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What would reconciliation in the Church look like?



On Sunday 4 July, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday marked the start of NAIDOC week. This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) have adopted the NAIDOC theme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, Heal Country, looking at what reconciliation in the Church might look like. When exploring this notion, NATSICC is continuing to take steps towards First Nations people and culture finding a home in and being celebrated within the Church.

 Main image: Luke Stevens holding a Didgeridoo (Supplied)

The question of what reconciliation in the Church looks like is one that many countries have had to consider in light of past injustices related to Church-supported colonisation. The first part to healing involves the relationship between First Australians and the Church. The Church needs to continue coming to grips with its own mistakes in this area: its involvement in the Stolen Generations, its running of missions in which children were taken from their parents, its involvement in missionary outreach work that did not adequately respect First Nations peoples and its ongoing Eurocentric worldview.

Healing this relationship is critical for the health of the Church in this country, the health of the land itself and the health of its First Peoples.

In his 2001 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania, Pope John Paul II recognised that the relationship of the Church to the Aboriginal peoples and the Torres Strait Islander peoples remains vital but that it is also difficult because of past and present injustices and cultural differences. Pope John Paul II also recognised that the Church should more thoroughly study Indigenous cultures and communicate the faith in a legitimate way appropriate to Indigenous cultures. Pope John Paul II went on to state that the Church will support the cause of all Indigenous peoples who seek a just and equitable recognition of their identity and their rights.

He also acknowledged, ‘Whenever the truth has been suppressed by governments and their agencies or even by Christian communities, the wrongs done to the indigenous peoples need to be honestly acknowledged… The past cannot be undone, but honest recognition of past injustices can lead to measures and attitudes which will help to rectify the damaging effects for both the Indigenous community and the wider society. The Church expresses deep regret and asks forgiveness where her children have been or still are party to these wrongs. Aware of the shameful injustices done to First Peoples in Oceania, the Synod Fathers apologised unreservedly for the part played in these by members of the Church, especially where children were forcibly separated from their families.’

The question of reconciliation in the Church is particularly pressing, given 2021 marks the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Australia, and the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to the Torres Strait. Yet many First Australians recognise that the Spirit of God was poured out onto the original inhabitants of this great Southern Land many, many thousands of years prior. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, a respected Ngangiwumirr Elder, artist and 2021 Senior Australian of the year explains the importance of experiencing God’s presence in the Land: ‘My people today, recognise and experience in this quietness, the great Life-Giving Spirit, the Father of us all. It is easy for me to experience God’s presence. When I am out hunting, when I am in the bush, among the trees, on a hill or by a billabong; these are the times when I can simply be in God’s presence. My people have been so aware of Nature. It is natural that we will feel close to the Creator.’


'On a day where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Catholics come together and sit side by side, we should acknowledge that we are united in a fight to save God’s creation. It is one we cannot fight alone.'


In looking at reconciliation in the Church, it’s impossible to overlook the role of the land in Aboriginal and Torres Strait spirituality. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are inextricably connected to country in Australia and its waters. This connection to country and all of God’s creation is core to their spirituality as a people and that of their ancestors.

The term itself — Country — encompasses far more than the physical land. ‘For us, country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains,’ explains Professor Mick Dodson, member of the Yawuru peoples and Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) and Professor of Law at the ANU College of Law.

In his exhortation Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis called for an ‘inculturated spirituality’, noting that for Indigenous cultures and peoples, ‘ancient practices and mythical explanations co-exist with modern technologies and challenges’. And a ‘myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage, and not always considered a pagan error’.

This year’s NAIDOC week celebrations sees the world’s oldest continuous culture adopting new innovations in digital technology. As part of the ‘inculturated spirituality’ where ancient practices and modern technologies overlap, NATSICC is offering ways to incorporate Indigenous spirituality into Church traditions.

This affects the level of daily operations, like NATSICC chairperson John Lochowiak meeting with the Ambassador to the Holy See over Zoom, and the Council conducting regular meetings over Zoom, but also in ways it engages with the wider Church, and invites the Church to partake in traditional customs. 

This year, as last year, NATSICC offered a virtual Welcome to Country for parishes, schools and organisations who have been unable to invite a Traditional Custodian to provide a Welcome to Country.

Indigenous groups are adopting digital technologies to affirm and encourage Indigenous identity, community and family connections. And like organisations in around the world, NATSICC is emerging a different organisation post-COVID-19 with numerous examples of how digital innovation can enhance opportunities for protecting and preserving language and celebrating culture.

As a way of enhancing and enriching parishioner celebrations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, NATSICC has engaged with young Catholic, Kuku Yalanji and Yidinji man Luke Stevens (pictured) to produce a series of Didgeridoo tracks. Luke has used his cultural gifts to explore the theme of this year’s celebration — Heal Country — through the lens of his Catholic Faith in order to produce these reflective and inspirational Didgeridoo tracks with suggested applications: Welcome/Entrance, Preparation of Gifts/Communion reflection and Farewell/After Mass. ‘As a young Indigenous Catholic man,’ Luke says, ‘my faith has taken me on a journey where I have enjoyed finding unique ways to sharing faith with others.’

