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The uncomfortable legacy: colonisation and the church

  • 07 July 2021
This is an excerpt of Brian McCoy's full essay, available to read here. In November 1986, Pope John Paul II came to Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs. A winding track was carefully designed in the park to allow visitors from various parts of Australia to have their own designated space and meet the Pope. However, in their intense preparations, the local organising committee, led by a formidable parish priest, forgot one critical thing: there was no allowance for the Pope to first meet the elders of the Arrernte people, the local traditional people. They had been forgotten. Eventually, the Pope did arrive and meet the Arrernte elders before moving along the designed track. But in both Uluru and Alice Springs key leadership within the Church at that time — clerical, episcopal and male — did not get it.

They might have come with good intentions but they also came with assumptions born of a colonial and Church history and where male clericalism did not know how to reflect on its own power and authority. It did not know how to listen. Or, as someone once commented: ‘We did not know what Aborigines [sic] thought about it all. We would never have dreamed of asking them’.

I believe one of the tasks of this coming Plenary Council is to begin and open up a safe, listening space with First Nations people where, as a Church, we can hear what we ‘did get’, what we ‘failed to get’ and what calls us now to get down on our knees and say ‘sorry’! And then, when we stand up, to show that we are committed to a new path and ‘getting it’. Not by ourselves but in a new partnership and relationship.

The paper, Instrumentum Laboris, in preparation for the coming Plenary Council, attempts to offend no one, at least in the descriptor nouns it uses: it refers to First Nations (6 times), Indigenous (10), Aboriginal (7), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (10). And it mentions ‘dadirri’, one of the few acknowledgements that other Australians have anything they can learn from First Nations peoples.

However, I found myself quite disappointed by the lack of depth, awareness and any sense of the need for an apology in this paper. Much less an openness to any serious conversion that is needed within the Church.

One reference particularly concerned me: 'While dioceses and religious orders have done much to share faith, education