Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane celebrated Mass at St Paul of the Cross Church, Dunwich, North Stradbroke Island, last Sunday to mark the 170th anniversary of the arrival of four Passionist priests to start Australia’s first Aboriginal Catholic mission. This is an edited version of his homily.
THERE is a lot of history in what we do here on the island this morning.
To understand the story of what we do here this morning we need to go back to that time of 1843 and to the figure of the man who was appointed in 1834 the vicar apostolic of New Holland, that’s how long ago it was.
He was an Englishman, a Benedictine monk called John Bede Polding and it was he who, as the first Bishop of Australia, came to the island 170 years ago with the first of the Passionist priests who worked on the island.
I pay tribute to the brief but important presence of the Passionist priests here on Stradbroke Island.
Archbishop Polding, right from the start when he became Bishop of Australia, had an unusual heart for the Indigenous people at a time when a lot of people of this country had no heart at all for the Indigenous people and treated them in the most brutal manner.
There was nothing in his background really that prepared him to encounter the Indigenous people of Australia and yet from that time when he set foot in this land from 1835 he showed an extraordinary heart for the Indigenous peoples and that’s why he was determined to establish a mission in this country and he chose Stradbroke Island.
And it was his choice. It was he who chose the site of Dunwich where we stand today.
So it was a fulfilment of a dream of some kind when he secured the services of the Passionist priests.
It was the fulfilment of a dream when he set foot upon the island, which as you know had been both convict settlement and quarantine station.
Fr Joseph Snell, a Swiss born in France, was the first of the four Passionists.
The other three were Italian – Fr Raimondo Vaccari, who was the unfortunate choice as leader of the mission, I have to say; Fr Luigi Pasciaroli, and Fr Maurizio Lencioni.
So there were three Italians and one Swiss – the Swiss was the only one who spoke English.
Really what we’re talking about is the foundation of the Church in this part of the world.
We’re not just talking about Stradbroke Island. What happened here 170 years ago was crucially important for the sowing of the seed of the Catholic faith in Queensland.
So today we celebrate the beginnings of the Catholic Church in Queensland.
The mission only lasted three years, but Fr Vaccari stayed on for another year.
So in one sense what we celebrate here is a failure.
The mission in one sense was an absolutely pathetic failure.
But in another sense it wasn’t. Again, like Gallipoli, … Australia seems to be good at these failures that turn out to be something else.
And what we are saying here this morning is that there was something beyond the failure, as there must always be.
The last word cannot be given to failure.
Now, we ask the question, and I do as Archbishop, why did this important mission fail?
Why did the dream of Polding turn sour?
Some of the answers are easy to find, and important to raise.
One is that the missionaries who came – the three Italians and the one Swiss – were pathetically ill prepared.
A second thing was that they chose the wrong man to be leader. Leadership isn’t everything but leadership is important and they had the wrong man in Fr Vaccari.
I’m not saying he was a bad man, he was just a bad choice of leader.
The third factor was that they had no common language.
The people and the priests didn’t seem to be able to find a common language, and that is a problem, I think you’ll agree.
Another factor was the sheer physical hardship, (and) the problems of supplies.
Certainly once the Government decided to pull the funding it became impossible, physically, for these four priests.
And then the local people didn’t respond. Who could blame the local people for not responding when you don’t have a common language?
And the kind of dialogue between Aboriginal spirituality and Catholic spirituality … hadn’t even been dreamt of.
We’re still at the very stage of that dialogue, how crucial it is. It hadn’t even begun then.
So understandably the local people didn’t respond to the mission.
And, finally, the whole mission got caught in the imbroglio of Australian Church politics, where the Bishop of Perth wanted the Passionist priests over in Perth.
So he pulled the rug from under Polding and eventually three of the four missionaries left Stradbroke Island and went to Adelaide on their way through.
They never made it Perth; they got to Adelaide and thought it was so good they stopped there.
Fr Vaccari, left a year later, and ended up as a gardener in Latin America.
And yet, one thing that didn’t fail was the desire that drove this mission – not just in the heart of John Bede Polding, the English monk, but in the heart of the Catholic Church.
The mission in one sense failed but the desire has never failed.
What do I mean by the desire?
I mean the desire that the Indigenous peoples of this land … have every right to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that respects absolutely their dignity as human beings by which I mean sons and daughters of the living God, created in his own image and likeness.
The desire for that to happen has not failed, and that’s what this morning says.
It is the desire in us at the heart of the Church to establish a deep, deep, and lasting bond of communion between all peoples.
Today is Trinity Sunday … the Trinity is all about a mystery of incredible love.
We talk about three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. They are together in a perfect love which means only one God.
See what love does – breaks down all the barriers, knocks down all the walls and creates that communion.
Well, the desire for that communion, and particularly for that communion with the Indigenous peoples of this land has not failed.
And it can’t be allowed to fail.
In that sense, what we do today is a protest meeting. We call it Mass but we are protesting against the prospect or even the possibility that that desire should die or fail.
And God is with us.
He is at the heart of that protest, and it’s the protest of Easter that we now hear on the island this morning in this celebration.
There is so much to be done, 170 years later, if this desire is not just to be another dream that dies.
There is so much to be done nationally – not just in this part of the world, but across the nation – to ensure that the dignity of Indigenous peoples is respected in every way – that they are honoured in law as well – but honoured certainly in this community that we call the Church as the sons and daughters of God, no less than anyone …
In other words, this means to allow and empower Indigenous peoples of this land to shape their own future – no patronisation, no handouts, nobody needing a favour but simply recognising that Indigenous people have rights that are God-given – they’re not given by the state or by the Church.
They’re given by God, and therefore no-one, nothing, can take them away.
So, brothers and sisters, here on the island 170 years later, you haven’t got the Archbishop of Australia but you’ve got the Archbishop of Brisbane.
And in that capacity I say that here today at this altar, in the presence of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, with Jesus at our side, we rekindle the desire that drove the first mission, the first arrival here 170 years ago – we rekindle that desire in our own heart – the desire that has not died.
And we renew our commitment to honouring the dignity of Indigenous people, not just in words but in actions, that they will be empowered, allowed to shape their own future – the future that God has in mind for them.
We praise God for the journey that began 170 years ago, and we ask God here and now on the island this morning that God will empower all of us to journey together out of the wounds of the past, that we may find healing now, and in the future, the peace which the world cannot give, but the peace which is God’s gift in Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead.