Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The first Australian Aboriginal Liturgy


February 24 will remain in peoples’ minds and for many years to come being the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But for some of us, February 24 holds another, more sustaining and life-giving memory. It was on that day 50 years ago at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon at the Melbourne Myer Music Bowl when many of us heard a strong and joyful Aboriginal Voice for the very first time. Many voices, in fact.

The event, part of the 40th International Eucharistic Congress, was titled the Australian Aboriginal Liturgy and it involved a very large number of Aboriginal people, particularly from the Kimberley of Western Australia and Northern Territory, who had come down to participate in the event. This group numbered more than one hundred and fifty adults, teenagers and a children’s choir.  

This liturgy was, for many of us who were present, the first time we had witnessed and experienced Aboriginal people expressing their Catholic faith in ways that were culturally different from our own but very significant to them. The ancient Catholic liturgy took on a new dimension of life and energy as people sang in their own language, mimed the Word of the Gospel and danced. 

This first public and national Aboriginal Liturgy was highly significant. It was the first attempt by the Catholic Church in Australia to re-shape the ancient Catholic ritual of the Mass, which itself had already changed and adapted in the light of Vatican II in the late 1960s. In this case, the attempt was in the light of the faith experiences by those belonging to an even more ancient culture.  Or, more accurately, Aboriginal cultures. It was no easy task.

The liturgy had been long in the making. It owed much to the energy and commitment of many Aboriginal people who had found encouragement in the living and cultural expressions of their Christian faith. These communities of faith were largely spread across the north of Australia and were strongly supported by various priests and religious men and women. 

In the Northern Territory communities of Port Keats Mission (now Wadeye) and Bathurst Island Mission (now Wurrumiyanga) Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priests and Daughters of the Lady of the Sacred Heart sisters were particularly involved. In the Western Australian Kimberley community of La Grange Mission (now Bidyadanga) and in the town community of Kununurra, Pallottine priests and Sisters of St Joseph were also very involved.

One Pallottine priest, Kevin McKelson, who helped shape the final English version of the liturgy was living in La Grange Mission and had spent much of his life learning the local Aboriginal languages. He explored how they, along with cultural signs and symbols, might sit within a Catholic liturgy. He had first translated the English liturgy into Karajarri, a local Aboriginal language, and then back again into English to try and find appropriate expressions.


'That liturgy on a Saturday afternoon in a Melbourne summer was never intended to be the final word or assume the final shape of a more culturally sensitive and inclusive liturgy. It was only a beginning.' 


The task required to shape this new liturgical ritual was enormous and it required a deep listening, respect, and attentiveness by those involved encouraged by other efforts at successful cultural inculturation in the Church’s history. It also needed approval from Rome before it could be celebrated. Drafting this new liturgy took shape in Darwin, May 1972. Approval of a final version came through from Rome in November that same year.

Those who had prepared that first draft had been trying to listen to ‘cultural patterns, thought patterns and social structures’ of the various Aboriginal communities in the north of Australia, ones that the Church was in contact with at that time. The process explored various signs and symbols, acknowledging that this was a complex area with much variety amongst different worshipping communities. And, while the final version was in English, it sought to express a pattern of language expression that would be accepted by many groups where the handing on of an oral tradition was often expressed by word, dance and repetitive chants, accompanied by hand clapping, clapsticks or didgeridoo. The music of Daniel Puatjimi (Wirrumiyanga), a Tiwi canoe tune, was also used to accompany some of the text.

This new liturgical expression sought to acknowledge that Aboriginal people had lived within a context and consciousness of the transcendent for generations. Religious experience was part of the fabric of their daily lives and the ceremonies they regularly conducted. They knew what it was to have faith in the power and sacramental nature of symbols. They were open and enthusiastic in exploring new ways to express and share their Christian faith.

Since 1973, only the Broome Diocese has attempted to find a formal expression of a more appropriate Catholic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait liturgy.  The Missa Terra Spiritus Sancti, Mass of the Land of the Holy Spirit (2018) may be celebrated in the Diocese of Broome and in other communities only with permission from the Bishop of Broome and the local bishop and, while it is in English, it has also been translated into Aboriginal languages.

Thirteen years after this celebration Pope John Paul II would visit Central Australia. He is often well remembered for the many encouraging things he said that day. But one that is often quoted continues to remain both an invitation and on-going challenge for the Australian Church: ‘the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others’. 

