Aboriginal Deacon Ralph Madigan tells of how his traditional culture and Catholic faith have guided him on his spiritual journey.
MY Catholic background comes from my grandmother on my father’s side, Annie Green, who had a very strong Catholic faith.
Gran always prayed the Rosary and she had story books about Jesus, and the stories in those books were passed to us.
She had seven children, five sons and two daughters, and she made sure they were all baptised in the Catholic Church.
From there, our parents made sure that all her grandchildren were baptised into the faith.
The Catholic faith has been in our family for over 100 years and our families are still baptising their children today.
Living on an Aboriginal reserve at an early age was a primitive, but happy lifestyle with other Aboriginal families from different religious backgrounds.
We would listen to their religious stories and sometimes they would be critical of our faith, but that did not deter us.
I guess it only made us stronger in our faith.
My brothers and sisters and I were educated by the Sisters of Mercy at the local parish school in Mareeba and we also spent some time in the state school system.
The Sisters of Mercy made sure we attended school regularly and they helped us over the years with food and clothing.
My mother Elsie Madigan was a big influence in my attendance at Mass in St Thomas’ Church, Mareeba.
In his early years, my father Jack Madigan was also a regular Mass-goer.
When I went to Mass I always sat in the back row and felt comfortable there.
One Sunday, one of the parishioners asked my mother and me to take up the gifts, which we did.
Then I was asked if I would like to be a reader at Mass, and I accepted.
From there I became a Communion minister and then I began playing the organ. Sometime later I was invited onto the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) team in the parish.
Those were things that I had never imagined that I would be able to do.
Sometimes our background holds us back so that we don’t go forward.
We need to look at the future and what it holds for us.
Each one of us has been given gifts from God and we are meant to use those gifts by sharing them with others.
Even though I was active in my parish, for many years I had a longing for something more.
I wanted to be a deacon.
So, after some encouragement and much study, I was eventually ordained by Bishop James Foley on June 7, 2009, in St Thomas of Villanova Church in my hometown of Mareeba.
It was a day for me and my family and the parishioners to remember – a wonderful ceremony with a bishop, 14 priests and a deacon and more than 500 parishioners to help celebrate this special occasion.
Since my ordination I have been working full-time for the Church and have presided at many baptisms, weddings and funerals.
I regularly serve as the deacon during the celebration of Mass and frequently give the homily.
But my main purpose is working, in partnership with Fr Rob Greenup, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in the Diocese of Cairns – calling ourselves Indigenous Connections.
This has taken me all over the diocese but most of our work is done in the small Aboriginal community of Coen, my hometown of Mareeba and in Cairns.
In these places we celebrate Mass on a regular basis.
We have also re-established the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council in Mareeba and Cairns, worked with two Catholic secondary colleges and have become involved with Wontulp-Bi-Buya, an ecumenical theological college in Cairns.
In all this my Catholic faith is supported by what I know of my traditional Muluridgi belief and culture.
For example, my parents and grandparents told us many traditional stories, which conveyed a strong belief in the spiritual world – a world that was real to them and part of their everyday life.
And these stories have become part of my life as well.
For our ancestors the spiritual world and the material world were not separate but were closely woven together.
They saw the spiritual world ever present around them in the hills and the trees, the wind and the sky, and the behaviour of animals and birds – much like the way in which Jesus could see his Father’s kingdom breaking into this world in ordinary, everyday things such as a farmer planting seed (Mark 4:1-9) or a woman baking bread (Luke 13:20-21).
Another big part of our Aboriginal culture that supports my Catholic faith is the importance we place on family – not just our immediate family but also our extended family and even beyond that to the connectedness there is between all people.
For us, everybody has a place and everybody fits in somewhere.
To this day we are still trying to put together more of our family connections.
We believe that as Christians, guided by the same Spirit, we are all brothers and sisters of the one God (Romans 8:14).
Also, in our culture and in our family, we were taught by our parents from an early age to share what we had with one another.
All our lives we have shared with each other and we are still doing it today.
It is an important part of who we are and many Aboriginal people share with each other no matter how little they may have for themselves.
I guess that is why a lot of Aboriginal people are not wealthy. But that was the way of Jesus.
He said, “Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away” (Matthew 5:42).
All the way along the journey of life I have tried to hold fast to my Catholic faith and to my Aboriginal heritage.
For me, there has never been a conflict between the two.
My Catholic faith and my Aboriginality walk side by side, like close friends.
They work together as one, they strengthen each other and they have made me who I am today.
I thank God for both of them.