For the first time, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement has been launched by an Aboriginal person. Sherry Balcombe, an Olkola/Djabaguy woman originally from Far North Queensland, and manager of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in the Archdiocese of Melbourne (on the lands of the Kulin Nation), launched the 2021 Statement entitled Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor on Thursday 5 August to hundreds of Australian Catholics and others online. The statement encourages Catholic families, communities and organisations to join their Church in its journey towards ecological sustainability. In particular, the Statement encourages listening and learning from First Nations people.
The natural spirituality of Aboriginal people
Speaking to Sherry about the connection between Aboriginal people and the Catholic Church, she talks about how the natural spirituality of Aboriginal people, built on ‘the Dreaming’ of past, present and future, meant they understood the deep spiritual message of the Gospel when it was first presented to them by early Christian settlers.
“We got that!” she explains. “We already had spirituality within us. We understood that God was greater than anything and that we have God within us.”
She also describes how Aboriginal people could identify with Jesus. “He was a person persecuted for doing nothing wrong,” she says, highlighting the persecution and injustices Aboriginal people have suffered in the past 230 years, many of which are still occurring.
The message of Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor stems from Pope Francis’s call in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ to care for the earth and recognise that the climate crisis will impact the most vulnerable people first.
Australians will be some of the first environmental refugees
Sherry points out that First Nations people in Australia will be some of the first people in the world to be environmental refugees. “Our Torres Strait Islander people will need to leave their homes as the oceans rise,” she says. Visiting her relatives in Cairns, she sees the erosion already happening on the beaches there. “We’re also seeing things like plants blooming too early. We know when things are out of kilter.”
The misuse and destructive practices by humans on our world, impact Aboriginal people on a spiritual level as well. “We come from the earth, we see the land as a person,” she explains.
Her descriptions of some of the ceremonies practised with new-born babies vividly illustrate the deep relationship Aboriginal people have with the land.
Some First Nations people have a ceremony where the baby is rubbed with emu oil, sprinkled with dirt from their land, then washed in the local river or watering place. Others present their babies to the moonlight. “These rituals show we are from the land, and the land is in us,” she explains.
It’s also seen in Aboriginal smoking ceremonies that cleanse people before they visit another person’s land, a mark of respect both to people and place. “It’s a similar to how Catholics purify an altar with incense,” she says.
Prayer cards for ‘Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor‘ can be downloaded from the website of the Office of Justice, Ecology and Peace.
We are invited to make changes and think differently
Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor invites us to make changes, Sherry said at the launch. “Aboriginal people have seen what is happening to our country and are waiting for its protection.”
She urges us to listen to the Catholic Church’s messages about protecting our common home and gives a few examples. “We need to mine, but there is a limit, and we need to think about the purpose that God put the minerals there” she says. “When I think about that I think ‘Surely God didn’t put them there just for us to dig up.’”
Similarly, she is alarmed at what is happening to our waterways. “They are our livelihoods,” she says, “We need to start looking differently at them.”
Returning to the connection that Aboriginal people have with the Catholic Church, Sherry would like to see First Nations culture incorporated at a deeper level. “Not just tokenistically, but at a decision-making level where the knowledge and spirituality of Aboriginal people can make a difference to the system.”
She quotes the address Pope John Paul II gave to Aboriginal people when he visited Australia in November 1986.
“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.” (13)
First Nations people’s spirituality has been incorporated into the American and Canadian Catholic Churches well, she says. She compares it to the relatively low level of official involvement by Aboriginal people in the Australian Catholic Church. At the upcoming Plenary Council, she hopes that the numerous submissions she and others have made about more intrinsic involvement of Aboriginal people in the Church are considered seriously.
The invitation by the Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace to launch Cry for the Earth, Cry for the Poor was a wonderful recognition, says Sherry, and she felt honoured to be asked. She is seeing some attitude and behavioural changes around understanding Aboriginal spirituality, and remains hopeful.
“I’m being asked more often to speak to schools and parishes about Aboriginal people’s culture and experience,” she says. “The Church is starting to think more about Aboriginal people.
“Laudato Si’ is awakening that recognition.”
You can download the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2021-2022 plus prayer cards and other resources from the Office of Justice, Ecology and Peace. Social Justice Sunday will be held on 29 August this year.