Vol 40 No 4
Martin Wilson MSC
GSELL CENTENARY. MISSIOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS
COMMENT ON THE GSELL LECTURE
COMMENT ON THE GSELL LECTURE
Pat Mullins SJ
COMMENT ON THE GSELL LECTURE
Peter Hearn MSC
COMMENT ON THE GSELL LECTURE
John Wilcken SJ
THE ALICE SPRINGS ADDRESS AND THE CONCEPT OF NATION
THE ADDRESS OF POPE BENEDICT ON FAITH AND REASON
DEMONISING AUSTRALIA'S CHRISTIAN AND MUSLIM ARABS IN CARTOONS
WHAT'S IN A NAME? PART II: 'ORDAINED' AND 'LAY APOSTOLATE'
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS FROM AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
MARTIN WILSON MSC
THIS AFTERNOON we are going to reflect on the missiological theory and
practice used by Bishop Gsell and his fellow missionaries in the Northern
Territory over the last one hundred years. Tomorrow we shall be exactly
one hundred years away from Fr F X Gsells arrival on Darwins
wharf as the Administrator Apostolic of the Diocese of Victoria-Palmerston,
which eventually evolved into becoming the Diocese of Darwin with F X
Gsell msc being ordained its first bishop in 1938.
Cultural and Missionary Expansion
I would like to creep up on my topic. As a person trained in Scholastic
philosophy, I like to get back to principles of Being. I remember very
clearly one particular day in Rome back in 1958 when I was in the early
stages of writing my doctorate thesis at the Gregorian University. I had
prepared the first chapter, and wanted to show it to my thesis director,
Father de Finance. I waited at the door of the lecture room, where he
was giving an emotive and impassioned lecture on the nature and goodness
of Being. He was speaking about the transcendental properties of Being,
especially that Being is good and, as such, Being is essentially self-expanding.
In the words of a classical dictum of Scholastic philosophy, bonum est
sui diffusivum. Goodness, and Being itself, is expansive, spreads itself.
This was taken to be a first principle, something an intelligent mind
simply perceives. Not something you have to prove. At the end of his impassioned
talk about the generosity of Being he stepped down from the rostrum and
made for the door, where I was waiting with the draft of my first chapter.
I approached him and said, Here is the first chapter of my thesis for
you to check, please. He threw up his arms in the airhe was a Frenchmanand
cried out, I am too busy! I was thus introduced to the further
lesson that the generosity of Being is grand in theory but has its limitations
All the same, I believe, that consideration of the essentially expansive
nature of Being is relevant to our present discussion. We are considering
the missionary impulse that drove men and women to leave their native
country and take on a pretty uncomfortable way of life amongst a people
foreign to them in every way. Why did François Xavier Gsell and
so many other European men and women make the choice to go on mission
to foreign countries on the other side of the globe, this one?
The most obvious response is to quote the missionary mandate of Jesus
himself when he said: Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing
them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A Christian does not need to search any further, except maybe in order
to get a deeper appreciation of the reason behind the evangelical commission.
It is the command of the Lord! That is enough. To ask why the Lord would
have given such a command is like wondering why Jesus himself came at
all. Theologians do wonder about such things. St Anselm defined theology
as faith seeking understandingfides quaerens intellectum,
but we are struggling for substance when we get to ultimate questions.
A non-believer would not be impressed by the mere recitation of verses
from the Bible, but would want to ask for deeper underlying reasons outside
of biblical realms. Here I call upon the resources of philosophy.
First of all, I would like to lay down a succinct definition of culture
as the human way of being. Particular cultures vary in the
ways they embody and express particular modalities in the virtually limitless
possible variety. In and through the human persons cultures are alive
and have an inner dynamism. Some are more reflective, self-conscious,
self-aware than others. Some are more active and expansive. They vary
in the way they activate their potentialoutwardly, aggressively,
contemplatively, pacifically, inventively. Their inner dynamism has periods,
highs and lows, is guided, driven, raised up or dragged down, improved
or spoilt by the particular minds and wills in which they are incorporated
at any particular time. They have a history and a dynamic direction.
