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
Alice Springs Address and the Concept of Nation
JOHN WILCKEN SJ
THE TITLE OF this paper may seem surprising, given that the word nation
does not occur in Pope John Pauls address to Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people, on 29 November 1986. The Popes emphasis
was on other significant themes, such as respect for Indigenous cultural
and religious traditions, the tragic history of the original inhabitants
of this land since 1788, and the importance of developing a genuinely
Aboriginal Christianity. Nevertheless the concept of nation was hovering
in the background, and it is important that, at some stage, attention
be focussed on this fundamental concept. It is the aim of this present
paper to do this, although in a quite introductory way.
Paul V1 in 1970
Pope John Paul quotes from the address of Pope Paul V1 to the Aboriginal
people of Australia, which he gave in Sydney on 2nd December 1970. Brief
as it was, this statement was of considerable significance. It addressed
its hearers as the descendants of Australias first inhabitants,
affirmed the value of their life-style and culture and proclaimed that
Aboriginal people have all human and civic rights, as well
as certain duties and obligations. The Pope spoke of the enrichment
of Australian society by Aboriginal culture, and said: We deeply
respect your dignity and reiterate our deep affection for you (Paul
V1, 1970, 69). These are all positive features of the address.
Understandablygiven the date of 1970, and also the brevity of the
messagethere were also limitations. Here I wish to make two points.
First, the Pope says to his Indigenous hearers:
all other ethnic minorities
One would now want to make a clear
distinction between the original inhabitants of this land and other
ethnic minorities, i.e. presumably groups of non-Anglo-Celts, or
perhaps, of non-Europeans).
The second point is more subtle, but significant. The Pope declares:
The Church proclaims that you, like all other ethnic minorities, have
all human and civic rightsin every way the equal of those in the
This statement is both important andup to a pointunexceptionable.
It is rightly affirming of Aboriginal people. However, apart from the
problem that they are equated with other ethnic minorities,
there is the difficulty that the statement seems to presuppose the structural
status quo of Australian society. If the human and civic rights
are simply the equal of those in the majority, then no really
fundamental change to the way things are in Australia seems to be contemplated.
Yet it can be argued that for Indigenous people to have all human
and civic rights, fundamental change is required.
The same presupposition seems to be implied in a statement a little later
in the message: society itself is enriched by the presence of different
cultural and ethnic elements. Presumably the word society
here means Australia as presently constituted, i.e. the status quo.
This second point may seem carping criticism, but I hope its significance
will emerge as this paper proceeds. Meanwhile I want to reiterate that
Pope Pauls message was a powerful and inspiring one for its time.
John Paul II in 1986
Pope John Paul begins his speech in Alice Springs by addressing himself
to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia
(John Paul II, 1986, 93). Thereafter he simply uses the word Aboriginal,
but one can presume that it is meant to include Torres Strait Islanders
as well. Then, in his own text, he does not use the word ethnic,
or speak of Aboriginal or Islander people as another ethnic group. (The
word ethnic does occur in a quote from Paul VI.) The long
introductory section on the first inhabitants of Australia makes it clear
that he sees their descendants as forming a very special group, with unique
rights to the land.
Although the Mabo decision of the High Court was not given till nearly
six years later, the Pope speaks of the legal fiction adopted by
European settlers that this land was terra nulliusnobodys
country (John Paul II, 1986, 97). He goes on to say:
Let it not be said that the fair and equitable recognition of Aboriginal
rights to land is discrimination. To call for the acknowledgement of the
land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination
Thus the pope is stating that Aboriginal people already occupied, and
were in possession of, the land before the Europeans arrived, and that
they have never surrendered their rights. He is appropriately cautious,
however, about the way forward:
Certainly what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be
done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow.
Immense damage has been done to the Aboriginal societies (nations?) which
existed before the Europeans came, and obviously no simple return to the
pre-1788 situation is possible. As to what can be done, the Pope speaks
in general terms, but nevertheless he conveys an important message:
The establishment of a new society for Aboriginal people cannot go
forward without just and mutually recognised agreements with regard to
these human problems, even though their causes lie in the past.
The underlying question here is: who are the partners that will be involved
in establishing these just and mutually recognised agreements?
Presumably one partner will be the Commonwealth Government of Australia
(or perhaps each state government). But the critical question is: who
will be the other partner (or partners)? One must keep in mind the Popes
assertion that the Aboriginal people have never surrendered
their rights to the land.
These rights, or course, pre-date any British legal rights of ownership,
and are more fundamental than property rights established under British
or non-Indigenous Australian law. Here we are faced with the still-unfinished
business of the relationship between the settlers who arrived in 1788
and the original inhabitants of the land. Presumably the other partner
in the process of establishing just and mutually recognised agreements
must be the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders.
What Is a Nation?
Henry Reynolds, in his 1996 book, Aboriginal Sovereignty, discusses the
concept of nation, and points out that it is not the same
as the concept of state. He writes:
Definitions of a nation have remained remarkably constant since the
nineteenth century. They are concerned with culture, traditions, descent
and identity. States, on the other hand, are legal, political and constitutional
institutions (Reynolds 1996, 176).
He notes that in other countries this distinction is clearly recognised.
For example, Canadians both commonly and officially refer to the
Inuit, the Indians and the Métis as first nations (p. 177).
Nevertheless these are all part of the one state, one political entity,
namely Canada. In Australia, from federation onwards, there has been the
desire to affirm that we are not only one state, but also one nation.
