Identifying ways that Indigenous spirituality and the Catholic faith compliment each other became the central theme at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) National Assembly last month.
‘Liturgical inculturation’ was the topic of conversation amongst the 300 delegates from urban and rural Aboriginal communities across Australia.
Centring on the theme, ‘The heart of Jesus beats within us all’, the assembly took place from 2–6 July 2015 at Kormilda College in Darwin.
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann (AM), Charlie King (OAM), Thelma Parker and Vicki Clark were among the keynote speakers. Miriam has dedicated her life to developing Aboriginal education and art.
Addressing the topic liturgical inculturation, she spoke about identifying opportunities to share the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bring the gifts of their culture and spirituality to the Catholic Church in Australia.
Pope Francis recently said, ‘it is important to evangelise cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel. In countries of Catholic tradition, this means encouraging, fostering and reinforcing a richness which already exists’.
Lively discussions took place about ‘the importance of incorporating Aboriginal symbols into the traditional Mass. There is a respect for the tradition and culture of the Catholic Church but there is a desire for traditional symbols and rituals to be incorporated,’ Craig Arthur, National Administrator, NATSICC, explained.
Keynote speaker Charlie King who founded the ‘No More Campaign’ encourages men to take a stronger stand against family violence and child abuse. An ABC radio broadcaster and sports commentator, Charlie addressed the Assembly on the challenges faced by many Aboriginal communities. He referred to rates of domestic violence, the numbers of Aboriginal people in prison and dysfunctional family life due to addiction or abuse.
Vicki Clark spoke on past and present challenges and offered some solutions for a way forward in Aboriginal Catholic ministry.
Workshop presentations ranged from Maori spirituality in New Zealand to workshops that focused on Indigenous Connections about inspirational encounters throughout the beating heart of the Cape York Peninsula. Patricia Mowbray, Executive Secretary of the Bishops Commission for Relations with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders delivered a presentation titled, One Body, One Church. The Opening the Doors foundation held a workshop explaining how they help keep Koori kids in school, and Benny Hodges led a workshop about respect, leadership and values.
‘When we called for feedback about the assembly, one delegate who works in the education system, responded that it was the only space in the sphere where they could meet such a wide range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,’ explained Craig.
‘It’s a unique gathering because the only constant in the whole thing is the Catholic faith and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality,’ he added.
Throughout the Assembly, delegates discussed how communities can work together effectively. Delegates shared experiences about the wins and challenges they face. A healing Mass followed where ‘we all linked up together and were united as one’, Patricia said.
John Lochowiak, Deputy Chair of NATSICC, said ‘the Aboriginal people are really proud of their Catholic faith so coming together and sharing stories about what’s happening in their ministry is really important for them to unite’.
‘One of the elders told me that it was a highlight in their life because they just had such a great time at the Assembly,’ John added.
Patricia noticed that ‘people felt free to have a say during the conference. Normally people give feedback after the conference but on this occasion people had the courage to stand up and say what they thought and discuss the issues of concern’.
‘It’s important for Aboriginal people to experience events like the Assembly because when you have a group of people that are so dysfunctional and decimated, we tend to hit out at ourselves. However, if you have a forum like the Assembly where people come together to share stories of hardship but also some wins in a safe faith environment, it generates a positive feeling,’ John said.
Given the number of challenges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face in contemporary Australia, ‘many walked away from the Assembly feeling enlightened’.
‘During the three Masses and especially the healing Mass, it didn’t matter what discussions or differences took place outside, when we all came together to celebrate the Mass, we became one.’
Young people also gathered for a youth assembly that ran concurrently with the main Assembly. Attracting 50 young Indigenous Catholics from every state and territory, the youth assembly had a specific program focused on faith formation and sharing issues and experiences through the medium of music. At times, the youth and main assemblies joined together. Young people shared with the Elders their hopes, concerns and visions for the future.
Across Australia, there is a lot of trauma and discontent within Aboriginal communities because of how problems have been handled in the past, John added. ‘There is no denying that Aboriginal people have a special connection to the land but if you remove someone from their traditional area, it’s like taking away their soul, identity and way of life,’ John said with reference to the recent proposal by the WA Government to close remote Aboriginal communities. ‘We witnessed firsthand the connection that the Top End mob have to their land’.
‘What we need is cultural awareness and understanding,’ he added.
‘Consultation with people living within Aboriginal communities is essential. No communication and instilling fear in people is not a way forward,’ Craig explained.