Application to the Northern Territory
In something of a Teihardian stance, I see we have two massive interconnecting
cultural movements to attend to. There was the colonial expansion of European
culture during the second millennium, and the missionary expansion of
christianity during the same time, but particularly in the second half
of the millennium. The cultures were simply expanding. When the Jesuits
came to the Territory in the 1880s, they summed up their task thus:
Religion is primary in our intention, but in a manner secondary in
our practice, because we recognize that we must first civilize the blacks
before we can Christianize them
(MacKillop 1893, cf. Wilson 1988:13)
Bishop Gsell stated the same principle and Bishop OLoughlin after
him. In his masterly recent study of the missiology operating in Darwin
diocese during the episcopacy of Bishop John OLoughlin Fr Peter
Hearn quotes some succinctly worded notes made by Bishop OLoughlin
while on pastoral visitation to Port Keats mission around 1958. He summarised
the missions role under three heads:
A) Evangelizeestablish church: a) catechists, b) sisters, c) brothers
B) Civilize: a) Christian family
home; b) schooling; c) livelihood
garden, stock, timber, arts and crafts.
C) Integrate: a) cattle stations; b) Farms on Daly [River]. (Hearn 2003:25)
Sometimes the first head was stated as Christianize. Peter
Hearn shows that the mission policy implemented by the Catholic Church
in the first half of last century was standard vanilla-flavoured missiology.
The missionary aimed to save souls, both the peoples
souls and his or her own in the process. (It might be noted that the word
missiology itself is a neologism. It came into use during
the 1900s. The Oxford Reference Dictionary of 2003 still refuses
to recognise it. All the same, it is a convenient tag to cover the theory
and practice of evangelisation. It is interdisciplinary in extent. In
spite of the opinion of the Oxford dictionary, university chairs of missiology
Two giant waves broke upon the Australian shore at the same time: European
colonial extension and Christian missionary expansion operating within
two major sections of the church, the Roman Catholic and the Protestant.
The details of the complex interaction between these elements in the earlier
part of Australian history need not absorb our time and attention now.
Here the main thing to note is the extraordinary convergence between colonial
and missionary expansion achieved here in the Territory in the early part
of the 20th century. The government was happy to use the missions as its
agents in the work of social development, the churchs
ministers being considered, and paid, as government field officers under
the title of superintendent, later community advisor.
Bishop OLoughlin expressed his complete satisfaction with the system
in the speech he gave at the official opening of the Daly River mission
On an occasion like this it is surely a proper time to comment on the
enlightened policy of Australian Government towards its native wards
it is this: to extend welfare services to a section of the community who,
because of their history and primitive culture are unable of themselves
to be assimilated into the life of the Australian society. In this extension
Government recognises and assists Missionary Societies prepared to engage
in this work.
In fact, Mr. Hasluck has expressed the view that Government and missions
are co-partners in a joint enterprise. This is eminently just
and fair, accepting a principle of subsidising social services which has
not yet found acceptance in the Australian community at large. (Hearn
I suppose it is useful to note that the style of language used even in
official places last century would be frowned upon todaywell-meaning
but very patronising. I think some present here today might remember wincing
at Bishop OLoughlins deliberate public use of the term myall,
which he defended as being technically exact and therefore inoffensive.
Bishop Gsell made the point even more forcefully: no one, I think,
would dare to deny that the true faith is the generating force of civilization.
(Gsell 1956:38) Many non-believers would indeed deny that true faith is
genetically connected to civilisation. Them Bishop Gsell responds to by
an argumentum ad hominem:
these fine talkers, few of whom have given the subject any deep
thought, themselves enjoy the benefits of Christian civilization: and
they enjoy this security because, in day[s] of old, missionaries brought
these benefits to their forebears. The heathens [viz. the unconverted
Aborigines] are men as we are men and, as such, they have the same right
that we have to the benefits of Christianity. (Gsell 1956:38-39)
Bishop OLoughlin used much the same argument in his speech at the
opening of the Daly River mission in 1955, though with an intriguing turn
of phrase he aligned himself more diplomatically with the critics of mission:
We others, even when we disclaim religious belief or practice, continue
to live within the framework of a civilization rooted and founded in Christianity.
