MALTESE-born Charles Gauci has spent much of his first year as Bishop of Darwin moving about Australia’s massive northern diocese that is two-and-a-half times the size of France.
“I’m on a new adventure, walking alongside many people,” Bishop Gauci confides during an interview in his residence next door to Darwin’s St Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral.
The late afternoon cacophony of bird calls have started and the rich sunset is casting a crazy light on the sandstone cathedral walls.
There are voices all around, including those of urban Indigenous squatters who drop in for a cup of coffee or ask for food.
Bishop Gauci is finding each moment part of a new and unique daily test, drawing on his 41 years’ experience as a priest in Adelaide, including his work in outlying cluster parishes.
His immediate previous post was as administrator of St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide.
He was ordained Bishop of Darwin, succeeding another South Australian, Eugene Hurley.
Just as the Church is preparing for changes through the process of the Plenary Council 2020, so Bishop Gauci has spent his first 12 months in his new “patch”, listening and discerning – and he is preparing to implement some major changes.
His travels have taken him from the tropical Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, to the former mission of Santa Teresa, in the red centre, south-east of Alice Springs – reflecting the diversity of landscapes, people and priests that make up the Northern Territory.
“The Northern Territory is not Melbourne, or Sydney or Adelaide or Perth or Brisbane – it is the Northern Territory,” he said.
“We need to be looking at how do we respond as a Church to the challenges of our time in this place.
“We are not creating a different Catholic Church. We are the Catholic Church in the Northern Territory.”
To better understand the daily struggles of his priests – missionaries drawn from religious orders from across Australia and overseas (the Northern Territory has one seminarian studying in Melbourne) – Bishop Gauci spent time in every remote parish and with every remote area priest.
“I learn about the priests’ commitment, their love of the people, their zeal, I admire some of the challenges they have to face there alone,” he said.
“They are here because they are wanting to serve God and they have moved away from home and other places, and they are not doing it for any other reason than to serve the people of God.
“They love their people.”
Top of Bishop Gauci’s list of concerns is the welfare of indigenous Australians who make up one-third of all Catholics across his diocese.
Many of them are living on remote communities where English is their second, sometimes third language, and they live disconnected from the mainstream Australian society.
“My experience tells me many of the Aboriginal people I’ve been meeting with are amongst the most traumatised people I’ve ever met, and maybe even on this planet,” Bishop Gauci said.
“They have gone through the whole process of colonisation where horrible and violent acts were done against them, they were treated as less than human, they were poisoned, shot at, dispossessed – within living memory for some of them.”
Over decades the Catholic Church was criticised for the forcible relocation of Indigenous families to missions.
Bishop Gauci sees intergenerational trauma as a gaping wound, but recognises positive Church action today as part of a remedy.
“They need us to be walking alongside them to come up with their own solutions,” he said.
“We need to be there walking alongside the Aboriginal people.
“And they appreciate us being there, but they’ve had their lives dominated by others, controlled by others.”
A recent conference in Darwin heard that homelessness in the Northern Territory remains 12 times higher than the national average, with more than 90 per cent of Indigenous people living on remote communities where there are dire housing shortages.
“Consider the opportunity if you live in a home with 20-plus people in your midst,” Jamie Chalker, chief executive officer of the Northern Territory’s Housing and Community Development said.
“What if there is no opportunity for you or your siblings for employment in your community in which you were born and raised?
“What might you expect in your future that might change that?”
As if in answer to this current crisis, Bishop Gauci is preparing to hand over ownership of Church land in one region – Daly River, about 220km south of Darwin.
“I want to do it as soon as possible – give full rights and ownership of land in the Daly River region to the Aboriginal people,” he said.
“The diocese is happy to give land to the Aborigines, that was given to it years ago, so they can provide employment on this land, provide opportunities of work, and it will be their land with their rights.
“It’s honouring them. The people of Daly River came to the Church for safety and support, and the Church has done that, and we want to continue walking alongside our brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Gauci said he also wanted to honour the fact that the Church doesn’t belong to the priests and bishops.
“I’ve been hearing many people say, and rightly so, that lay people need to share in leadership of the Church, women especially who have not been given their rights,” he said.
“It (the Church) belongs to all of us.
“I’m forming a leadership group of lay people. There will be three women and two men.
“They will be the key leadership team in the diocese, alongside the bishop.
“No need to feel threatened, it’s about partnerships.”
As Rome prepares to host the Synod of the Amazon, Bishop Gauci sees many parallels between that remote region and his own Northern Territory – in terms of challenges faced by the Church.
“The Synod of the Amazon is looking at the reality of the Amazon, and dealing with the challenges facing the Church in the Amazon,” he said.
“For me, we have to also be looking at the challenges facing the Northern Territory.
“Of course we want to be in communion, faithfulness to the universal Church but to also recognise that within the Church we have to react to the realities as they are, not as we wish them or think they should be.
“We have to start where we are at – to see, to judge, and to act.”