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Fertilising the grass roots


The trends in polls and the more general despondency in the public mood suggest that support for the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament is struggling. Many people, of both Indigenous and Settler origin, see it as a deal between Indigenous leaders and the Labor Government, and not as a proposal that that they have helped to shape. If it is framed in that way the pain and resentment that flow in hard economic times will naturally lead many people instinctively to vote against the Government on any issue.

In that situation those who support the passing of the Referendum must emphasise the mission of reconciliation that lies behind it and build the support of local communities for it. This is a large task, but one in which they might find unexpected encouragement in an organisation facing a similar challenge. In Pope Francis’ reading the mission of the Catholic Church is to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to the world. The proclamation is only secondarily in words. It comes principally through the life and the relationships of those within the Church who engage with the public world.

Pope Francis has spoken consistently and forcefully about the institutional obstacles to that mission. They lie in the self-referential and defensive focus on the Church itself, with its hierarchies, teaching, practices and its internal relationships. The Church is imagined as a safe place, a fortress, that offers protection from a hostile world. Catholics must put on their armour before going through the portcullis and across the moat to engage with the world. The internal relationships of the church are seen as a command and control structure to protect the church.

Pope Francis’ response is summed up in his image of the mission of the Church as a hospital station on a battlefield. It is about going out to tend to people in need where they are. He has spelled out the model of Church relationships that serve this mission in the Synodal process, explained and developed with admirable clarity in the recent Working Document for the Synod on Synodality.

The process by which churches throughout the world have engaged in the Synod both commends the institutional relationships that will encourage the mission of the Church and also embodies them. In place of the command-and-control model of church that asks who controls, the Synod offers a participatory model with differentiated responsibilities. It asks how we can share responsibility for preaching the Good News.

The process of the Synod is relatively clear. It is from the bottom up.  It began with meetings of people in parishes and Catholic organisations asking questions about the blessings and needs in the Catholic life. The reports of these meetings were gathered and reflected on by the local Bishops who gathered in their national Conferences to reflect on them and to send their reflections to the Synodal office in Rome. The Working Document synthesises the matters raised by all these meetings in the form of questions for the coming Synod to reflect on and draw conclusions from. These will then be fed back to the local churches for further reflection.

The Working Document spells out clearly the goals of the Synod and its process. It is admirably open-ended, written clearly and inviting in its language and in the range of questions raised in the submissions. They include the questions of inclusion and of governance which are much debated.


'This process forms a lens through which to reflect on the public discussion of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Pope Francis’ strategy assumes that in order to engage in your mission that requires public involvement you need to animate and strengthen local groups.' 


The remit of the Document is not to persuade but to report and to give options for the participants in the Synod to take up. It breaks down the task facing the Synod into interlocking challenges named as communion, mission and participation. The first of these is to enliven the Church as a communion of believers who make the Good News visible through their lives and relationships. The second is to ensure that relationships within the Church flow into the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News to the world outside it. They must be oriented to that world. The third challenge will be to make the changes required for the whole Church to be a communion engaged in mission. The first session of the Synod will deal mainly with questions about communion and mission. The second session of the Synod, a year later, will seek to embody in the life of the Church the directions taken in the first session and in local responses to it. 

The process of the Synod emphasises the bottom-up vision of the Church as an Episcopal Church where wisdom arising out of preaching the Good News to the world is found in local congregations served by their clergy, and is shared at the wider city, nation and international level to help deepen the local response. The Synod, however, is not simply a new structure. It also embodies a distinctive form of engagement. All of the meetings, from parish to universal level, are built around prayer, reflection and building trust among the participants. They emphasise listening to each participant rather than defending set positions. They also aim at discernment; the weighing of issues that leads to decisions when the time is ready rather than immediate decision making. In that respect they differ from the more agonistic parliamentary processes based on debate and majority vote.

This process forms a lens through which to reflect on the public discussion of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Pope Francis’ strategy assumes that in order to engage in your mission that requires public involvement you need to animate and strengthen local groups. That is difficult for political parties that are numerically small and unrepresentative. It is doubly difficult if their economic and legal settings when in government favour large corporations over small businesses and favour the suppression of protest and of the exposure of corporate and governmental wrongdoing. Command and control become the preferred way of proceeding.

In this context such initiatives as Synodality designed to espouse an ethically consistent message and to commend it through building local communities have much to commend them. They echo the process, based on consensus and not on division, associated with the Uluru Statement. Like any process it will be imperfect in practice. But it will appeal to our better instincts.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, The Voice, Referendum, Synod, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

I would be surprised if the Yes case succeeds at the forthcoming referendum. To be blunt, many Australians of all colours, despite the daily bombardment of propaganda and the number of businesses and sporting organizations supporting the Yes vote, feel they are being sold a pig in a poke. Branding them as 'racists' is both false and counterproductive. The emergence of characters like Thomas Mayo will scare many people. What has happened in countries such as Canada and New Zealand needs to be considered. The results there are mixed. I do not wish to see Australia further divided on racial lines. If the current Voice proposal succeeds, I fear that will happen.

Edward Fido | 03 July 2023  

If the Voice spurs more effective (and efficient) policymaking for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the foundational areas of education, employment and health, areas in the base of the Maslow pyramid upon which psychological and sociological betterment depend, will there be a "trickle down"/"trickle sideways" benefit to policymaking for other disadvantaged groups? Won't the better systems discovered for the indigenous be copied across to programs which service other disadvantaged cohorts?

The cohorts within a policy field are similar. They want similar things. Advocates for one group keep an eye on what other cohorts are getting. Improvements observed in how one cohort is served will be demanded for others.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Reciprocity? What prospers the main prospers the man? What prospers the man prospers the main?

I used to watch the X-Files. It had clever lines. "This is the essence of science. You ask an impertinent question and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." Granted, the Voice is a democratic impertinence, labelling Indigenes permanently as especial. But, like re-using space technology in consumables, there might be benefits to non-indigenes.

s martin | 08 July 2023  

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