We are the heirs, often unwittingly, of centuries of Christian teaching.
It is too much to expect the aborigines to survive and be assimilated
without the faith. (Hearn 2003:24)
The key concept in this view of evangelisation is the word and concept
civilise. By origin it indicates a person living in a civis,
that is, a city or a city state. It indicates organisation and structure,
systems of responsibility. Up here in the Territory the Jesuits on the
Daly River saw their first task in time was to civilise. Evangelisation
would come later, the ultimate goal.
The Jesuits used an agrarian model based on the very successful social
reconstruction the Jesuit Society had built up in Paraguay some 200 years
earlier. They considered they could do nothing of lasting value with the
Aborigines, as before with the Paraguayan Indians, unless they could get
them to settle down on small farms where the Aborigines could achieve
economic independence, their children could go to school and become educated,
that is, learn to read and write.
To become civilised meant to become settled down, basically
as a farmer. This proposition is presented as self-evident. Bishop Gsell
did not think the task of transforming Aboriginal society into an agrarian
one would be easy, but it was the way to go and he was a patient man.
whatever may be said to the contrary, it is not impossible to
reform the aboriginal attitude towards life so that he can become a planter
and, indeed, a good Christian. Yes, the process must be long and inevitably
obstructed by difficulties; but how many centuries did it take white men
to emerge from barbarity? The main thing is to face up to the task and
to stick to it, trusting in God. (Gsell 1956:39)
On these terms, the ones who became civilised were the Brothers.
In the early days of each of the mission stations the Brothers put in
countless hours of hard labour planting extensive vegetable gardens and
orchards. These were an economic necessity as transport to outlying missions
was so difficult, often quite impossible for months during the Wet season.
Work in the gardens was often a pre-requisite for hand-outs of sugar,
tea, flour and tobacco, but once sit-down money became available
in the 60s the Aboriginal interest in gardening quite disappeared.
In reading up some of the background material for this occasion I was
amused at a comment Bro. Garney Groves had written in his diary back in
1944 when he was working at Arltunga:
Bishop Gsell once told of how, in his own village, each house had a
cow and each morning a shepherd would come along the street and the cows
would leave their places and be taken to a common to graze. In the evening,
they would return and each cow would leave the herd as it came to its
(Bro. Groves added on a new line in a grim inconsequential manner: My
first job was pulling down wurlies.) He came from farming country
near Goulburn in NSW. One can read between the lines: Its
not the way we run dairy farms out in Goulburn! I dont suppose
in his wildest dreams Bishop Gsell thought he could reproduce the village
style of Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines in the Northern Territory!
It should be remembered that Dom (later Bishop) Salvado of New Norcia
in Western Australia had actually tried to share the nomadic life of the
tribes. The Benedictines gained good working knowledge of the local languages,
but little lasting effect otherwise, and the personal cost was too high.
In 1851 Bishop Salvado wrote:
Thus the practical study of the language, laws, traditions and customs
of the natives made us realise, among other things, that the very demanding
wanderers life which we had first adopted was only of doubtful use.
It called for the sacrifice of health and life on the part of the missionaries,
with little to show for it at the end. On the other hand, the method of
stability, that is, the founding of a mission, where hospitality could
be given to all the natives who wanted to learn a trade or receive religious
instruction, would yield good results, without exposing us to all the
hardships of the nomadic life. (cf. Wilson 1988:7)
The mission policy adopted by the Benedictines resulted in founding the
New Norcia monastery as a centre of Christian life and education. It is
the way the Benedictines evangelised Europe after the barbarian invasions.
People would be influenced towards Christianity to the extent that they
came into New Norcias sphere of influence. A similar policy was
followed in the north of Western Australia at Kalumbaru.
Connection between Social Development and Evangelisation
Is it really the case that we cannot evangelise unless we civilise
first? The gospel was written in a Jewish context. One of the first movements
in the early Christian church was to break the connection with Judaism.
