HOMILY at St Christopher’s Cathedral, Canberra on the First Sunday of Advent and the 30th Anniversary of St John Paul II’s Speech at Alice Springs.
We have now entered into a new Liturgical Year focussing on the Gospel of Matthew. We begin today our Advent Season.
The Gospel calls us to STAY AWAKE in anticipation for the Lord’s coming. We are to be ‘READY,’…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’. It is a time of hope.
Not only is Jesus to come unexpectedly in time, but he comes unexpectedly in appearance. Who would have expected the Almighty Son of God to come unexpectedly as a fragile child in a Bethlehem stable, at an unexpected time of Roman Imperialism in the chaotic religious culture of Judea.
Also today, we welcome Pope Francis’ representative in Australia, our Apostolic Nuncio, His Excellency, Archbishop Yllana, as our Principal Celebrant. He is with us because it is a special day for all Australians. We look back to the Pastoral Visit 30 years ago of St John Paul II to Australia. In this 1986 visit, the Pope visited all States of Australia. It was however, his monumental speech in Alice Springs (29th November 1986) that we recall today.
We recall this important speech, particularly because it is cherished still by the thousands of Aborigines who gathered in Alice Springs to meet the Pope. Like the Advent Season itself, this address is full of hope and prophetic insight. I know some aboriginal friends who have memorised large sections of the Pope’s address.
Australia was called to STAY AWAKE to the on-going culture clash of the European settlement over 230 years ago with the oldest living culture on earth – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We are to remain READY to walk alongside our First Australians as they continue the slow task of rebirth – supporting them to “walk tall and command respect”. There is so much remaining to do (eg. Look at the appalling suicide and incarceration rates). Societal attitudes and structural change must continue to help, not hinder Aborigines.
Like the Christ child himself, the Pope’s address was unexpected in both appearance and message.
In appearance, it was unexpected that St. John Paul II would himself travel all the way to Alice Springs in the desert of Central Australia specifically to meet and address our First Australians. His humility and explicit desire to meet personally the aboriginal people made an enormous impression on those gathered.
But who would have expected his prophetic message that has set the agenda for the Catholic Church’s walking with our First Australians ever since.
The Pope spoke with great admiration of all that Aboriginal people offer us. He admired their “spiritual closeness to the land, a quietness of the soul” taught by “The silence of the bush.” He made parallels between the “Dreamtime legends”, and the traditions of “those of Jesus and His people”.
Then St. John Paul II spoke of the continuing deeply troubling effects of the two cultures encounter from 1770 till the present. He was direct in his presentation. He spoke of Aboriginal dispossession of their traditional lands and ancient tribal ways. Using strong language to indicate the continuing effects today of their dispossession, he added, “The discrimination caused by racism is a daily experience.” He spoke of their endurance and that “the church still supports you today.”
Finally, Pope John Paul pledged the church’s ongoing support in the future. He said the Gospel of Jesus “esteems and embraces all cultures” and the Gospel “invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians.”
In a phrase remembered forever by Aborigines, he said “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.”
So thirty years later on, have we joyfully received the contribution of our First Australians?
It has been indeed a mixed report card. I am amazed how many of us still have yet to make real friends with Aborigines. To acknowledge country, fly flags and display aboriginal artefacts, without personal friendships runs the risk of becoming tokenistic and patronising of Aborigines. We must really walk with and accompany them in genuine companionship and compassionate dialogue. We are taking such a long time to work with aborigines, rather than simply work for Aboriginal advancement in Australia.
With Advent hope, let us scrutinise our responses and carefully accompany our First Australians along the long road to rebirth.
Finally, and again quite unexpectedly, a desert storm began immediately after the Papal speech in Alice Springs 30 years ago. To so many Aboriginal people, it was a sign of creation’s positive response to the Pope’s prophetic speech.
Recently, Mr John Lochowiak, the Chairman of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, offered a poetic interpretation of this event. He said, “As St John Paul II spoke a windstorm picked up the red soil from the earth and swirled it amongst our people. The dust seemed to intertwine with the words of love, hope and empathy. The message touched our souls and it touched our skin. Never before had we felt so welcome in the house of Jesus, as when St John Paul II spoke.”
In this Mass we thank the Lord for this beautiful address 30 years ago in Alice Springs to our First Australians. May St John Paul II, interceding for us from heaven, make the vision and dream of his speech a reality today.
This expresses our Advent hope and our sincere prayer in this Mass.
Most Rev. Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn