Bishops lament scourge of suicide in message for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday

A screenshot from the Australian bishops’ video message for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday

Australia’s Catholic bishops have called for greater collaboration to stem the tide of the terrible loss of life through suicide among not only the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, but throughout the wider Australian society.

In their annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday message, the bishops have identified five key principles to help government, faith-based and other organisations to walk together with communities struggling to cope with and to prevent the further loss of young lives.They have also referred to how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have suffered from dispossession and displacement, violence and a lack of self-determination around decision-making, all against a backdrop of a rapidly-changing society.

Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green OSPPE, chair of the Bishops Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics were a growing demographic in our Church today and numbered more than 130,000.

“We must continue to reach out and provide opportunities where we may be enriched and nourished by their deep spirituality, culture and love for Jesus Christ, by opening the doors to our hearts and our homes,” he said.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday is a significant celebration in the Church calendar, falling this year on July 7. It gives the Church in Australia an opportunity to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and also signify that Australians are united as one in God’s love and care.

“As Catholics, we can set an example for the rest of Australia to follow by coming together as equals and friends in our schools, parishes and organisations in the name of Jesus Christ and in the spirit of mutual respect and unity as one people,” Bishop Macbeth-Green said.

“Just as Jesus did, we must meet people where they are and walk alongside our First Nations peoples on their journey to reconciliation and justice.”

So deeply concerned are they about the increasing incidence of suicide, especially youth suicide, bishops from the Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have spoken out in a video message for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Sunday, calling for action and collaboration. It can be found here via YouTube or here for a download of the MP4.

Bishops Tim Harris (Townsville), Macbeth-Green (Wilcannia-Forbes), Don Sproxton (Perth), Christopher Saunders (Broome) and Charles Gauci (Darwin) have each voiced concerns about key issues facing their communities.

Their five-point plan includes: encouraging all organisations to work together to maximise results; true respect for the principle of self-determination; placing the common good at the heart of all endeavours; all stakeholders being motivated by respect and without self-interest; and that prevention and cure are both necessary.

Speaking in the video message, Bishop Saunders said: “The whole of Australian society is going through massive change. The present rate of change is possibly unprecedented in history. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise that this challenge (loss of spirituality) also applies to them, albeit often in somewhat different ways. Pope John Paul II, in his famous message which he gave in Australia’s heartland when he addressed the Aboriginal peoples, stated that the Catholic Church will be lacking in its full expression if it does not embrace the spirituality of our Aboriginal people. While there has been many disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people taking their lives, no society is immune from this sad reality. We all need to remember that Jesus, who laughs and cries with us, is the way, the truth and the life.”

Bishop Harris said: “As spiritual beings, we need spiritual nourishment. When we’re not nourished spiritually, we can become spiritually sick. Australian society is challenged as a whole with how we can nourish ourselves spiritually. For Christians, Jesus came to bring life to the fullest, calling us to work together with love and respect and to never give up trying to find the best way forward away from this tragic and unnecessary ending of life.”

Bishop Macbeth-Green said: “This massive rate of change is also affecting our Indigenous brothers and sisters. The tragedy of the large number of suicides among our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially the young, calls us to action. This is a sad and unacceptable reality. Respect must be included at all levels, including respect for young people by those who are older. Respect is always two ways.”

Bishop Sproxton said: “As Catholics, we know that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Our Catholic faith gives us good energy and reasons for living. We need to walk alongside our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as they reach for ways to deepen their spiritual lives. All can benefit from such walking together.”

Bishop Gauci said: “When this (rapid rate of change) is combined with the practical challenges that they face, the effect can be very far-reaching. There’s such a vast history of deep spirituality in our First Nations people in Australia. Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a deep faith and we can all learn from them. Like all of us, they are often challenged to pass on their traditions to the younger generations. Many are deeply concerned about the challenges which their young people face. Young people can often feel alienated and young people in cross cultures can often feel more alienated.”

Further resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday have been compiled by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC), the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body in the Catholic Church in Australia. The council provides a strong voice for First Nations Catholics and works in partnership with the bishops to address the issues facing their people.

The NATSICC website has information on how Church communities can contact local groups, as well as resources and articles on faith, culture and spirituality.

Meanwhile, NATSICC has also announced that it has received approval from the family of Deacon Boniface Perdjert to rename their annual Service to Community Awards the Deacon Boniface Award, in a tribute to the greatly-respected elder.

Deacon Boniface, Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deacon, passed away earlier this year. He was also an Indigenous senior elder of the Kardu Diminin clan and the traditional owner of the land on which the town of Wadeye (Port Keats) is built.

Winners of the Deacon Boniface Award, along with the Young Adult, Adult and non-Indigenous Awards, will be announced next week.

Photographs, quotes and tributes following the passing of Deacon Boniface can be accessed here: