youth is a ‘courageous response’ to subsidiarity.


'It is this concept that we need to nurture in ‘a specific and courageous’ way — the concept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the capacity to lead and possess gifts of faith, perseverance and culture that will enhance and strengthen an authentic Australian Catholic church.'


While we encourage and would welcome Aboriginal priests, the ordination of married Aboriginal men alone will not make the ‘Church fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be’, as per St. John Paul II’s address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 1986.

Standing alongside thousands of others in Blatherskite Park in 1986, I witnessed and absorbed the then Pope’s words and was filled with hope and joy for a united future. We waited upon his every word that day and the bus back to Adelaide was filled to the brim with discussions of the possibilities that lay before us. As we barreled through the desolate bush back home, we concocted plans for what was to become the new home of First Nations Catholics in South Australia — the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Adelaide. We didn’t need a roadmap or strategic plan laid before us, all we needed was hope and a sense that our culture and point of view was valued and respected.

A living example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in communities was recently shared at the Catholic Youth Gathering. The parish priest of a remote Aboriginal community was trying, unsuccessfully, to get young people to attend Mass. Many initiatives were attempted, resulting in only one young Aboriginal leader accepting the invitation and becoming a Mass regular. He began ‘dressing up’ for Mass and changing his route to the Church so that he would walk past his mates on the way. One by one, and week by week, a new ‘pilgrim’ would join the procession to Mass. Witnessing a peer, friend and respected member of the community showing leadership through action planted a seed of hope in the community. It is this concept that we need to nurture in ‘a specific and courageous’ way — the concept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the capacity to lead and possess gifts of faith, perseverance and culture that will enhance and strengthen an authentic Australian Catholic church.

We need to see all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as leaders and role models in our Church. We need to look beyond the obvious because, as Pope Francis writes ‘the real response to the challenges of evangelization lies in transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined.’ There is not simply ‘Aboriginal way’ and ‘Catholic way’, there is something in between where each strengthens and lifts the other. This is the Church that we imagine.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference support of NATSICC is emblematic of that concept. We are working together to strengthen the roles of women in leadership, support our young people in their struggles of faith and survival and include First Nations people in decision making. Collectively, one of our greatest challenges is to inform and educate the mainstream church of our gifts and our readiness to share those gifts.

The discussions following 'Beloved Amazonia' should focus on ‘specific and courageous’ ways that Australia can be home to a more authentic Australian church, augmented and enriched by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The 2020 Plenary is an opportunity to discuss and explore the opportunities that we have as a nation to embrace all voices within the Church.

All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in Australia are echoing Pope Francis and asking all Catholics to be courageous, be governed by the Holy Spirit and be present to support us on our journey with the Australian Catholic church.



John LochowiakJohn is a Wadi (initiated Man) who has strong ties to many language groups throughout Australia including but not limited to Pitjantjatjara, Kaurna, Ramindjeri and Arerrnte. He is currently head of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) in Adelaide, and Chairperson of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council. John will be presenting in the 'Towards Treaties' workshop at the Catholic Social Services Conference, 26-28 February 2020 in Melbourne. 

Main image: Aboriginal girl holds up a prayer candle in vigil (Getty Images/Luis Ascui) 

Topic tags: John Lochowiak, Querida Amazonia, Plenary 2020, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

The story from the Catholic Youth Gathering reveals how one young person can lead other young people into the church. By setting a courageous example in dressing up for Mass and walking past his peers, the young leader's conviction and faith were an inspiration to them. The gifts Indigenous peoples bring to the Catholic church are a reminder and example to the wider community that we are one people walking together.

Pam | 24 February 2020  

The two Testaments each being divinely inspired, the nuance is that in their encounter in the faith life of a Christian, the New is contained in the Old and the Old is fulfilled in the New. This equality is not present in the encounter of the Word, which is a culture fully inspired by the divine, with a human culture which, at best, is one only partially inspired by the divine, but the goal of the encounter is to unearth the same nuance: that the Word is contained in the best of that human culture and the best of that culture is fulfilled in the Word. In the distinction between doctrine and discipline, while a subsidiarity may exist in some circumstances to change discipline, there can never be a subsidiarity in any circumstance to change doctrine because the purpose of subsidiarity is to spread democratically the privilege of looking for fragments of the unchanging Word in a partially inspired culture. Why more Aborigine priests? Perhaps because an imported Indian priest may not know where in Aboriginal culture to find those fragments of the Word for his sermons (although he probably suits a white congregation better than many Catholic Left insist).

roy chen yee | 24 February 2020  

John Lochowiak's affirmation of the centrality of the Eucharist to the process of reconciliation is a message for all Catholics in this time of renewal: it fittingly places Christ at the heart of all our relationships and endeavours.

John RD | 25 February 2020  

Subsidiarity is a minimalist delegation of control provided of course that: No one raises the principle of absolute equality of women enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Australia is a signatory.Legally, morally and in terms of religion, there is no valid reason why women, indigenous or otherwise, canot be priests. (lucky Im not a Bishop or I'd be defrocked like Bill Morris). No one complains about the ordination of married men, yet a few years ago in Brisbane a married Anglican vicar was ordained as a Catholic priest as was a married Greek Orthodox priest. Further examples of the hypocrisy of Catholicism. Of course Married Aboriginal men should be able to be ordained. The church is so beset with rank and status that they cant see the wood for the trees. Why should an Anglican vicar or a Greek orthodox minister have any more right to ordination than a Aboriginal man 0r woman for that matter. Discrimation on the grounds of sex has been outlawed in the UDOHR. Now heres a question, if they ordain married anglican vicars and we have an anglican woman priest applying for Catholic ordination, they could not refuse to ordain her.