St Paul contended that to be a follower of Christ one did not need to
adopt Jewish culture and ways of worship. The Christian eucharist quickly
replaced the temple sacrifices. Some of us would think that we have not
moved sufficiently away even yet from Jewish styles of prayer, the psalms
and all that. At any rate, it is accepted that the gospel way is quite
distinct from the Jewish cultural way. It is significant that in the Acts
of the Apostles (9:2) the early Christian church was called the
Is it bound up intrinsically with any specific cultural way? I think we
would immediately rule out any candidate that might be suggested. To be
Christian we dont have to think and behave like Englishmen. Or like
Italians, or Africans
or Chinese or Europeans, or whatever. Nowadays
since the reforms of Vatican II we take it for granted that if we do belong
to one or other of these cultures, we have the right and privilege of
being Christians according to the manner of our cultural status.
Why then must the Aborigines abandon their native culture and way of living
(I use native in its original sense) and become a sort of
black Englishmen or Frenchmen orthis is a difficult phraseblack
white Australians, in order to enter the Christian church? Could not their
Christian way of worship be integrated in principle with the wonga or
the lirga just as fully as with the very staid and stationary Gregorian
chant or plainsong? White Christians attending such an integrated Aboriginal
mass might feel rather out of placebut no more, I presume, than
an Aboriginal tribesman feels in the pews of a white parish church in
town on Sunday.
It is not unexpected that the government would aim at assimilation for
the sake of simple public order, but why did the early missionaries assume
so easily that one must take on a European style of life if
one is to become Christian? No wonder our churches are pretty empty of
I liked a comment Pastor Paul Albrecht made to me in Alice Springs in
1975 while I was preparing for a missionary conference for all the MSCs
to be held at Daly River later on that year. Pastor Albrecht saw the role
of the church in that age of social change was to help clarify the issues
for the Aboriginal people so as to enable them to make their own informed
choice. If a man came to him and said that all he wanted from white society
each year was a new shirt and pair of trousers, Pastor Albrecht would
point out that he could fulfil his desires by living out in the bush in
the freedom of his own country, doing a good bark painting some time in
the year, bring it in to Alice Springs and sell it, buy his new shirt
and trousers and go back home. If however he would like a radio cassette,
a Toyota landcruiser, a TV set, a deep freeze and an array of similar
things, then he had to realise and accept the implications of his choice:
house, employment, hours of work, education, community habitation, life
under social control and the rest of it.
Appreciation of Aboriginal Culture
When the first missionaries arrived in the Territory they must have come
with a great batch of prejudicial notions about Aboriginal society, which
had received a very negative press from explorers and anthropologists
of the early evolutionist persuasion. They found much in Aboriginal culture
not to their liking, but also a lot they came to admire. The Jesuits recorded
particular appreciation of the Malak Malak language on the Daly:
It is a beautiful languageor rather, contains the elements of
a very perfect one. So philosophical is it, that it forces the conclusion
that this despised race in times remote and in other lands was very much
higher in the social scale than we now find it
Their language abounds
in highly metaphysical distinctions unknown to ours. (cf. Wilson 1988:13)
Is it the case that evolutionist blinkers were preventing them from appreciating
the reality before their very eyes?
Bishop Gsell was very critical of aspects of the Tiwi culture, particularly
their treatment of young women. He showed a grudging admiration for their
democratic social structure (Gsell 1956:28, 54). He saw them as so totally
communistic that, tongue-in-cheek, he advised any serious student of communism
to go and live with the Tiwi for a whilehe was sure such a student
would return totally cured of his illusions! (p.32) He showed in his book
Bishop with 150 Wives that he had paid a lot of attention to the Tiwi
social system. In the epilogue Fr Dupeyrat quotes him thus:
Fifty years ago, when I started my missionary life, anthropology was
still in its infancy. If it had been developed as it is in our days, it
would have been very useful to me and would have helped me to avoid many
mistakes. I had to establish contact with the natives, alone, slowly,
prudently; I had to endeavour, to the best of my ability, to learn gradually
their habits and customs so as to penetrate into their minds and hearts
without hurt or shock. (Gsell 1956:173 174)
All the same I wonder if many missionaries have had as much effect on
the very social structure of their people as Bishop Gsell had on the Tiwi.