As part of its online resources offering, NATSICC also provides a number of hymns for the Entrance and Communion parts of the Mass replacing the entrance and Communion antiphons in the Roman Missal on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday. These were written and performed by Torres Strait Islander Councillor Dolly McGaughey, to evoke the spirit of the Islands.

There is also planning underway for the Galong Retreat, run by NATSICC, as both an in-person and virtual spiritual retreat this coming November.

On a day where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Catholics come together and sit side by side, we should acknowledge that we are united in a fight to save God’s creation. It is one we cannot fight alone. We must combine the knowledge of First Australians with the technology borne of Western culture to ensure that future generations shall have the opportunity to experience the gifts of God’s creation as intended.

As outlined in the Australian Catholics Social Justice Council’s document Catholics & the Process of Reconciliation, the Church must continue its work for reconciliation if it is to be a sacrament of unity both with God and among peoples. The mission of the Church is to be at the service of the whole of humanity in making the unity achieved in Christ a living reality. This must be demonstrated in the quality of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Catholics themselves.

We have taken steps towards leading a reconciliation in the Church, a journey on which we are all invited to share. In the words of Pope John Paul II during his 1986 visit to Alice Springs, ‘what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.’



The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) is the peak advisory body to the Australian Catholic Bishops on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics. The council was founded in 1992 and the Secretariat is based in Adelaide.

Main image: Luke Stevens holding a Didgeridoo (Supplied)


Topic tags: NATSICC, reconciliation, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, NAIDOC



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Existing comments

An inspirational article outlining a constructive path to follow for recognizing past ignorance, prejudice and injustice and steps for moving forward, faith based.

alan roberts | 08 July 2021  

It seems to me ludicrous that our Loving Creator should wait for eons to reveal itself to a small group of individuals in one specific place. Although these revelations are now an integral part of my relationship with the Ultimate Being as passed down to me by my family and the communities I grew up in, I can no longer believe that this is the exclusive way that Presence can become part of any one human's life. When I reflect that, following only moderate studies in indigenous life, I am aware that pre 1788 there is very little evidence of tribal conflict in the lands of the Rainbow Serpent. Perhaps here was the Garden of Eden that so many were banished from.

Paul | 08 July 2021  

Kia ora The article on Reconciliation talks about Indigenous Issues. It make no mention of the Doctrine of discovery. It makes now mention of all the Papal Bulls that underpin the Doctrine of discovery. It makes no mention of the request by Indigenous People to have all the Papal Bulls annulled. It makes no mention how various Popes endorsed Colonisation, Imperialism and Genocide. It makes no mention of Terra Nullius which destroyed Indigenous in Australia. It reads like some commentary on Auschwitz which ignores the ovens, Nga mihi Na Papa Rawiri David Tolich Ta maki makau rau Aotearoa Tarara Kaikeri kapia. Liberation Theologian +64 27 503 9813 dtolich@xtra.co.nz

Pāpā Rāwiri David Tolich Tararā | 08 July 2021  

I was able to identify completely with the attachment to land as expressed here and I have no claims to Aboriginality, being born in Australia with 75% Irish and 25% German heritage. Does that mean I am no different from an Aborigine when it comes to an appreciation of God and His creation and vice versa? I found the same attachment to the wonder of the created land when living in England. Attachment to land seems to me to indicate an appreciation of the wonder of creation and has nothing to do with race but everything to do with being part of God's creation. Surely that has to be the underlying fact of European or Aztec or Aboriginal or any other race's spirituality. It already unites us as human beings equal in the creator's eyes rather than divides us and does not require our self made constructs for justification.

john frawley | 08 July 2021  

I came to these shores involuntarily with my parents at age 10. I have no Australian ancestors of any shape or hue. What is beginning to p--s me oft mightily is that many social issues, like Multiculturalism and Reconciliation, are now seen primarily as issues of race. Someone who 'belongs to country' in Australia obviously has an ethno-racial heritage I do not share. These days genuine Aboriginal people of very clear and verifiable ancestry and kinship are getting mightily pist off with bogus claims of Aboriginality. Bruce Pascoe is a lightning rod of this. When Michael Mansell and Warren Mundine question his Aboriginality and several other experts, indigenous and not, question his scholarship, I don't know how the bugger can sleep at night. He's the Aboriginal Helen Demidenko IMHO. I've enjoyed NAIDOC week, but please, SBS no more winsome Jack Charles. You've overdone it. Great bloke, but I can't take anymore! Aagh! The hiearchy of the Australian Catholic Church need to get on their grubby knees and beg forgiveness of ATSI people; gays; people incarcerated in those dreadful Magdalen homes; all the children and adults raped and brutalised. It's going to be a long penance, but they won't do it. They're lost. Utterly lost and clueless. The Vatican needs toget rid of them.