Perhaps this February 24 we might ask of ourselves, both the Aboriginal peoples and those of us descendants of those who sought a home in this land: ‘What is the contribution that First Nations people have offered to our journey of life and Christian faith and how has it been received?’  Some of our parishes acknowledge the land they pray on as they begin their weekly services and pay respect to those who have held a sacred and custodial relationship with the land over thousands of years. Sometimes, smoking ceremonies have opened meetings, conferences, funerals or gatherings, offered in the context of healing and inner cleansing. Aboriginal Christian art exists in many forms and can be seen in liturgical vestments and on our church and home walls. 

In addition, ever revealing and refreshing, are the various Stations of the Cross presented by Aboriginal artists such as John Dunn, Richard Campbell, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Bauman and Matthew Gill. All very distinctive and striking, offering fresh theological and spiritual insights. They are a reminder that where some Aboriginal people most identify with the Christian story is the journey of Jesus to his crucifixion. 

Hence, it is not surprising that it is in this religious context of cultural ‘sorry business’, the gathering, lamentations and rituals around those who die, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the nation continue to express cultural values. Whether it be in north or remote Australia, the Torres Strait or in mainland towns and cities the celebration of funerals continues to convey people’s resilience, kinship and spirituality. These rituals may vary considerably across the nation but within their expressions they also hold a historical memory of pain, loss and grief.

In terms of the life we share as Australians, it is possible that one of the greatest gifts the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to give to the Christian community is how they understand their sacred and ancient connection to the land. This relationship, founded on living in harmony with creation, is not one about control, domination or ‘ownership’ but being open to encounter the sacred.  And being led, nurtured and taught by the sacred in return.

This relationship speaks to a depth of care and listening to the land, so strongly endorsed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ when describing how Indigenous people throughout the world encounter their ancestral spaces: ‘For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values’. (#146). 

The growing awareness by many Australians of the implications of climate change offers a new space to encounter the sacred in this land. It speaks to the vulnerability that we, and our land, now share and the many plant and animal species that face extinction. It offers an opportunity for Aboriginal people to help other Australians listen to the land they walk upon and learn to respect it as gift and sacrament. It offers a space where the human and the sacred can meet, as they have for thousands of years, but in new, humbling and enriching ways.

Fifty years ago, a large group of Aboriginal people presented something new to the world and the Catholic Church.  It opened hearts and minds as it revealed how Christian faith was a living, relational and dynamic experience, always in the process of being invited into new depths and awareness of the sacred. Our Australian Church owes much to those early pioneers of inculturation, particularly those Aboriginal song and dance composers, artists and language translators.

It would be a great shame for the Catholic Church in Australia if it failed to keep listening to that voice of the Holy Spirit in this very ancient land. That voice, coming from the lived experience of Aboriginal people, can further enrich our Christian faith but also reveal how we might seek to better live and walk, carefully and respectfully together upon the land.

That liturgy on a Saturday afternoon in a Melbourne summer was never intended to be the final word or assume the final shape of a more culturally sensitive and inclusive liturgy. It was only a beginning. 




Brian F. McCoy SJ is the former Provincial Superior for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus (2014-2020). He completed a doctorate in Aboriginal men’s health at the University of Melbourne, later published as Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men. He has spent half his adult life in a various Aboriginal communities in north Australia. As a young Jesuit scholastic, he was involved in the responsibility of hosting more than three hundred Aboriginal people who had gathered from all around Australia during the Eucharistic Congress. There was a core group of four coordinators: Fr Hilton Deakin (later, Assistant Bishop of the Melbourne Archdiocese, dec. 2022); Fr Brian Morrison SSS (dec); Pat Dodson (then a MSC seminarian and now a Federal Senator); and Brian McCoy SJ.

Main image: The Australian Aboriginal Liturgy (MDHC Archdiocese of Melbourne).

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Indigenous, Mass, Catholic Church



submit a comment

Existing comments

Doesn't it look hypocritical to restrict Latin Mass, while at the same time encouraging an Aboriginal liturgy? Why is one form of diversity quashed, while the other is respected? Perhaps if Aboriginal people wanted to celebrate Latin Mass, then restrictions would be removed.

marita | 21 February 2023  
Show Responses

No, marita, it doesn't look hypocritical to restrict Latin Mass, while at the same time encouraging an Aboriginal liturgy. The issue is not what language it's in but the intention of the rite. What is referred to as "the Latin Mass", the Tridentine Rite, and the Mass of post-Vatican II Catholicism, the Mass of Paul VI, nurture completely different relationships between God and Creation. The whole point about the new Mass being in the vernacular is that it encourages local enculturation - like an Aboriginal liturgy. Such enculturation even predates the new Mass. Missa Luba, the African Mass, first celebrated in 1958, is a setting of the Latin Mass sung in styles traditional to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Enculturation was also an important strategy of early Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries to China. The efforts of Matteo Ricci to foster mutual comprehension between China and the West, at the very time when the Tridentine Rite was being imposed, is exactly what an Aboriginal liturgy is about. Far from being hypocritical, restricting the Latin Mass is a necessary precondition for the successful enculturation of the Mass of Paul Vi throughout the world.

Paul Smith | 23 February 2023  

While I have only attended one Latin Mass (TLM) in the last 50 years, I sympathize with Marita.
Why would Rome want to suppress the fastest growing entity of faithful Catholics? Fr Donald Kloster estimates that in the USA 250,000 attend Sunday TLM masses with 98% of 18–39-year-olds attending weekly mass. Most are drawn to TLM for its reverence; that it transmits faith at a deeper level. Only 1-2% of TLM attendees approve of abortion, contraception and gay marriage. Novus Ordo attendances are in freefall.
In 2007, Pope Benedict wrote: "What earlier generations held as sacred...cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” Bishop Tobin of Rhode Island criticized the Vatican's approach as not being in the "style of God", and Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois noted that TLM churchgoers were "very faithful Catholics" and that local bishops knew more about their diocese "than an office in Rome." He said the new restrictions were questionable "under the principle of subsidiarity."
Does Rome know best? They ignored Cardinal Zen and did a secret deal with China. That hasn't improved the position of Catholics and has been blamed for the Vatican's silence on China's human rights abuses.

Ross Howard | 27 February 2023  

Fr Brian, it is a good thing that the Latin rite has been restricted. The reason is that the priestly caste and hierarchy employed this arcane language as a means of subjugating and mystifying the laity.
Why? to preserve their power, dominance and to impress the laity on whom they depend for their existence, with their so called superior knowledge and scholarship.
Latin is a dead language alluded to in legal precedents with aphorisms like "Res Ipsa Loquitur".
I sang the Panis Angelicus Cezar Franck version at a mass some years ago and a lady came up to me after mass and asked "what language is that?". She had no idea.
Latin was the language of the Roman Empire and has no place in modern society. As for using Aboriginal language at mass I'm all for it.

Francis Armstrong | 22 February 2023  
Show Responses

Precisely why we use Latin because it is dead. It is unchanging like our God. It is unifying of ever culture because it is not my language nor is it yours but it’s ours. Separating us into our language groups is not unifying but divisive. One God, one voice, one family. No one else on earth achieved what the Latin Rite achieved. With everything in Latin she converted every culture that needed converting. DG

Tim Morgan | 25 February 2023  

Good to be reminded, Brian, of this momentous event. However, it also reminds us of the lack of progress in this area. We thought the 2006 Bishops' Statement might help renew the efforts to listen more, to risk more, to dialogue more, to be more inclusive and less Roman-centric. Alas it was not to be. When we cannot even have plain simple English in our liturgies, why would we think we could be open to other cultural expressions as well?

Shane Wood cfc | 22 February 2023  
Show Responses

I witnessed no fruit of Bishop Saunders in the Kimberley, the Faith is all but dead and the plenary council will finish that off. Sorry to sound pessimistic but perhaps 3% of the Catholic Schools practice.

Tim Morgan | 25 February 2023  

Bishop Andrew Sorin of Papua was an aficionado of Papuan art and music, and his legacy was to have numerous aspects of native art and music introduced into the liturgy.
When he had the idea of integrating Papuan art and music into the liturgy, he expressed his principles in a Pastoral Letter of 1948. It was warmly received in Rome, and was even reproduced by the "Osservatore Romano" as an example to follow. It adhered to an often forgotten directive:
"It is in line with the Roman Instructions of 1659, that unfortunately had been largely neglected. At that early time, Rome was issuing unequivocal instructions to the missionaries, not to transplant into China the world of France, Switzerland or Italy." ("The Mustard Seed" by Georges Delbos, M.S.C.)

Ross Howard | 23 February 2023  

Thanks Brian for this wonderful article, especially explaining how the present English Aboriginal liturgy came to birth, and what a careful and complex process it was. It raises the question of should we create an English Indigenous liturgy that can be more widely used. And following the urging from the Plenary Council, how can the Church in Australia really become a place of welcome and celebration for our First Peoples?