The White Australia Policy was meant to ensure this; and it was believed
at the time of federation that the Aboriginal people were dying out. But,
as Reynolds writes:
We have never been one nation, popular rhetoric notwithstanding
share a country, a continent and a state, but not a nation (Reynolds 1996,
He suggests that perhaps we are, or could become, three nations in the
one state; but two of these nations would be very small, namely the Aboriginal
people and the Torres Strait Islanders (p. 177).
Two Founding Peoples:
Christopher Prowse, in an article published in 1997, makes use of the
concept of founding peoples. He writes:
I wonder if it may be helpful, therefore, to encourage a concept in
our present times which begins with the premise that there has existed
not one but two founding peoples of Australia. The vision would be that
Australians of the third millennium living in one of the most pluri-cultural
nations on earth, would look back in gratitude on its history and praise
the mutually enriching contributions of its two founding peoples: Aboriginal
Australians and largely Anglo-Celtic Australians (Prowse, 1997, 77).
And he continues:
If this concept is to be encouraged then a more attentive, sustained
and positive assessment of the Aboriginal contribution to Australias
present way of life ought to become a part of the nations reflex
There are some comments to be made on these quotations. First, although
only Aboriginal people are mentioned, the term is presumably meant to
include Torres Strait Islanders. Further, Prowse applies the word nation
to Australia, i.e. to the political entity. Thus he writes of Australia
as one of the most pluri-cultural nations on earth; and then
also he refers to the nations reflex thinking. Thus
there is still the notion of one nation. His significant contribution
to the debate is to speak of two founding peoples. Here the
word people refers to a cultural tradition; and in putting
on equal terms the Aboriginal and the largely Anglo-Celtic
cultural traditions, he is putting far greater emphasis on the Aboriginal
contribution than we have done up to this time. Now it is true that he
does speak of this as a contribution to Australias present
way of life, which would seem to imply some kind of acceptance of
the status quo. Yet his notion of two founding peoples, with
the assumption that both are of essential importance to Australia today,
does mean that considerable structural changes are required in our society,
in order to give proper expression to this notion. This is confirmed by
a passage later in the article, where he writes of:
a healing social environment from which may emerge formalised
social realities such as, for example, a more adequately expressed Australian
Constitution that acknowledges Aboriginal people as the first Australians,
a more courageous approach to the formulation of a treaty with the Aboriginal
people, a reconciling response to the legal consequences of the Mabo decision
and a greater determination to fulfil Australias international obligations
(Prowse, 1997, 82).
Especially noteworthy here is the reference to the formulation of
a treaty with the Aboriginal people. Such a treaty presumably would
be between nations. Yet there is no thought here of Aboriginal secession
from the political state of Australia.
In the Conclusion of his book, Aboriginal Sovereignty, Henry Reynolds
muses over the question: what direction should Australia take in the future?
At one point he makes some illuminating comments about the concept of
reconciliation. He asks:
What of the process of reconciliation? It is manifestly a worthy objective
but it is not completely clear who is to be reconciled to what or to whom
Looking at the matter from an Aboriginal and Islander point of view, he
makes the ironic comment:
Presumably Aborigines and Islanders are to be reconciled to loss of
land and sovereignty. If that is the case they have already delivered.
The more pressing question concerns non-Indigenous Australians, and what
they are to be reconciled with. His suggestion is challenging:
What might be expected is an acceptance of the existence and validity
of indigenous nationalism and a commitment to seek ways in which it can
be accommodated beneath the overarching roof of the Australia state. That
would be a gesture of appropriate gravity, magnitude and generosity (p.
One can only hope that the non-Indigenous people of Australia, and the
government that represents them, can have the sense of justice, the greatness
of spirit, and the basic humanity to make such a gesture.
Fr John Wilcken SJ lectures on theology in the
United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. In recent years he has reflected
on the relationship between Christian Theology and Aboriginal Religious
Traditions and has written a number of articles in this area.
Paul V1, 1970, Ad Continentis Australiani Aborigines, in Acta
Apostolicae Sedis, vol 63, 1971, 69).
John Paul II, 1986, Pope John Paul speaks to Aborigines, in
F. Brennan (ed.) Reconciling Our Differences, Melbourne: Aurora/David
Lovell, 1992, 93-101. (The official text of the address can be found in
Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol 79, 1987, pp 973-9.)
Henry Reynolds, 1996, Aboriginal Sovereignty, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Christopher Prowse, 1997, Australias Two Founding PeoplesImplications
for Pastoral Directions, in The Australasian Catholic Record, lxxiv
one, January 1997, 75-85.
At the beginning of time, as Gods Spirit moved over the waters,
he began to communicate something of his goodness and beauty to all creation.
When God then created man and woman, he gave them the good things of the
earth for their use and benefit; and he put into their hearts abilities
and powers, which were his gifts. And to all human beings throughout the
ages God has given a desire for himself, a desire which different cultures
have tried to express in their own ways.
As the human family spread over the face of the earth, your people settled
and lived in this big country that stood apart from all the others. Other
people did not even know this land was here; they only knew that somewhere
in the southern oceans of the world there was The Great South Land
of the Holy Spirit.
But for thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a
culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit
of God has been with you. Your Dreaming, which influences
your lives so strongly that, no matter what happens, you remain for ever
people of your culture, is your only way of touching the mystery of Gods
Spirit in you and in creation. You must keep your striving for God and
hold on to it in your lives.
John Paul II to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Blatherskite
Park, Alice Springs, 29 November, 1986..