Pope invokes 'spirituality of the land'


Spirit of AustraliaThe following is an edited extract from an article that appeared in Eureka Street, April 1995, following Pope John Paul II's visit to Australia in January 1995.

In January I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Papal Mass at Sydney's Randwick racecourse was the most significant religious event in this country in the past 200 years. It owed this significance to the inclusion of the Aboriginal smoking ceremony in the liturgy. This introduced a distinctive Australian spirituality in which reflection on the physical environment could lead Australians to a deeper understanding of who they are and what it means to live a moral life.

Brought together here were the barest threads of a spirituality in which the physical environment becomes available to Australians not merely to adorn their religious ceremonies, but to instruct their religious life. What I had in mind was that the bare threads of this spirituality needed to be woven together into a well-tailored garment through further theological reflection.

A spirituality of the land must be infused with a certain potency if it is to catch on and make a difference in the way people think and live. That means relating it much more clearly and closely to the everyday experience of ordinary Australians.

An obvious starting point for theologians and others who are interested is traditional Aboriginal spirituality. Given the realisation by anthropologists and comparative religionists of file sophistication of Aboriginal religious systems, and the antiquity of the Aboriginal experience of and attachment to this land, it would be unusual if traditional Aboriginal spirituality did not have something to offer the rest of us.

In fact, as Eugene Stockton's book The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality for a Nation demonstrates, it has a good deal to offer. And given the Second Vatican Council's acknowledgement that the Catholic Church (indeed, Christianity generally) doesn't have all the answers, there is no reason to balk at examining what's on offer.

Stockton, an archaeologist and Catholic priest, has a timely caution, however, for the over-eager: 'Aboriginal influence on Australian spirituality (is) a challenge to look again, and more deeply, at our traditions, to re-emphasise elements in that tradition that are in tune with our time and place'.

The last thing non-Aborigines should entertain is the delusion that Aboriginal spirituality can mean the same thing to all people; the last thing that Aborigines need is another appropriation by members of the dominant culture of what is distinctively theirs.

For the rest of us, ecological imperatives are likely to be just as important as any new interest in Aboriginal culture in inducing a sense of wonder at our surroundings.

That presents both opportunities and problems. A prerequisite for the exploitation of the natural environment by Western societies has been its 'disenchantment', in the name of rationality and the cause of production.

The new interest in conservation and sustainable development, especially among the young, should make people receptive to a spirituality of the land, especially one that takes their immediate concerns seriously but also develops them into a more comprehensive and ultimately satisfying transcendent self-knowledge.

On the other hand, however, the mainstream churches have been slow to respond to a growing environmental movement and many people (again, especially young people) have adopted 'green' political activism as a pseudo-religion.

Winning them back, if that be the exercise, will take imagination and courage. Simply issuing statements is no substitute for taking the church and its resources into the places where the environmental debate is being waged, thus making both an environmental ethic and a spirituality of the land acutely present in the lives of ordinary people.

That's one ingredient of the potency referred to above. The other is relevance.

Non-Aborigines came very slowly to an appreciation of the beauty of this land, and slower and more hesitantly still to a feeling of belonging to it. Romanticised images of Australia, however, won't hold them to it in any meaningful way.

The 'bush' and 'the outback' have only limited meaning to most Australians today, who are coastal dwellers and cosmopolitans. And talk of the 'Red Centre' as some sort of silent, knowing presence at the heart of our consciousness is nothing more than 'white fella's dreaming'.

Just look at the way most non-Aboriginal Australians relate, for instance, to Uluru; they climb to the top to assert their dominance over nature. So much for a change of attitude expressed in a change of name. Moreover, they do this on what are, essentially, exotic holidays from 'home'. They are visitors to the centre, not people journeying to the core, the mother-lode of their psyches.

Most of us, in our less sentimental moments, see ourselves more as a sunburnt people than as people of a sunburnt country. A spirituality of the land must be a spirituality of the entire physical environment as people experience it and confront its challenges.

That may be less idyllic but it will also be more real and hence more powerful. Soil and smoke and references to Isaiah are the beginnings of a profound rethink of who we are and what we are called to be.

But this spirituality won't be complete, and won't he something most of us can relate to, until we can see something of God not just in the wilderness but in the breakers off Bondi, bushfires in the Dandenongs, and, yes, a sweltering suburban summer's day.

Chris McGillionChris McGillion is the course coordinator for undergraduate journalism and a senior lecturer in print journalism at Charles Sturt University. He is a former senior journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald and remains a religious affairs commentator for that paper.


Topic tags: Chris McGillion, papal mass, randwick racecourse, sydney 1995, aboriginal smoking ceremony



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Existing comments

Christianity is a religion of a western culture. Catholocism has twisted it a bit. But concentrate on improving our western theology rather than get involved in the beliefs of another culture. In 2000, the Black Catholic AB of Pretoria allowed chickens and goats to be slaughtered outside the church while the Sacrifice of the Mass was going on.
philip herringer | 16 July 2008

I have absolutely no wish to challenge it - but has someone checked on the authenticity of the aboriginal "smoking ceremony"? So much of it - fancy dress, fancy body paint - smacks so much of the tourist-trade ceremonies I have witnessed in other indigenous cultures. I hope it is real. But is it?
John R. Sabine | 16 July 2008

There is middle ground to be found. We need to be open to new ideas and feelings but very conscious that discernment is needed.

When I visited Uluru I walked around the rock out of respect for wishes of those who hold it sacred, something I expect of anyone visiting my Church. At one point there were a few moments of strong feelings of the Holy Spirit's presence before another group of tourists distracted me. The Spirit moves wherever it is welcomed.
Margaret McDonald | 16 July 2008


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