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Vol 40 No 4

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Martin Wilson MSC

Dawn Cordona

Lorraine Erlandson

Pat Mullins SJ

Peter Hearn MSC

John Wilcken SJ

Patrick McInerney

Abe Ata

Anthony Gooley

Kevin Mark



Comments on the Gsell lecture


I GIVE THANKS firstly to God for all the Religious and Lay Missionaries of the past and present.

I am a Territorian and person of Aboriginal descent and I have received the faith through the labours of the early missionaries down in Central Australia which enabled my mother and grandmother to receive the Catholic faith.

It is difficult to say all I would like to say in the short time I have been given to respond so I need to get straight to the point.

One of the things that has completely confused me with the Church has been the connection of Christianity to Dreamtime. So, your comment Fr. Martin that nowadays we profit from the perceptive investigations of anthropologists and that we are bewitched by the Dreaming is what grabbed my attention in your paper.

It would appear from Pope John Paul II’s address to the Indigenous Australians in Alice Springs in 1986 that this was an affirmation of the Dreaming. Have the anthropologists lead the Church into affirming a set of beliefs quite different from Christianity and to uniting the two as one? Does this help us come to know the truth about Jesus?

Some indigenous Christians with connection to Dreamtime beliefs, law and culture with the help of non-indigenous religious appear to have accepted to unite the two beliefs, whilst others choose to reject one or the other. Many indigenous Christians who have lost connection to Traditional Aboriginal beliefs and culture are trying to connect to the culture and at the same time are not very well instructed in the Christian faith and it becomes obvious that there exists confusion in how to live these beliefs out.

I believe the Church in doing this has undone some of the work of the early missionaries in bringing people into a relationship with Jesus by practically saying you can belong to the Church and retain your Traditional Aboriginal beliefs and this in effect has almost made Jesus irrelevant and this has been reflected in some of the views and practices of some of both my indigenous brothers and sisters and non-indigenous religious that I have encountered within the Church and I’ll share on some of these shortly.

The early missionaries believed there was a difference between Aboriginal Religion and Christianity and some regard this to have been uninformed judgements. However their views would certainly have been influenced by Jesus’ words himself (Mark 16:15) when he told his disciples to “Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all people.” Did Jesus make a mistake? Why would he tell his disciples to go to the ends of the earth if those at the ends of the earth already knew the truth?

Both Aboriginal Religion and Christianity contain a set of beliefs which govern the way of the life of the believers. As these beliefs have been united and are worked out in the Christian faith and worship there appears to me to be a need for guidance and direction from the Church Religious leaders to the indigenous people.

You would all be aware of the differences in the beliefs:

Dreaming beliefs offer eternal life here on earth. Each indigenous person’s place is secured through their place of birth. This belief convinces people that their place of belonging is to the land.

Christianity offers eternal life with the Creator whose Kingdom we are told by Jesus (John 18:36) ‘…does not belong to this world…’ Each person’s place is prepared and awaits them because of their faith in Jesus. In John 17:16 Jesus says ‘Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world.’

The Dreaming spirituality is a connectedness to the spirit/s which dwells in the land where the spirits of the ancestors are forever present in some form in nature. There appears to be some differences of interpretation of these beliefs and some believe it to be a connection to the spirits of the ancestors.

Christianity offers a spirituality of connecting to the unseen Creator through the Son through whom the Holy Spirit is given to dwell in the hearts of the believers.

Some indigenous people keep saying we have a deep and rich spirituality. Didn’t Jesus say blessed are the poor in spirit? Does one belief give a sense of security that you have the past, the present and the future all before your eyes in the things of creation? Doesn’t our Christian spirituality bring us into recognition of our need and total trust in Jesus to bring us into the unseen kingdom which awaits us?

Is it a part of Christianity for a follower of Jesus to address their prayers to the spirits of the ancestors?

Is the intention of the smoking ceremony used in Christian worship supposed to be connected to leaving people with a sense of being cleansed and forgiven? That was one non-indigenous man’s response after having experienced a smoking ceremony at an Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.

Is it Christian to pray for healing with spirit guides?

These things happen and it seems people don’t know any different.

I can see parallels between what has happened within the Church with indigenous peoples and some of the encounters Jesus had with people.

In John 4:22 Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman. This woman and her people believed they knew God and that they were worshipping him. Jesus said to her: ‘You Samaritans do not really know whom you worship; because it is from the Jews that salvation comes.’

Jesus’ own people rejected Him and believed that they knew God and yet they did not accept that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life.

