WHEN young indigenous man Marlon Riley dances his brolga steps in honour of Mary MacKillop before an international audience at her canonisation celebrations in Rome today (October 17), none will be prouder of him than his mother Margie.
For it was she who struggled mainly on her own to bring up a vigorous brood of nine children, first in Inala, then in Woolloongabba and now at Acacia Ridge, on Brisbane’s southside, determined to keep them true to the Catholic faith she first discovered as a student with the Sisters of Mercy at Rockhampton.
Others too will be proud of this 32-year-old who is a cultural tutor at Brisbane Catholic Education’s Ngutana-Lui Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Studies Centre.
There’s his 26-year-old brother David who has overcome learning difficulties to carve out life as an artist whose work can now be seen in Brisbane’s parks and other public places.
David recently presented his brother with a pair of beautifully painted boomerangs and clapsticks with which Marlon will beat rhythm when he dances in Rome before the Pope and other Church leaders.
At today’s Canonisation Mass, Marlon will perform alongside dancers from Brisbane’s Australian Catholic University Weemala Indigenous Higher Education Unit in the entrance procession.
Tomorrow, Marlon will dance with five other Queensland Aboriginals during the Thanksgiving Mass Offertory procession at the papal basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls.
Also definitely among the proudest will be the two women who supported Margie Riley as she raised her children in the faith – Brisbane archdiocese’s Murri Ministry co-ordinator Ravina Waldren and Josephite Sister Kay McPadden.
It was an honour and pleasure to be present at Brisbane archdiocese’s Murri Ministry headquarters at Justice Place, Woolloongabba, when David surprised his brother with his works of love and pride.
Asked later how he felt about his brother’s gifts, Marlon looks at the boomerangs and clapsticks for a few minutes before answering.
“Yeah, it’s just too deadly this – because I don’t often see David … he’s a bit like the Phantom, always quietly around helping out, doing good things.
“I’d heard he’d been coming over here to Murri Ministry these past six weeks, but didn’t know why.”
Marlon stops for a minute, then continues: “Actually it’s incredible he’s got such a good heart … he had a real rough time at school … got picked on a lot.
“It’s always amazed me that he has no bitterness from these days.”
So what messages are contained within his brother’s artwork destined to travel to faraway Rome to become part of a collection of indigenous Australian art there? Marlon looks at the boomerangs.
“This one here – it’s got these shapes (semi-circles) and those (concentric circles) – they’re about gatherings,” he said.
“And the other boomerang, I can see the snake shapes – that’s because David loves the story of the Rainbow Serpent.”
David nods, a pleased smile on his face. So how will the boomerangs be used in the Vatican ceremony?
Marlon, the dazzling dancer who for two years delighted tourists visiting the internationally acclaimed Tjapukai (Jabakai) Aboriginal Cultural Park, springs to his feet.
He starts a rhythm with the two boomerangs and clapsticks and moves lithely towards the Murri Ministry cross (painted by Aboriginal artist Yvonne O’Neill) which also was to head for Rome, facing the semi-circle in which we all sit.
“When we were deciding on the dance to honour Mary MacKillop, Graeme Mundine (head of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission) asked us to pick an animal to represent her,” Marlon explains as he dances.
“Someone said a kangaroo. But the rest of us agreed that wouldn’t work – too bouncy.
“But we all liked the brolga.”
As Marlon pauses to explain the choice, the appropriateness quickly becomes apparent.
It’s a graceful bird, with extremely good balance, blessed with the light step needed to move from lily pad to lily pad and avoid falling into the water, he says.
All of us chuckle at once, no doubt at the unspoken, shared thought of challenges the soon-to-be-sainted Mary faced negotiating the tricky Church politics of the time. Entranced we watch as the dance continues to unfold – and listen to Marlon’s commentary.
He describes the Brolga/Mary MacKillop waking up in the morning, eager to live the message of God’s calling in her life.
As Marlon gets closer to the cross, his arms raise.
“This represents wings becoming ready for flight,” he says.
“There’s a lot of extra energy too as she gets closer to the cross.”
Dance over, the focus turns to Ravina as she outlines the story of Marlon and his family, a story which clearly is a source of wonder, joy and pride to her.
“When we worked for AICC (Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council) we used to pick the Riley kids up in a bus from where they lived at the ‘Gabba,” she says as Sr Kay nods at the memory.
“We’d take them with others to the Christ the King School at Graceville.
“Of the 100 students there, 60 were Aboriginal.
“The thing that impressed us about Margie Riley, and has continued to impress us about the family, is how faithful and loyal they’ve stayed to the Church.
“Now it will be wonderful for the mother to see all the hard work she’s put into her children – encouraging them in their Catholic faith and sacraments – is finally bearing fruit.
“Also I nominated Marlon because he’s one of our young leaders and will eventually become an Elder.
“He’s been part of Murri Ministry Youth Group since 1993.”
Ravina says Marlon’s pride as a young Aboriginal family man will also be on display.
“Being able to dance in the Canonisation and Thanksgiving Masses will be a real milestone for this young indigenous man and father.
“He wants his son Xavier to be proud of him when he sees him dance in Rome – that’s been his dream.
“It’s such a beautiful statement for a young indigenous father to say that this is his dream.”
Both Ravina and Sr Kay are also delighted with David’s progress.
“It’s wonderful to see how David’s grown and developed, given the amount of difficulty he had in the area of educational needs and the hard time he had growing up,” Ravina says.
She adds that some of David’s sculptures now grace various city parks – the animal totem at Acacia Ridge’s C.A. Sullivan Park being a prominent example.
The Murri Ministry co-ordinator has also taken some message sticks painted by David to give as gifts when she visits friends in Ireland after leaving Rome.
David said he was really pleased to think some of his work would be travelling to the other side of the world.
As for Marlon, he was clearly very focused on the big day when he would dance in Rome.
But before I leave, he indicates his mind has moved beyond this great event when he dances in honour of Australia’s first saint and first peoples before the Pope and other leading Church dignitaries.
Marlon is already planning ways to share his experience and inspiration upon his return to Australia.
He said he has been asked to address a group of young indigenous students from St Mark’s School, next to the Ngutana-Lui centre at Inala, following a graduation Mass at the school.
“I’ll be sharing Mary MacKillop’s spirit with them … it will be a great honour,” he says, eyes shining.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.