Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48
18 April 2021
On this third Sunday of Easter, we respond to Peter’s declaration to the people in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” and Jesus’ declaration to his disciples that they are witnesses to this: “that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.
Being the third Sunday of the month, I celebrate masses in prison. Thirty years ago the Australian Government received the final reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The commission was in response to 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody.
When tabling the royal commission reports in Parliament, Robert Tickner, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, noted that of the 99 Aborigines who had died in custody, 43 had experienced childhood separation from their natural families through intervention by state authorities, missions or other institutions; 83 were unemployed at the date of their last detention; 43 had been charged with an offence at or before the age of 15; and only two had completed secondary schooling.
One of the royal commissioners was the Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson who is now a Senator for Western Australia. On the 25th anniversary of the commission, I attended the National Press Club when Patrick Dodson addressed the nation. He told us: “The vicious cycle remains the same”. If you are an Aboriginal person walking down the street:
- You are more likely to come to the attention of the police
- Having come to the attention of the police, you are more likely to be arrested and charged
- Having been arrested and charged, you are more likely to go to court
- Having gone to court, you are more likely to go to jail
- Having gone to jail, you are more likely to die in custody.
The royal commission definitely improved the systems for supervision of persons in detention, reducing the risk of deaths in custody. It also led to better coronial procedures. But it failed to reverse Indigenous imprisonment rates and it did little to counter the underlying causes of Indigenous imprisonment.
At the time of the royal commission, 14% of the prison population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; now they are 29% of the prison population. In Western Australia, they [are 43% of the adult prison population. In the Northern Territory, they are 84% of the prison population.
Admittedly the number of Australians identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander has increased greatly since the royal commission 30 years ago, a rate of increase much greater than the overall population increase. Having been 1.6% of the population in the 1991 census, 2.8% of Australians identified as Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander in the most recent 2016 census.
A person identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is still 10 times more likely than any other Australian to end up in prison. The underlying causes remain entrenched in our post-colonial society.
This past week, the South Australian coroner reporting on the ghastly rape and murder of a nurse called out on duty had cause to make observations about the conditions in the remote Aboriginal community in the APY Lands where the nurse served. He spoke of “the general lawlessness within the community” and an “atmosphere of dysfunction and violence” which has “largely remained unchecked”. The coroner quoted an experienced medical practitioner who described this particular community ‘as “completely lawless” and the most violent place in which she had resided and worked while employed ….in the APY Lands, to the point where she believed that serious consideration needed to be given to the withdrawal of services from this particular community so as to bring it to its closure.
This is the pressing daily social reality of men, women and children living on some remote communities in Australia. It is the ongoing reality of our nation still coming to terms with the consequences of colonisation. As the Aboriginal representatives reminded us at Uluru in May 2017:
“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.”
The words in today’s scripture readings are addressed not only to prisoners but especially to those of us better positioned to do something about the appalling circumstances in which so many of our fellow citizens continue to live: “Now you must repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out”. This speech of Peter to the people in Chapter 3 of the Acts of the Apostles is very different from his speech at Pentecost in Chapter 2 “which focused primarily on the reality of the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit”. In this later speech, Peter stresses “the people’s rejection of Jesus at the time of his first visitation: they preferred a murderer to the author of life, and demanded Jesus’ death even when Pilate wanted to release him (3:13–15). The charge is devastating, all the more so when the people as a whole are implicated as much as their leaders.”
The scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnstone tells us that Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, has Peter offer some points in mitigation to the people, one point being that “both they and their leaders had acted in ignorance”. Peter offers “the possibility for repentance, both for people and for leaders. Their first rejection was not final. They are not excluded from the offer of salvation. In fact, “in the name of Jesus” it is being offered to them now. But the stakes are obviously higher. Now they know. They can no longer appeal to ignorance. The fact of God’s raising up Jesus is manifest in the deeds he works through the apostles. This second offer of salvation is not veiled.”
As a result of studies such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 years ago and in the face of unassailable findings like last week’s South Australian coronial inquiry, we cannot plead ignorance when it comes to the ongoing effects of colonisation in Australia.
A homily is no place to offer social and political solutions. But pondering the enormity of the challenge this past week, I was struck by the comparison offered between the lives and ministry of Fr Hans Kung and Cardinal Edward Cassidy who died in recent days. Christopher Lamb, The Tablet’s Rome correspondent compared them this way: “While Küng liked to throw bricks through the Vatican’s windows, Cassidy preferred to patiently repair the faults from within the Roman system.”
Cassidy was president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 1989 to 2001. He oversaw the landmark 1999 agreement between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification. Fr Oliver Lahl, who worked with Cassidy’s successor Cardinal Walter Kasper, told Christopher Lamb: “When I waited for him in a meeting room, you could hear him coming with his very specific, very fast, small steps. And that was also his approach to ecumenism: you need (a lot of) small steps. He was not a scholar of the history of the Reformation or of the development of Lutheran theology. His contribution was friendship and reliability. He was able to compromise and to understand that to widen the common ground, both sides had to move.” When Cassidy retired, Pope John Paul II commended him for his “thoroughness, kindliness of character and moderation of judgement”.
If we Australians are to improve the situation in communities such as the one highlighted by the South Australian coroner this week, and if we are to make a real difference to the problems highlighted yet again by Patrick Dodson, we will need both the occasional Kung and the occasional Cassidy – those who can throw the bricks as a wake-up call to Canberra, and those who take lots of small steps, able to compromise, understanding that “to widen the common ground, both sides have to move”. Let’s repent and to God, so that our sins might be wiped out. And let’s preach forgiveness to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem, that is, beginning with ourselves and our own.
 Patrick Dodson, Address to National Press Club, 13 April 2016, see http://classic.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/IndigLawB/2016/12.pdf
 Finding of Inquest into Gayle Elizabeth Woodford available at http://www.courts.sa.gov.au/CoronersFindings/Lists/Coroners%20Findings/Attachments/924/WOODFORD%20Gayle%20Elizabeth.pdf
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, Volume 5, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992, p. 73
 Christopher Lamb, ‘View from Rome’, The Tablet, 17 April 2021, p.28
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).