Through the bravery and desperation of Martina, and his courageous and
intelligent response to her plightin the text box at the end of
this article I provide a brief synopsis of the incidenthe undermined
the social structure of Tiwi society. He broke the power of the polygynous
gerontocracy. Thereby he created two new social classes: the unmarried,
unpromised, uncommitted girls and the free widows. He did not do it in
one stroke, but that was the eventual result of the decision he made to
buy Martina as a wife in 1921. In principle the old men no
longer had total control of the young women, nor of the widows, and thereby
they lost one of the main levers of control that they had been able to
exercise over the young men expecting early access to a wife, that is,
a recent widow, while they were being forced to wait for the eventual
maturation of their promised ones daughter.
I went off to AIATSIS recently to consult the anthropological records,
expecting to be confronted with a host of objections by anthropologists
to what this missionary had done. In an article in Hecate (1986:91) Tony
Scanlon referred to considerable opposition from anthropologists
and other groups. Scanlons own criticism was mainly of style:
the dismissive way Gsell spoke about Aboriginal culture. He had better
founded complaint when he considered the way other missionaries in the
north had broken up existing polygynous marriages and redistributed the
wives on the spot, thus causing a deal of confusion in the kinship system.
The trouble for Gsells critics was that they tended to be applauding
the incoming liberation of women in their own home societies, so could
scarcely condemn the new freedom women were gaining among the Tiwi. If
Fr Gsell had been going about his task in a rushed and violent manner,
that could have been a basis for criticism. On the contrary Fr Gsell was
praised by the leading anthropologist of the day, Professor Baldwin Spencer,
for his careful approach. In his biography of Baldwin Spencer Professor
Mulvaney writes (1985:301):
Gsells elementary yet tentative anthropological approach towards
first comprehending Aboriginal culture and language, in order to transform
it, gained Spencers grudging approval. His correspondence contains
numerous references to the strength of Gsells character and his
success, as compared with [others]
More serious criticism came from within the mission itself for precisely
the opposite reasons. His MSC companion, Fr Bill Henschke, was writing
to the Australian Provincial superior 192021 in complaint about
the lack of standard missionary activity. By that time there had been
no adult baptisms, no attempt at adult instruction, the free distribution
of food and tobacco without the demand for anything in returnin
fact he believed the mission a total failure and he expected its imminent
closure. (It is ironic that that was the very same time as Fr Gsell made
his epoch-making purchase of Martina.) His own desire was to get as far
away as possible, preferably to New Guinea. His letters make sad reading.
He had been worked constantly for six years in the saw mill with no chance
to do normal priestly ministry. His main comfort came from the care the
OLSH Sisters showed for him. Reading Fr
Henschkes complaints and having heard in an interview many years
later the comments of another of Bishop Gsells early priestly co-workers,
Fr John McGrath msc, one has to acknowledge that Bishop/Fr Gsell was a
hard task-master. In the event Fr Henschke was mercifully moved to Darwin
in 1922, where he remained in dedicated service until his death fifty
Nowadays we profit from the perceptive investigations of anthropologists
like W E H Stanner and have come to admire the poetic mysticism of Aboriginal
religion. Aboriginal artists have introduced us somewhat into the richness
of their vision of the world. We are bewitched by the Dreaming. We are
learning to admire the intricacies and functionality of their kinship
While I have suggested criticism of the connection that early missionaries
in the Territory perceived between Christianity and a settled agrarian
way of life, I have to acknowledge that the Catholic view of mission as
spelt out in the Papal missionary encyclicals of last centurywell
covered by Peter Hearn in his thesis (Hearn 2003:2730)outline
a responsibility of the church to develop social systems that promote
justice and proper human development for all peoples.
More importantly, Vatican Council documents envisaged a world wherein
every human value that is good would be acknowledged as part of Gods
creative plan and so become an operative part of the Kingdom of God on
earth and in time. That is what the missionary is endeavouring to bring
about! Nowadays in the Vatican II era the missionary goal is much bigger
than the saving of souls, as it was when Fr Gsell and his
companions first came out to this part of the world; it is even more than
planting the church; it is saving the world itself, with all
its particular cultures and peoples, men and women whether they be inside
or outside the formal structures of church membership. As St Paul saw,
it is redeeming creation itself and restoring everything in Christ.