Edward Fido | 10 July 2021  

I must confess I have not been as deeply moved as I was tonight when I watched 'Compass' on the ABC this night a short while ago. It was about Janet Obogooma and her return to the (then) Presbyterian, now Uniting Church, mission where she was brought up, with her family thankfully, but not in her 'country'. It was about the coming together of Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality in one woman, with the approval and support of her Church. It was mindblowing.

Edward Fido | 11 July 2021  

Since experience of God's presence through the wonders and beauties of created nature is consistent with one means of appreciating God for all peoples, and affirmed as such by the Church, it might be helpful if NATSICC were to be more specific in its call for the Church to come to grips with its "ongoing Eurocentric worldview."

John RD | 12 July 2021  

I think 'we' in Australian Latin Rite Catholicism have, in the past, tended to take a very Western, specifically dated 'Irish' view of religion, a view which no longer exists in Ireland, a thoroughly delightful place bar the endless rain. The immigration of many non-Western Eastern Rite Catholics, including the Mar Thoma Syrian Christians from Kerala, has changed the Catholic demographic forever and for the good IMHO, John RD. Kerala Christians are not white and have a very Indian culture, yet Christianity is deeply integrated here and they are fully competent and successful wherever they go, including in the West. Perhaps this is the way for ATSI Catholics?

Edward Fido | 13 July 2021  

One of the problems that the church has to face is its paternalism and the entrenched belief that it can rule imperiously from its rich fortress in Rome, defended by its mercenary Swiss guards. "By the 8th century the Roman cardinals constituted a privileged class among the Roman clergy. They took part in the administration of the church of Rome and in the papal liturgy. By decree of a synod of 769, only a cardinal was eligible to become pope. In 1059, during the pontificate of Nicholas II (1059–61), cardinals were given the right to elect the pope. For a time this power was assigned exclusively to the cardinal bishops, but the third Lateran Council (1179) gave back the right to the whole body of cardinals. The cardinals were granted the privilege of wearing the red hat by Innocent IV (1243–54) in 1244 or 1245; it has since become their symbol." Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. So given that Rome has 26 Cardinals (originally there were 7 representing the 7 precincts of the city) and Australia has one retired absentee living in a luxurious Vatican apartment, the chances of the enclave uttering anything meaningful about NAIDOC week are Buckleys and none. Perhaps the Aboriginal elders should issue an Indigenous bull excommunicating the Vatican from its Christian beliefs or the Dreamtime and eschew the platitudes that issue from that benighted place once and for all.

Francis Armstrong | 13 July 2021  

The Church of my childhood in Australia was certainly strong in its cultural and Irish influence, Edward; and though not raised in Melbourne, I was well aware of Archbishop Daniel Mannix. However, Catholics like me, schooled by nuns and priests - a number directly from Ireland - were also made aware of the fact that the story of Christ and his Gospel reached well beyond Eire and Australia into many vastly different countries and cultures, including India; and that the sacraments, especially the Mass, were unifying realities and signs identifiable across national and cultural differences - of which I'm grateful to have seen something first-hand in adult life. The process of "inculturation" is, of its nature, one requiring careful discernment and one in which the Apostolic See, I believe, necessarily has a critical role in ensuring the authentic transmission of Christ's universal message and the unity of the faithful in Christ. Kerala Catholics I know (proudly "St Thomas Christians") possess a strong sense of the Apostolic Tradition and are actively engaged, along with Sudanese, Korean, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese and Chinese in our parish life.

John RD | 15 July 2021  

Ancestrally my family were Anglican on both sides and originally from the West Country, John RD. I do have some Irish ancestry, but it is not the major part. After five generations of service in India, starting off in the East India Company's Army, we were certainly imbued with loyalty to Britain. A relative won the Victoria Cross in Burma serving in a Gurkha regiment in WW 2 and is buried in a British military graveyard there. I am immensely proud of that. Coming out to Melbourne in the late 1950s in my 10th year, having been used to the immense sensitivity and extreme kindness of the Catholic clergy: Indian, English, Spanish and Belgian and lovely nuns and having gone to the very pukka Cathedral School (Anglican) with Salman Rushdie and a real multicultural assortment, I was startled and at times horrified with the outdated shillelagh style Catholicism enforced by often tired, embittered priests, nuns and brothers. Everyone suffered. Mannix had long passed his prime. There were stirrings, a sort of premonition of Vatican 2. Some of the Jesuits at Xavier were different and nurturing. I remember an Old Xavier reunion in Brisbane years ago. One great old guy - probably gone now - said he thought he was being brought up an Australian Catholic, but he was being brought up an Irish Catholic. Mannix should have resigned and let the estimable Justin Symonds, born in Australia to Irish parents and educated at Sydney High School, take over. What a relatively long and wonderful archiepiscopate that would have been! As it was Mannix held on till death with a vicelike grip and Symonds was very ill whilst archbishop. The Catholic Church is international. We need more bishops from diverse backgrounds like the Bishop of Parramatta to represent the fulness and richness of the Australian Church.

Edward Fido | 16 July 2021