POPE Pius IX looked down on a young Aboriginal boy from Western Australia and declared that he would be his country’s next Francis Xavier.
Conaci, an indigenous name that means “black cockatoo”, was seven years old when he was sent to study in Rome, with the hope of returning to evangelise his country.
The young boy left Australia in 1849 with another Aboriginal boy and Bishop Rosendo Salvado, the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery at New Norcia, near Perth, and set off on a long journey to Rome.
The plan for Conaci was simple – study for the priesthood, be ordained and return to his indigenous people in Australia as a missionary priest to evangelise.
Francis Xavier Conaci proved to be a marvellous scholar, mastering Latin and achieving excellent grades.
But he never got a chance to live up to the pope’s prophetic declaration.
In 1853, he died of an unknown illness and was buried beneath the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.
Last month, Aboriginal man Nathan Pitt, from Brisbane, also made a trip to Rome, and in honour of Francis Xavier Conaci.
Mr Pitt is a 19-year-old psychology student from Australian Catholic University, and last month he was named the inaugural Francis Xavier Conaci scholar.
The scholarship was set up by ACU and the Australian Embassy to the Holy See to honour the extraordinary Aboriginal boy who yearned to be a missionary but died before he could return home.
The scholarship offered Mr Pitt, who is a Yieman Aboriginal man, a chance to study in Rome last month. Mr Pitt said before receiving the scholarship, he knew little about Conaci.
“After being awarded the scholarship I made sure I had a firm understanding of the life of Francis Xavier Conaci and that has only been furthered by travelling to Rome,” he said.
“I was lucky enough to be able to speak to a Benedictine abbot from New Norcia and learn about where Francis Xavier Conaci came from, as well as learning about Bishop Rosendo Salvado, the man who brought about the journey to Rome.
“In addition to this I was able to travel to the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls and speak directly with His Eminence Cardinal James Harvey about the life that Francis Xavier Conaci would have lived once he made it to Rome and see the absolutely breathtaking basilica that is now his resting place.”
Mr Pitt said if the Church recognised more Australian indigenous people through scholarships and other initiatives like the Conaci scholarship “we can work towards a more connected Australia for future generations”.
“I believe that the recognition of indigenous Australians by the Church through opportunities is going to be an important step in mending some unhealed wounds that are still felt today,” he said.
“Due to the marginalisation of indigenous Australians throughout history, there are still people from both indigenous Australian communities and the wider Australian population who hold negative views towards each other.
“It is these negative views which continue to divide us.
“The giving of scholarships and goods can be life-changing but simply being a positive presence in the life of indigenous Australians is how stigmas are broken and people brought together.
“Both the Church and indigenous Australians hold community at the core of their respective groups, and the supporting of these communities is how positive change can be made for all people.”
Mr Pitt is now in his second year of psychology and is looking to study in the areas of criminal and forensic psychology with a focus on youth.
He believes his studies will help him work directly with indigenous Australians who end up in the criminal justice system.
“Unfortunately we still see a disproportionate number of indigenous Australians in our criminal justice systems, especially in regards to youth,” Mr Pitt said.
“This is why I intended to work with not only young people who have already been incarcerated, but also those in danger of following that path.
“If someone has already been incarcerated then they need to be made aware that there are still options for them and ways for them to move back into society in a constructive and fruitful way.”