New paths for our Church

By Sally FitzGerald, Roger FitzGerald and Craig Arthur, 10 July 2021
Indigenous and non-indigenous people place their hands on the Grandmother Gum tree as part of a Signing in to Country during a National Reconciliation Week event at the Blacktown Native Institute. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective on Laudato Si’ and Querida Amazonia

In February 2020, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation in response to the Synod on the Amazon. In many ways, Querida Amazonia is a successor to Laudato Si’, drawing on its concern for creation and the marginalised to provide a specific focus on the struggles of indigenous peoples faced with environmental exploitation and displacement from their traditional homelands. The document speaks not just to the situation in the Amazon, but to all countries with indigenous peoples.

Australian Catholics asked members of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) to reflect on what these two landmark documents mean to them.

Respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture has been a constant refrain from recent popes. In his 1970 visit, Paul VI described it as a precious “ethnic genius.”

St John Paul II went further in 1986, telling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people welcoming him at Alice Springs that “the Church in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received.”

More recently, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ has a deep respect for indigenous people and their culture. The Pope highlights the need to learn and draw from indigenous views of the world in which we all live:

“It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. For them, land is not a commodity but a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.” (Laudato Si’, para 146)

The recent synod in Rome explored the issues raised in Laudato Si’ in relation to indigenous communities in the Amazon region, resulting in an apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia. While the exhortation focuses on the Amazon in particular, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge has noted that the issues it considers are “not foreign to Australia”, but will spur us in the journey to the Plenary Council.

Indigenous inculturation

One of the main concerns for indigenous Catholics in the Amazon region was their place in the Church. This is also a concern for indigenous Catholics in Australia.

The indigenous people of the Amazon were invited to be present in Rome during the synod. With them, they brought their culture – the rich symbols and objects that spoke to them of their faith. Some Catholics objected to the presence of this culture, and by night threw some of the cultural items they considered ‘pagan’ into the River Tiber. It was, sadly, symbolic of the struggles that indigenous peoples face in trying to feel welcome in the Church.

In his exhortation, Pope Francis responded by calling for an “inculturated spirituality”. He noted that a “myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage, and not always considered a pagan error”. For indigenous cultures and peoples, he says, “ancient practices and mythical explanations co-exist with modern technologies and challenges”.

The message that we in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) continue to take from all this is that the universal Church will not be truly governed by the Holy Spirit unless the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that we can bring to it is joyfully received at the centre of the Church in Australia.

The smoking, the blessings with water, the sound with which we greet the summoning and consecration of the Spirit in our ceremonies are currently deeply rooted in their European Culture. Our own ancient, uniquely Australian traditions, which our people still carry, can sit well alongside the Church’s own rituals. They convey the significance of these ceremonies in an authentic, Australian way.

The Church in Australia needs to shift its mindset from an evangelisation and missionary focus to one of embracing traditional cultural elements in order to become more authentically Australian. A culture which places spirituality at its core, and which is governed by a reverence and respect for the Creator Spirit, must have attributes that will add to the beautiful tapestry of the Church in our nation.

A secondary issue highlighted by Querida Amazonia is the need for pastoral workers who can relate to indigenous cultures, whether they are indigenous ordained ministers and religious, married priests and/or women as deacons. Inevitably, the First World media made these secondary clerical issues the headline ones when reporting on the synod outcomes.

Human ecology

Another key issue in the Amazon is the threat to indigenous land and sovereignty, which is so destructive of their society and wellbeing. Coming with this threat are the significant ecological impacts of land clearing and the economic exploitation of the land for agriculture and mining.

These risks aren’t confined to the Amazon – they are issues of global concern. They are relevant for Australia, considering our dependence on sustainable land management for our agricultural and mining sectors, and our delicately balanced water resource arrangements – and with the attempt to strip away Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodianship over the land in our own recent past. The fires that blazed in the Amazon region ahead of the synod in October 2019 presaged the fires and other major calamities experienced in Australia last summer.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes:

“Mother Earth now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.

“The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’ (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, as the spiritual custodians and carers of her land and her waters, heartily agree. In the words of our own Statement of the Heart:

“We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

Sally FitzGerald and Craig Arthur are from the Australian Catholic Bishops’ National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC). Roger FitzGerald is a member of the Laudato Si’ circle in Belconnen South Parish, ACT.

NAIDOC Week 2021 runs from 4 to 11 July.

Reproduced with permission from Australian Catholics, a publication of Jesuit Communications Australia.


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