Alive with Power

ATSI Sunday 2014

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday

22 June 2014 

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis speaks to us of our responsibility to care for and protect the most vulnerable people of our planet. He includes indigenous peoples.

He also speaks of those who are homeless, migrants, or victims of human trafficking, of people who are addicted, and of the extreme vulnerability of unborn children. He goes on to say that our commitment to the vulnerable embraces not just humans in need, but also the wider community of life on Earth. He includes the land itself among the vulnerable, and all the creatures that are not able to defend themselves against ruthless human exploitation.

He writes: There are other weak and defenceless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation. I am speaking of creation as a whole. We human beings are not only the beneficiaries but also the stewards of other creatures. Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction which will affect our own lives and those of future generations (par. 215).

In our own land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a unique contribution to make as the wider Australian community is challenged to face up to the damage it is doing to God’s beautiful creation. They can help the rest of us to learn how to “take care of country,” to protect the land, the seas, the rivers and the forests, and all the creatures who inhabit them.

From time immemorial, indigenous Australians have considered themselves as custodians of the land. Different communities have seen themselves as responsible for their own particular places, and have exercised this responsibility faithfully over countless generations. The sense of being a custodian is deeply interconnected with the various traditional forms of spirituality of the peoples of this land.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have joyfully embraced the good news of Jesus, and become part of the community of his disciples. In encountering Jesus they do not abandon their feeling for the land. On the contrary, in him, they find new reasons to love the land and to “care for country.”

They see this land with its river red gums, its outback water holes, its wallabies, its beautiful parrots, its carolling magpies, its coral reefs, as the gift of a loving, bountiful Creator, the God whom Jesus teaches us to call Abba/Father. They understand the landscape and all that it contains as this God’s good creation – “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31)

They encounter the Jesus of the Gospels, who delights in the birds and the wild flowers of Galilee and sees them as cared for by God, and as precious to God – “not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6).

Jesus looks closely at the world around him, at trees growing from tiny seeds, at fishermen throwing a net into the sea, at a woman mixing yeast into the dough to make bread. He takes up such images in his parables of the kingdom that speak of God’s presence and action. His parables are the work of someone who sees the natural world as the gift of God and the place of divine presence.

The natural world is deeply connected to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. The first Christian community saw the wider creation as destined to share with human beings, in an unimaginable way, in the salvation that comes to us through Jesus’s resurrection (Rom 8:18-25; Col 1:15-29).

Many indigenous Australians feel so connected to the land that, to use words of Pope Francis in the quotation above, they feel the damage being done to country almost as “a physical ailment” and they feel the extinction of species as “a painful disfigurement.”

The rest of us can learn from them to allow ourselves to experience our interconnection with the land at a deep level, and to know the call of God to act with respect and love for God’s creatures and for their habitats.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians have an important role in helping the rest of us discover a sense of God’s presence in our own encounters with the Australian bush, whether it be in mountains, deserts, rainforests or on beaches.

We can encounter the Holy Spirit in moments of peace and of quiet joy in the natural world. We can come to a sense of the Spirit breathing through the land, of the Holy Spirit as the “Giver of Life” for the whole creation.

The witness of indigenous Australians can teach all members of the Christian community to see that when we gather for Eucharist, and when we bring gifts of bread and wine to the altar, we hold this land with all its creatures up to God. They can teach us that we humans belong to the one community of creation before God, and that in the Eucharist we praise God with this community– “All you have created rightly gives you praise” (3rd Eucharistic Prayer).

There is, then, a close and deep connection between this kind of spirituality and that of Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis points this out: “Small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live, and all its peoples” (par. 216).

Francis of Assisi’s love for God and for all of creation is expressed in the Canticle of the Creatures. The sense of the presence of God in creation and humans is probably the most significant mark of St Francis’ spirituality.

In 1979 Pope John Paul II named St Francis of Assisi heavenly patron of those who promote ecology. Thirty five years later people look more and more to St Francis for guidance and direction.

It seems strange to use a Canticle composed by a 13th Century Italian struggling with illness and death, to explore a concept belonging to people of a different world view and of whom its author had no connection with. However, considering that “the many cultures [of Oceania] provide insights which help the Church to understand better and express the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” (1) it does seem appropriate to see if Franciscan spirituality can be linked with Aboriginal spirituality.

The Canticle of the Creatures clearly shows a deep relationship between Francis and his environment. Every aspect of nature had meaning and purpose. The connections are even made in familial terms – brother and sister. All too are at peace and in harmony with one another: the moon and stars with the sun; the water with the wind; the earth with fire. One single family has been formed before the face of the Creator.

Indigenous people see land as being alive with power. It is sacred as it has been formed by ancestral beings who have also given shape to the world. There is a deep relationship between Aboriginal people and the land. The land owns the people and every aspect of their lives are connected to it.

“The land is my backbone… I only stand straight, happy, proud and not ashamed about my colour because I still have land… I think of land as the history of my nation.” Galarrwuy Yunipingu

The Canticle was composed by St Francis toward the end of his life. He could no longer bear the light of day. He declared, “I want to write a new Praise of the Lord for his creatures which we use every day, and without which we cannot live. Through them, the human race greatly offends the Creator, and every day we are ungrateful for such great graces, because we do not praise, as we should, our Creator and the Giver of all good.”2

St Francis wanted to restore right relationships between God, humankind and all that exists. He acknowledges the relationship of the creatures to God and human kind in the Canticle: “To You alone Most High, do they belong, and no one is worthy to mention Your name”.

Brother Sun gives light and bears a likeness of God; Brother Wind, air and all weather gives sustenance to creatures; Sister Water is useful; Brother Fire lights the night; Sister Mother Earth sustains and governs us. These relationships are acknowledged in the Canticle and await a human response.

1.  Pope John Paul II Ecclesia in Oceania (St Pauls Publications Sydney 2001), 50. 

2.  “The Assisi Compilation” in Regis Armstrong O.F.M. Cap., J.A. Wayne Hellman O.F.M. Conv. and William J. Short O.F.M. (editors), Francis of Assisi: Early Documents Volume 2 The Founder, (New York, New City Press, 2000), 186