Bruce Duncan | 23 February 2023  

Thanks the article and the comment Bruce Duncan. Bringing their culture to the liturgy could certainly help bring First Australians to their rightful place. Plus it would greatly help making it more authentically meaningful for us all - less European brass and more grounded.

Roger | 23 February 2023  

Thanks for the read, Brian. There were a number of places in the reflection and comments that made me think of the insightful remark of Raimon Panikkar, renowned exponent of interreligious dialogue in his time: myths allowed peoples to rest awhile in their quest for ultimates. Some of the places we might rest and ponder: your mention of Kununurra where Peter Willis as parish priest there in the 1970s accompanied some of the 'local mob' who went to the Congress in Melbourne. Peter later wrote and had published, 'Patrons and Riders', which was an account of his dealings with 'the mob' on local ground away from myths and rituals. Then in the 1980s Nth American Jesuit, Carl Starkloff, visited the Kimberley; I wasn't there at the time, but corresponded with him later, not least to express my appreciation of his later book, 'A Theology of the In-Between', which unwrapped some of the challenges of syncretism in religious history. He highlighted the three areas of attention for the would-be missionary, code, cult and creed, and I would leave them in that order of priority in our concerns with cross cultural mission and dialogue. A similar thought came to mind with Ross Howard's reference to China and the need to avoid wrapping missionary offerings in foreign cults and creeds; I was further reminded of the Sri Lankan Jesuit Aloysius Pieris' insistence that the prior concern of any missionary effort/dialogue has to be with the faith enrichment of people's lives before their rites. With all of that I came to wonder along my way about the meaning of our mantra, liturgy (so often a one-off exercise) is the source and summit of Christian life. How grounded is that two millennia down the track?

Noel McMaster | 23 February 2023  

The people in the Kimberley sung beautifully a number of the Gregorian Chant settings for the Holy Mass, Beagle Bay was prominent in there ability to Chant. I think the last accomplished chorister died only recently. I read in two publications the locals stating in dismay, “You change Mass me no come no more.” And devastatingly they didn’t.

Tim Morgan | 25 February 2023  

Brian, thank you so much for taking the time to mark this important occasion - one that continues to engage and inspire all of us, and especially our First Nations Catholic community.
During the recent gathering of Oceania bishops in Fiji we celebrated an i-taukei (indigenous Fijian) Mass. This was a first, and left many Fijians in tears, as they prayed with language, symbols and ceremony that is at the heart of their culture.
We must continue to serve our sisters and brothers here in Australia to have the Mass of the Land of the Holy Spirit approved, at least for use in the Broome diocese where it has continually been celebrated. 50 years is way too long for an experimentation period!

Carmel Pilcher | 26 February 2023  

When people say that Latin is a dead language, I think of what Dorothy Sayers wrote: "The best grounding for education is the Latin grammmar...even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent."
And while the classics are under assault in the West, especially in the USA (Princeton Classics department eliminated its Latin and Greek requirements), China is not so foolish. The Chinese Journal of Classical Studies, established in 2010, produces scholarly works on ancient Rome and Greece, and has translated over 250 Greek and Latin texts. The Centre of Western Classical Studies was established in 2011 at Peking University, and the Austrian Leopold Leeb teaches Latin and other classical languages at Renmin University. Numerous job positions for Latin teachers can be found at Chinese universities.
And while the USA now favours "equity" over merit, China puts merit on top. No wonder China is on top.

Ross Howard | 27 February 2023  

The Catholic Church has several different Rites, such as that of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. The way these Rites developed over the centuries is fascinating. My gut feeling is that, for a genuine First Nations liturgy, (and First Nations peoples are diverse linguistically and culturally) it will need to be developed by them over a period of time. With the demise of the Traditional Latin Mass many Catholics were alienated and left the Church. I sometimes think we intellectualize far too much about these matters and don't give them enough time to develop naturally. We get ahead of ourselves.

Edward Fido | 27 February 2023  

Similar Articles

When two popes become one

  • Miles Pattenden
  • 28 February 2023

Following the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, some believe Pope Francis is now free to advance a progressive agenda, while there’s good reason to doubt Francis will be willing or able to forward any meaningful change beyond that already achieved.


Original synodality: Consultation in the early Church

  • Constant Mews
  • 22 February 2023

Words get tired, and need to be reinvented, to recapture their original meaning. Synodality is simply the most recent way of regenerating traditions of consultation that go back to the earliest days of the Church.