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Stradbroke Island homily

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Frank Brennan at Stradbroke IslandIt is such a delight to receive a winter invitation to Straddie. This sure beats the Canberra winter.

Last weekend, I was on another island — Christmas Island, the western most reach of Australian jurisdiction in the middle of the Indian Ocean. One of the local Christmas Islanders commented to me, 'Islands are very romantic places for a few days. But they can be very hard places to live on in the long term — not just because of the isolation, but also because everyone comes to know everyone else's business.'

No matter how enchanting any island may be, it can be shaped by the decisions of people on the mainland who sometimes want to export their problems. At the moment on Christmas Island, the local population is having to play host to hundreds of asylum seekers from places like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and to hundreds of short term workers from the mainland.

Before the mission was established here on Stradbroke Island, the local Aboriginal community of 200 persons was forced to host more than 1000 convicts from the mainland for eight years. The prison was run here from 1831–1839. I daresay not all the convicts and their warders were easy-going beachcombers.

Today, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, is your parish celebration of the sesquicentenary of Queensland, established as a separate colony from New South Wales in 1859. But years before that there were meetings between the local Aborigines and visiting Europeans on this island. We commenced this Eucharist with a blessing of the waters by Aboriginal elder Joan Hendriks and parish priest Frank O'Dea.

Many of you will have seen the plaque on the coastline up at Timbin-ba commemorating the first recorded meeting between Aborigines and whites on this island. Matthew Flinders was sailing past in 1803. He and his sailors were short of water. The Aboriginal traditional owners not only invited them ashore. They joyfully showed them where to find fresh water and farewelled them on their way.

Water has always been a sign of blessing on this island; it has long been the fluid of reconciliation. May today's water blessing sustain us all as we try to close the gap having said 'Sorry' and wondering how best to move forward, together.

Today we recall the arrival of the first missionaries here on the feast of Mary Help of Christians in 1843. Archbishop Bede Polding the English Benedictine had just returned from Rome where he convinced the Pope to establish the Australian hierarchy. He became the first Archbishop of Sydney.

In Rome he had also convinced the Passionist Order to provide four men who could establish the Church's first mission to Aborigines. He had his eye on the talented well connected Fr Raimondo Vaccari who was 40 years of age and was said to be one who 'enjoyed great fame as a preacher, and had many influential friends among the laity, the upper ranks of the clergy, and the cardinals at the Vatican'.

The Superior General was most unwilling to let this man go to the other end of the earth. But in the end, he surrendered to all those persons of influence. Vaccari was joined by Luigi Pesciaroli (aged 36), Maurizio Lencioni (28), and the French born Joseph Snell (40). They could speak on English but that did not matter; neither did the Aborigines.

When the missionaries arrived here on Stradbroke Island, Archbishop Polding was adamant that he had to keep control of the mission. Not surprisingly, the Italians thought it would make sense for them to buy supplies in Brisbane Town which had been established on the river found by John Oxley in 1823, Cook having missed it in 1770, thinking that Stradbroke and Moreton Islands were part of the mainland.

But Polding insisted that the missionaries order their supplies from Sydney every three weeks with him acting as their agent. Under canon law, Vaccari had been appointed prefect apostolic which meant he had the power to run the Aboriginal mission independent of Polding.

Polding would not hear of it. Just before their first Christmas here on Straddie, Vaccari wrote to Polding saying that his men were 'free from anxiety and full of hope for the conversion of these my aboriginals'. We can all be forgiven for thinking that the language sounds more than a little patronising these days.

The local people had obviously not lost their natural hospitality as displayed to Flinders 40 years before, despite the presence of so many convicts for so long. Vaccari reported to the Archbishop: 'They hold us in veneration and show us great affection, this being quite the reverse of their treatment of other Europeans, for, these, they say, do not act kindly towards them but betray them and deceive them, so that they have lost all confidence in them.'

There was a lot to say sorry for even back then, and even on this idyllic island.

You might wonder why Vaccari was so trusting of Polding at this time. Within a month of the Italian Passsionists commencing their difficult mission 1000 km from Sydney, the English Benedictine was writing to one of his own saying, 'I fear that our Italian friends will be but bunglers ... and I am determined to procure (for their mission), if I can, our own people.' He never did, and the mission lasted only four years.

While the others went on mission elsewhere in Australia, it was all too much for Vaccari. He ended up in Peru, escaping debts, working as a vegetable gardener until the Franciscans invited them to join them. His bold dreams in Rome had turned to sand here on Stradbroke Island and under the weight of Archbishop Polding's authority.

Disputes between priests and bishops are nothing new in the life of the Church. Somehow the Church keeps alive, given not only the best and selfless efforts of its clergy but also despite the bungling and bickering of same.

What's always important is our meeting respectfully and on the lookout for signs of grace — meeting here at the table of the Lord, and meeting each other as did Mary and Elizabeth in today's gospel, as did Flinders and the local people here in 1803, as did Vaccari, the missionaries and the 200 Aboriginal traditional owners of Straddie in 1843. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth could quite work out how God was acting in their lives.

Mary went to care for Elizabeth and the child in her womb leapt for joy. The missionaries and the unnamed traditional owners had no idea that 166 years later we would still be gathering to remember them.

I first came here to Stradbroke Island in 1982 to talk with some of the locals about housing and self-determination down there at the One Mile. I met Kath Walker, Oodjeroo Nunuccal, and she gave me the rounds of the One Mile. It was not the most comfortable of meetings.

But then at the end of the day she told me to turn around and lean over. She wanted to give me a copy of her poems. She placed the book on my back and inscribed it with an appreciation that I had come to meet with her mob. I should have been the one bearing gifts for her.

What a delight it is here today to have her grandson Che playing the didgeridoo and dancing us four priests to the altar — your local priests, me, and Fr Jim Elmer representing the Passionists of Australia.

Like the suffering servant in Isaiah, many of the local Aboriginal people here have continued to proclaim the Lord's year of favour in season and out of season, working as catechists and handing on the faith from generation to generation, regardless of the absence of priests for decades at a time.

How wonderful to see Rose Borey here in the front row today. I will never forget her waiting for Pope John Paul II to walk down the Dreaming Track in 1986 when he came for the meeting with the Aboriginal people at Alice Springs. The organisers had been told that the Pope was not allowed to wear the Aboriginal colours. That was no problem. They vested him with a crocheted stole in the distinctive black, red and gold when he reached the track. He knew better than to take it off.

As he got close to us, Louise Pandella thrust her three month old son Liam into his arms and he held Liam to the skies with such love and respect. Rosie was jostling to get close. The tussles all around us made some of those manoeuvrings by nuns in the Vatican look orderly. But Rosie got there and presented the Pope with a framed copy of the Our Father in your local Gurumpul language.

She was so proud that a catechist descendant of the first Australians evangelised here on Stradbroke Island was able to present the Lord's Prayer in language to the Holy Father.

That day when the Pope spoke we all realised that Aboriginal Catholics have been so much like the suffering servant of Isaiah: they do not break the crushed reed nor quench the wavering flame. Faithfully they have brought true justice, losing neither hope nor courage — confident that the Lord's justice will be established on this island and on all the earth. Distant lands and ancient times have been awaiting his Law.

Fr Vaccari once told Archbishop Polding that the local Aboriginal people here did admit the existence of a Supreme Being. They had told him, 'We have not yet spoken to Him, for He has not yet spoken to us; but we expect to see and speak to Him after death.'

Until then, may we keep meeting respectfully and always on the lookout for the signs of grace in each other on this most beautiful of islands which helps us face all the problems on the mainland of life.

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan is Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation and author of Tampering with Asylum. He presented the above homily during the Sesquicentenary Celebration at Star of the Sea Parish, Paul of the Cross Church, Stradbroke Island, 16 August 2009.

Topic tags: frank brennan, stradbroke island, christmas island, Star of the Sea Parish, sesquicentenary, Queensland



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Existing comments

Four years ago, I set out to defend the truth of a particular matter against a fist full of piss and wind. I had studied and learnt about God, but believed only in myself and my own education. It turns out, the education I'd been given me was from God who is also called, among other names, the Truth.

There were a number of things that happened to me during the past four years that would surely have convinced a lesser 'will' of the truth of God, however, I remained steadfast in my disbelief in anything that I could not touch, so I believed in religion but not in God. That was a paradox and it was a paradox that I was defending the Truth

I knew your mob, who commandeered Intelligent Selection and Natural Design to give the world the lies of "Intelligent Design" and "Natural Selection" as I had this profound understanding of the Bible that, it appeared to me, everyone else was missing. What I perceived as my understanding of The Word placed me as a destroyer but, one sows and the other reaps; such is life. Follow me and I'll lead your mob back to The Truth.

Griego | 18 August 2009  

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