In the Mass held on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday (4 July), perhaps you noticed something: during the entrance procession, ahead of the Gospel, went a beautiful, hand-carved wooden baton with Aboriginal artwork. It was also held up throughout the reading of the Gospel. What was it, and what does its meaning signify?

Speaking with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli after Mass, the manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV), Sherry Balcombe, spoke about the significance of this item: the Message Stick, an item that is housed in nearly every Australian cathedral, parish and school. During Sunday’s liturgy, the message stick was held up while the Gospel was being read and represents, Sherry said, ‘[our] contribution to the Catholic Church’.

Sherry explains that the message stick was traditionally used as a means of communication between different tribal groups. The messenger, lighting fires on the way to announce his arrival, would meet the tribe at the border to their country and undergo a rite of purification (a “smoking”, to ensure no bad spirits were brought with him). Once this was done, the messenger would deliver the message stick and be allowed to use the tribe’s resources for the duration of his stay. The message stick acted, Sherry said:

‘like a virtual passport … no one was allowed to enter anyone else’s country without good reason and then permission, otherwise there would be harsh punishments.’

But what is the origin of the message stick’s use in the liturgy? Sherry says that it was in response to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II’s moving address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1986:

‘You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. And the Church herself in 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.’ (§13)

These words continue to reverberate through the Church in Australia. In 2006, 20 years after the pope’s visit, ACMV launched an initiative called the “Message Stick Relay”. With the help of the Australian Catholic Bishops, message sticks were sent to every state and territory. Initially, only five were sent out across Victoria but by popular demand more were produced. There are now over 500 message sticks housed in Victorian parishes and schools alone. Sherry says the relay initiative became ‘a way for churches to truly embrace Aboriginal culture’.

Not only was the message stick a traditional means of communication but also a guarantee of hospitality. ‘It’s a great symbol for Aboriginal people,’ Sherry says. The message stick acts powerfully as a ‘living, moving symbol of welcome and inclusion’.

In his address to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, Pope John Paul II also spoke of the relationship between their culture and the Gospel:

‘That Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians … you do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes …’ (§12).

The incorporation of the message stick into the liturgy and into schools and parishes across Australia has been an important move in making this call of the pope a reality. It is also a symbolic act that is deeply congruent with the logic of Christianity as an incarnational faith. It is through physical things, even items of cultural significance, that new pathways of grace can be opened up between people, new pathways towards healing, friendship, and welcome. Opening those pathways wherever we can is part of the call of the Gospel.