When Indigenous Christians claimed we already knew God and had a connection and relationship with the Spirit of God through the Dreaming are we not rejecting Jesus as the one who brings us into relationship with the
Father and opens the way to eternal life with the Creator?

Some of my perceptions are that some people have almost excluded Jesus in the connecting of the beliefs and overlook the fact that as Christians the relationship is with Jesus and that he is the one we are following.

A Catholic nun presented a paper at a conference I attended last year. She seemed to be of the opinion that as Church we didn’t need to give indigenous Australians theology courses or do anything for them except leave them alone because they have it all in what they have. She was also of the opinion that whether indigenous people lived in remote or urban towns and cities they were true to their culture and never changed. She had in the past lived in a remote community in the Northern Territory.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people have portrayed our people as having the ideal culture and perfect connection to the Spirit of God through the Dreaming. One indigenous Christian’s account is that we lived in perfect harmony with God and one another and had no sin.

A leader in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal down south told me that he offered to do a school of evangelization with the Aboriginal Catholic Community. The reply was no, we have the message stick. The Word of God was rejected in favour of the message stick. Indigenous people will all gather in Alice Springs in October for the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council Assembly and it will be interesting to see whether the messages conveyed on the message sticks from all around Australia come from the gospel or are messages about culture. How culturally appropriate is the message stick today when everyone is walking around with mobile phones texting one another?

There are many aspects of culture that are contrary to Christian beliefs, e.g. sorcery, cursing and pay-back are still alive and active in our communities.

The Church today appears to remain silent on some of the negative aspects of culture that the early missionaries addressed. People need to be instructed on what is accepted and what needs to be renounced and then it is their free choice to accept or reject Christianity. It hurts the whole body if some are engaging in practices which some in the Church perceive to be harmful and draws criticism from outsiders as to what we as a Church are all about.

We touch the surface level of external cultural practices within the Church. Some are concerned about whether the chalice and paten are culturally appropriate whilst at the same time some indigenous people refuse to receive

Communion from particular Eucharistic Ministers for cultural reasons and some would not be able to help particular relatives that might be hurt lying by the roadside due to their cultural beliefs.

Enculturation was introduced to help make the worship more meaningful to the people of the culture. However, this seemed to come at a time when the peoples of the culture had already been introduced to and influenced by the dominant Australian culture. Cultures do change. There exists a great diversity amongst the indigenous people of Australia. What may be the lived experience of some who have connection to Traditional Aboriginal culture and ceremony may not be the lived experience of others. Many are concerned about whether cultural expressions are evident within our indigenous Church worship but at the same time outside the Church in secular life for many we are disconnected to the traditional Aboriginal culture but borrow aspects of the culture to make the worship more cultural.

We are happy to see language, art, song and dance included in the liturgy. It is great, but, what about the brokenness, pain and suffering in families and communities. Often the result of the culture we live in and although this may have some roots from the impact of our history we need to accept our personal sinfulness which causes pain and suffering to ourselves, our families and communities.

I asked some students what was in their culture today and they said suicides was a part of their culture. One indigenous Catholic woman related that her husband wanted to bring a second wife into the marriage.

After Vatican II in trying to rectify mistakes of the past in relation to culture we appear to want to leave people in the comfort of their culture and the gospel is not challenging things in the culture because as Church we seem to have the attitude that all is good in the culture. The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction from where it was with the early missionaries and it needs to find a point of balance or the Church buildings in some places will become venues for promoting culture while the faith aspect takes a back seat.

Our early missionaries copped a lot of criticism especially from outside the Church. They were not perfect. None of us are. Some people left the Church with bitterness and anger because of their experiences. But, because of these missionaries some of our indigenous people still remain connected to the Church and have a deep love for Jesus and the Church. Through them we received the faith. We need to ensure that it is the faith we continue to give and not just expect to see aspects of culture in the Church worship but people living the faith in the culture, and to live the faith we need to know what that faith is.

Just going to Mass each Sunday and a little catechetical instruction in preparation for the Sacraments isn’t going to keep us growing and deepening in our knowledge and understanding of Jesus. As Religious you receive ongoing training and education to keep you growing. Our indigenous adults need to have ongoing Christian education and training too.

It seems to me like the Church has almost done the reversal of what happened in the beginning with the early missionaries and are saying to the indigenous people, what we took away from you and interrupted in your beliefs and culture, take it all back and you can have Christianity as well. In doing this we have in a kind of way become the spoilt ones who can have it all. But in having it all we are not going to grow or know who we are following if the faith aspect is neglected in being provided as ongoing development for our indigenous people.

Lorraine Erlandson is a Staff Member at Nungalinya College.