THE Australian Catholic bishops’ Social Justice Sunday Statement for 2006, “The Heart of Our Country: Dignity and Justice for our Indigenous Sisters and Brothers” draws on the historic address by Pope John Paul II in 1986 in Alice Springs and deals with an issue of great importance for Australian society.
The following is a summary of the statement:
The Message Stick
Since ancient times, Aboriginal Australians maintained and passed on their culture through message sticks.
These wooden sticks were marked with symbols and were shown to the elders of each group that the young male carriers met on their journey. The bearer was then allowed to pass.
From ancient times, the message stick has been used to call people from different tribes together.
Now, as the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Melbourne tells us, “the call to embrace Australia’s indigenous peoples is issued to the whole Church and the whole nation in nine ‘Pass It On’ message sticks bearing symbolically the messages of the Pope’s 1986 statement”.
The sticks are similar in size and bear symbols of Christ, of the Pope’s 1986 message and of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Our indigenous people are calling us to commemorate in October the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic speech at Alice Springs.
The message sticks carry an invitation to all of us to celebrate the message of hope and reconciliation in our communities.
What was the message in 1986?
“Dear Brothers and Sisters, it is a great joy for me to be here today in Alice Springs and to meet so many of you, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia. I want to tell you right away how much the Church esteems and loves you, and how much she wishes to assist you in your spiritual and material needs.”
The full impact of these words spoken 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II is still being realised, as the nation and the Catholic Church continue to explore the path to reconciliation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia.
Pope John Paul II identified four important issues when he spoke to the Aboriginal people in Blatherskite Park at Alice Springs:
- He challenged all Australians to ensure the preservation of indigenous cultures and to keep working for an inclusive multicultural Australia.
- He called us to seek and explore the points of agreement between indigenous traditions and those of Jesus and all his people.
- He praised the way the indigenous peoples had cared for the land and then challenged us to learn together how to preserve our fragile environment.
Finally, by naming past hurts and continuing injustices, John Paul II confronted us as a nation with the need to move towards true reconciliation.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of that remarkable day in 1986, what can we say we have achieved in these four areas, and what is still left to be done in taking up the challenges that Pope John Paul II placed before us all?
Australia is now a truly multicultural society, but the arrival of Europeans and other groups of settlers did not bring multiculturalism to this country.
A language map of Australia shows the number of cultures, languages and ways of seeing the world that were present in this land for millennia.
The land was covered by trade routes linking different peoples. The message stick was a tool that connected various cultures.
Relationships between people to the north of Australia and Aboriginal people have continued for hundreds of years. Many people have experienced the welcome of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.
For example, in response to the cultural exclusion experienced by the recent wave of refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous people at Adelaide’s Otherway Centre have responded with generosity in providing a welcome to a large group of Afghani refugees. This has involved providing support as well as a strong interfaith experience for both sides.
How welcome then are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our faith communities?
When John Paul II spoke in 1986, he was expressing his appreciation of the value of all cultures, but especially the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
For the most part, however, until very recently non-indigenous Australians have been less attentive to the particular needs of indigenous peoples, who have often been made to feel like unwelcome strangers in their own country.
Pope John Paul II’s address in Alice Springs followed an established pattern of affirmation for the many cultures that make up our world and our Church. This pattern was proclaimed and celebrated by the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on the Church’s missionary activity (Ad Gentes).
The bishops of the council exhorted those taking the message of the Gospel to other lands to reflect attentively on how Christian religious life might be able to assimilate the ascetic and contemplative traditions whose seeds were sometimes planted by God in ancient cultures prior to the preaching of the Gospel.
How can our awareness be raised and some place of dialogue be established in our local parishes?
Simple, meaningful expressions of acknowledgment and welcome can be part of our liturgies and meetings.
Acknowledgment of the local indigenous people who cared for the land on which our churches and schools are now built, either by a plaque or with a form of words at the beginning of gatherings, is a growing practice.
How many of our Books of the Dead, used for remembrance in November, record indigenous people who died at the hands of police, soldiers or settlers in bloody confrontations?
Do our Prayers of Intercession have a regular place for our indigenous peoples? Do our parishes pay more than scant attention to Aboriginal Sunday, NAIDOC Week and National Sorry Day?
Just over 10 years before Pope John Paul II spoke in Alice Springs, there was a significant recognition in the Northern Territory of the wrongs that had been done in the taking away of the lands that traditionally belonged to the Gurindji mob.
Restitution came about as a result of a long fight by their leader, Vincent Lingiari, who knew the close spiritual connection that he and his people had with the land and therefore the deep hurt and loss that had been inflicted by the removal of the people from their land at the time of colonisation and the subsequent spread of pastoral leases.
In 1986 in Alice Springs, John Paul II called on those who had the power to give proper recognition and restitution for the taking of land.
He defended this position strongly when he said “to call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination”.
It is hoped that through recalling the message of Pope John Paul II, Australians will be inspired to form new partnerships, indigenous with non-indigenous, that will help us all to rediscover the traditional respect and care for creation that we need so urgently today.
John Paul II called for the “just and proper settlement that still lies unachieved” in relation to the removal of children. He called specifically for “just and mutually recognised agreements with regard to these human problems, even though their causes lie in the past”.
Reclaiming the message
Part of the message delivered by Pope John Paul II to the bishops gathered in Rome in 2001 included an apology for the part played by the Catholic Church in past injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“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 the indigenous 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.
Pope John Paul also appealed to governments to do their part and to pursue with greater energy programs to improve the conditions and the standard of living of indigenous groups in the vital areas of health, education, employment and housing.
In celebrating the 20th anniversary of the late Holy Father’s address in Alice Springs, the Catholic bishops of Australia echo his words.
What else can we do?
Recalling the Pope’s declaration that the Church esteems and loves the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, the bishops offer some suggestions for becoming more informed and for individual, parish and community action.
Some examples are:
- Find out if there is an Aboriginal Catholic ministry in your diocese and learn what they do and if you could help them or be part of their educational programs.
- Work with local Aboriginal people to erect a plaque in your school or church grounds or on the entrance to the main building to recognise the traditional custodians of the land.
- Invite a local indigenous speaker to address your next club, group or committee meeting on the issues facing indigenous peoples today.
- Host a discussion group in your parish around the issues raised in this Social Justice Sunday Statement.
- Find out if you can become involved in prison visitation or visiting the families off those in prison, especially indigenous people.
Read the full Social Justice Sunday Statement at the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Web site www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au