francis Armstrong | 25 February 2020  

Thank you for your clear and insightful article on where Aboriginal Catholics are at the moment, John. I remember, when I came out to Australia with my parents in the late 1950s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people were not often seen in the part of Melbourne where I lived. Where were they? In all sorts of places, both urban and rural, mainly under our radar. Since then they have had a renaissance, which is a thoroughly good thing, both for them and the country. I cannot see any civilisation which has grown and flourished without a spiritual basis. Religion was at the core of the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India, Babylon and all the others. It is very difficult, I think, to have spirituality without some sort of religious basis. The Catholic Church is one of the major repositories of genuine religion in Australia and thus provides the basis for many people's spirituality. It is an awesome responsibility that it has been entrusted with. I hope, in regard to both yourselves and the whole multi-faceted Catholic community in this country, that the bishops live up to their God given responsibility. It would be a great pity if they didn't truly support ATSI spirituality in the way they should. This is a great boon for the country.

Edward Fido | 25 February 2020  

Thank you John for your inspiring article. I wholeheartedly endorse your recommendation: "The discussions following 'Beloved Amazonia' should focus on ‘specific and courageous’ ways that Australia can be home to a more authentic Australian church, augmented and enriched by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The 2020 Plenary is an opportunity to discuss and explore the opportunities that we have as a nation to embrace all voices within the Church." I truly believe the spirituality of the aboriginal people can be embraced to help us grow into a more authentic Australian Church where we live in communion with the earth and creation as we unfold in God.

Terry Cobby | 25 February 2020  

Thank you for the encouragement to take a wider perspective. Perhaps new charisms, roles and structures are waiting to be born?

Sandie Cornish | 25 February 2020  

Not only is "The 2020 Plenary is an opportunity to discuss and explore the opportunities that we have as a nation to embrace all voices within the Church"(T.C) but another opportunity may be the next Synod after Amazonia which will include South East Asia and the Pacific.

Kay McPadden | 26 February 2020  

It seems to me that Francis Armstrong, in advocating the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, confuses "equality" with homogeneity. The Church, on grounds of reason and scripture, recognizes the difference between male and female, and different roles based on the person and practice of Christ in the formation of his faith community - a theological basis for the Catholic Church's traditional practice. The notion of difference negating equality exists only in the view of those who expect that the Church merely mimic secular ideology and convention - a mindset and practice eschewed most recently by Pope Francis, consistent with his predecessors, in his apostolic exhortation "Querida Amazonia".

John RD | 27 February 2020  

Suggest it would be helpful to refer to "First Peoples" and not to "First Nations", removing an unnecessary obstacle for some such as myself, and really not correct even for the more "advanced" indigenous peoples of North America. They have not in any normal sense of the word been "nations".

John Bunyan | 28 February 2020  

John thank you - your article has added insight and hope to my personal think-tank on these wondrous matters.

Helen McDermott | 29 February 2020  

John RD that's a viewpoint repeatedly trotted out by the upholders of the status quo. If Francis in his quaint "Querida Amazonia" maintains the same position then he should wake up and smell the roses rather than inhale the incense from St Peter's thurible. There is a time for change in the church and that time is now. Continuing to march down the aisle in medieval costumes whilst the sexual abuse victims (boys and girls) are chained up in the orphanages and boarding schools has to stop. Treating women as second class citizens and trotting out trite phrazes like "well Christ cant bear a child thats a woman's job" has to stop. Physical differences are immaterial. As for mimicking secular ideology, next you'll be saying canon law, the great Harry Potter cloak of invisibility, is superior to national law. If Francis cant get his head around that then he should resign like his predecessor.

francis Armstrong | 02 March 2020  

Am I the only one who senses condescension expressed by in a number of responses to this article? Roy describes Indigenous culture as 'partially' inspired (as if Christendom was different), Edward speaks of coming 'out' to this country (placing it and all its people - indigenous and otherwise - on the periphery) , John RD refers to Francis seeking to 'merely mimic' secular ideology (thereby belittling those of her persuasion), and John (Bunyan) quibbles over the meaning of the word 'nation' (a more polite way of differentiating 'civilised' settlers from 'uncivilised' peoples). Aren't these an example of what Matthew 7:3 was driving at ? Is it any wonder that we have difficulty coming to terms with the facts and ongoing implications of the non-indigenous presence in this land?

Ginger Meggs | 02 March 2020  

Francis Armstrong: If by "status quo" you mean teachings and structures characteritic of the Catholic Church's Apostolic tradition, I must plead guilty. I do not, however, condone egregious aberrations that distort this source which is more than simply a political or sociological construction.

John RD | 03 March 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “Matthew 7:3” can also be applied to sensing condescension in the eye of another because of misapprehension in one’s own. ‘Christendom’ isn’t the faith of Christianity any more than the working conditions of Bangladeshi and Pakistani labourers in Qatar is the faith of the brotherhood of Islam.

roy chen yee | 03 March 2020  

Ginger Meggs: “Edward speaks of coming 'out' to this country (placing it and all its people - indigenous and otherwise - on the periphery)….” I suppose Edward should have spoken about descending to the shades as all the great civilising influences of recorded history started above the antipodes, unless, of course, by the usual compassion-by-compulsion diktat of political correctness, the Solar System is cartographically reoriented to the vertical so only Uranus becomes north/south.

roy chen yee | 03 March 2020  

Ginger: Acceptance of the identity of Christ as divine and human - and the authority this unique status carries - is a cornerstone tenet of Christian faith and an intrinsic part of proclaiming Christ's good news. As Aquinas puts it: "Truth himself speaks truly, or there's nothing true." Where, per se, is the hypocrisy contained in your reference to Matthew 7: 3 in doing as Christ himself commissioned his Church to do: Matthew 28:19?

John RD | 04 March 2020  

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