ACROSS a parched Australia the Church is dedicating November as a month to pray for those touched by crippling drought, and to pray for rain.
Parishes, schools, families and Catholic communities across the country are being encouraged to take part in the National Prayer Campaign for Drought, which also invites people to dig deep and provide assistance to those in need.
“What does that do for people’s spirits, to know God is with us?” Mount Isa priest Fr Mick Lowcock said, describing the power of prayers for entire rural communities “going through the very worst of things”.
Parts of Fr Lowcock’s far-flung western Queensland parish that includes Julia Creek and Cloncurry, have witnessed years of drought, then devastating flooding early this year, now drought again.
Until recently, two-thirds of Queensland was drought-declared.
Even welcome rains in south-east Queensland, after early-season fires, were not enough to make a difference in some drought-bitten districts.
The town of Stanthorpe is in the grip of a critical water shortage.
Nationwide, confronting news images of starving stock, failed crops and dried creek beds and dams tell a tale of devastation as the Bureau of Meteorology says that, on some measures, the drought is the worst in 100 years or more, with most parts of Australia’s eastern states declared to be in drought.
In New South Wales, Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green of Wilcannia-Forbes oversees a diocese that covers about half the state, including some of the most drought-affected areas in the country.
He said the month of prayer was an additional response to the local work being done in affected communities.
“Some of our Catholic ministries, along with other faith-based, charitable and government organisations, are doing remarkable work, supporting people with material needs, offering financial support and responding to people’s psychological and spiritual needs,” Bishop Macbeth-Green said.
“In some dioceses, practical responses like school fee relief or support with rising utility bills can ease an increasing burden for families.
“But in a Catholic context, prayer must be a part of our response.”
Suffering under such extreme conditions, Fr Lowcock said people on the land could feel “very alone”, and while men were often the focus of regional mental health strategies aimed at preventing suicide, there were media reports of the drought pushing rural women to breaking point too.
“You learn to live with it. You can’t fight it,” he said. “A lot of people associate drought with men and their mental health, but this says to me there are a lot of issues about women and mental health as well.”
Bishop Macbeth-Green said the Bible, in both the Old and New testaments, had stories of rain being “God’s gift” to people who were suffering.
“In times of drought like we are experiencing now, we should pray for God’s gift of rain, which will have the power to quench our arid lands and also lift many people’s fallen spirits,” he said.
Bishop Macbeth-Green said the national prayer campaign must be truly national, noting that the whole country suffered when there was a drought – especially one of this magnitude.
The Church needs to be an example of recognising that reality.
“That people living where there is plentiful, or at least enough, water don’t seem aware of how much suffering the drought is causing only adds to the hardship of those in drought-affected communities,” he said.
“The Church across Australia – lay people, religious, priests and bishops alike – needs to stand in solidarity with those suffering most acutely, offering prayers and practical support to those in most need.”
Townsville Bishop Tim Harris said communities in Queensland’s west were doing it tough having lost nearly all their stock and now “transporting water to provide drinking water not only to their stock but their families”.
“I have been speaking to families in the west including Gordon Ford from Hughenden, and I know they will feel some comfort from the prayers of the entire nation, but it will only be the gift of rain that will truly heal their hearts and bring life back to the parched communities,” Bishop Harris said.
Prayer resources have been developed for parishes, schools, communities and families to participate in the national prayer campaign.
They can be accessed on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference website: www.catholic.org.au/drought
Additional resources will be added during the campaign.