This brings me back to my beginning, the Teihardian view. Over the ages
one can discern an expansion of human culture in awareness, language,
information technology, music, art, mechanical technology, medicine, food
in spite of all the negatives of war, cruelty, inhumanity,
social injustice, persecution, ethnic cleansing and the rest. Parallel
with it, intrinsically connected with it at times, subtly informing, reforming
and purifying it, is the other great force stemming from the life, death
and resurrection of Christ the Lord. Reflecting on this century of missionary
endeavour makes us aware of the great saga we are involved in.
* * *
In conclusion I would like to make two points:
Firstly, Nungalinya College where we are meeting today is both a symbol
and an instrument in a most important relatively recent missiological
advance in the diocese of Darwin. An Aboriginal Christian ministry is
being formed: surely it is only Aboriginal ministers who can guide and
nourish the completion of the missionary process amongst their own communities.
And this great work of ministerial formation is being performed by three
of the major branches of the Christian church working in formal union.
It augurs well for the future. The Nungalinya commitment is surely one
of the high points of Bishop Ted Collins episcopacy.
Secondly, we should remind ourselves of the challenge with which Pope
John Paul II confronted us and the Aboriginal people of Australia at Alice
Springs back in 1986 when he addressed them at Blatherskite Park:
You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church
herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her
to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that
contribution has been joyfully received by others.
Fr Martin Wilson msc has taught philosophy in
Australia and PNG. In 1977 at Daly River he established the Nelen Yubu
Missiological Unit and published its journal, Nelen Yubu until 2003. He
now concerns himself with publications and occasional addresses.
Gsell msc, F X, The Bishop with 150 Wives: fifty years as a missionary.
Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1956.
Hearn msc, Peter, A Theology of Mission Diocese of Darwin 1949-1985, Nelen
Yubu Missiological Unit, Kensington, NSW. 2003.
MacKillop sj, D, Anthropological notes on the Aboriginal tribes
of the Daly River, North Australia, in Transactions of the Royal
Society of South Australia, 1893.
Mulvaney, D J & Calaby, J H So Much that is New Baldwin
Spencer, 1860-1929 A Biography. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Scanlon T, Pure and Clean and True to Christ: Black
Women and White Missionaries in the North Hecate, 12(1-2):82-105,
Wilson msc, M, Ministry Among Aboriginal People: missiological overview
of the Catholic Church in Australia. PICT series. Collins Dove, 1988.
A brief summary might be helpful. Gsell describes the pivotal incident
in Chapter V, simply entitled Martina. She was an intelligent,
lively little girl. Like some other little Tiwi girls, she stayed
with the Sisters for schooling, but back in 1921 was not yet baptised.
An old man came out of the bush one day and claimed her as his promised
wife. With sorrow, Fr Gsell had to say farewell to her: they were all
bound by the tribal law. Martina begged to be allowed stay, but she was
led off in tears. She did not settle down and was punished with a spear-thrust
into her leg. As soon as she could, she fled back some 40 miles to the
mission. When her husband and his companions came with their spears ready
to take her back, with a fight if need be, Gsell managed to delay them.
Over night he got the idea of buying her from her husband and his tribe.
Tiwi were quite happy to sell their women for a few days to visiting pearl
divers and such like, but to sell her forever was not an action sanctioned
by tradition! Gsell laid out a most enticing array of goods like axes,
knives, flour, tobacco and pipe. After long discussion the Tiwi men decided
that they could sell Martina as his wife, provided he kept her as such.
So Fr Gsell gained an official Tiwi wife. He said he never agreed to the
codicil that he would not pass her on to another. In due course she found
a young baptised Tiwi man whom she was happy to marry. They had five children.
When her daughter, Elizabeth, was claimed as promised wife,
Gsell came to realise that in buying a wife he also had to add ownership
of his wifes female offspring into the bargain: he had
to buy off the prospective son-in-law as well. When Gsell was made bishop,
he was proud of the soubriquet Bishop with 150 wives. Sadly,
Martina contracted leprosy later on in life and died at the Channel Island