The Catholic Church in Australia marks the beginning of NAIDOC Week with the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, observed this year on 7 July. At St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli celebrated Mass, incorporating an Acknowledgment of Country, special prayers, symbols and vestments, and music performed and composed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

In the packed Cathedral, the faithful of Melbourne, who come from many different parts of the world, gathered as one community to honour and celebrate the rich cultural heritage and contributions of First Nations peoples to our Church.

The NATSICC theme for NAIDOC Week 2024, ‘Keep the Fire Burning—Strong in Faith’, calls the Church to go forth, embracing all cultures and peoples, opening our hearts to the wisdom and spirituality of our First Nations Peoples, and recognising the presence of Christ in our stories and traditions.

Before Mass, Wangkangurru Yarluyandi and Gunditjmara woman and Engagement Officer with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV) Louise Luu gave an Acknowledgment of Country, noting that St Patrick’s Cathedral is situated on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, ‘of which members and elders of the Aboriginal community and their ancestors have been custodians for thousands of years’.

‘Our connection to the land, waters and skies is deeply rooted in our identity and spirituality,’ she said, inviting all those gathered ‘to join us in respecting and cherishing this connection’.

Ms Luu quoted St John Paul II’s address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1986: ‘At the beginning of time, as God’s Spirit moved over the waters, he began to communicate something of his goodness and beauty to all creation. As the human family spread over the face of the earth, Aboriginal people settled and lived in this big country that stood apart from all the others, the great South Land of the Holy Spirit.’

‘For thousands of years,’ she said, ‘we have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with us.’

All newcomers, she said, are invited ‘to open your eyes to see the stories written, open your ears to hear the songs that have been sung, and feel the sacredness of the land on which you are standing today.’

During his welcome, Archbishop Comensoli also acknowledged the presence of ‘those who are a part of our First Nations’, pointing out ‘some little differences in our liturgy today … most particularly by way of symbols that give expression to our faith in ways that speak into our cultures.

‘So, knowing that we gather as God’s people from a mixture of many cultures, but most particularly our Indigenous peoples today, we gather knowing that the Lord unites us all in his love and in his tenderness.’

The setting chosen for the Mass was, appropriately, the Melbourne Mass, arranged by Cathedral music director Philip Mathias for the 175th anniversary of both the Catholic and Anglican dioceses of Melbourne in 2022, and incorporating musical elements and themes from many different cultural groups, including an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Kyrie (composed by John Wayne Parsons) and a Torres Strait Islander Sanctus (composed by Toby Whaleboat). The congregation was invited to sing the responses of the liturgy accompanied by the voices of the Cathedral Schola and Troy Kuhl on didgeridoo, who also provided hauntingly beautiful accompaniment for the hymns. The final hymn, the traditional Indigenous hymn ‘Holy Spirit in This Land’, was also accompanied by Cameron Balcombe on rhythm sticks.

Before Mass concluded, Archbishop Comensoli invited those present to come forward at the conclusion of Mass to see the Cathedral’s two message sticks, which he said have ‘religious significance for us’. The second of these message sticks was presented to the Cathedral by ACMV last year, its artwork designed by Melissa Brickell, a long-time supporter of ACMV and the mother of Mr Kuhl. The design includes an image of the Eucharist, a flame representing Christ, and dots and circles to represent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people coming together. It will be placed in a prominent place near the entrance of the Cathedral.

NAIDOC Week is being celebrated from 7 to 14 July. The NATSICC theme for NAIDOC Week is Keep the Fire Burning—Strong in Faith’. A number of resources are available for use by parishes and schools to mark the occasion.

Banner image: Louise Luu, engagement officer with ACMV, gives the Acknowledgement of Country before Mass on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday at St Patrick’s Cathedral.