Recently, on Friday 24 February, we marked the 50th anniversary of a momentous event in the life of the Australian Church. On the afternoon of Saturday 24 February 1973, the first Australian Aboriginal Liturgy was celebrated as part of the 40th International Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne, which ran from 18 to 25 February.

The Mass drew nearly 30,000 people to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. They came to participate in a liturgy that sought, in the words of its organisers, ‘to express the Eucharistic Act in cultural and thought patterns of the Aboriginal peoples’. On the stage, and among the congregation, were hundreds of Aboriginal people, many of whom had travelled great distances for the opportunity to participate in a Mass that incorporated elements of their own spirituality and cultures, and that reflected some of their own experiences and expressions of their Catholic faith.

On the stage of the Music Bowl, at an altar constructed of bark and decorated with Aboriginal symbols, the Mass was celebrated by the Papal Legate and Archbishop of Baltimore, Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, robed in vestments featuring Aboriginal motifs.

Instead of communicating the gospel in spoken words, 24 dancers from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Mission in Bathurst Island, Northern Territory, danced the story of the Last Supper. A group of singers and dancers also accompanied the offertory procession, and after Communion, dancers from Port Keats Mission in the Northern Territory, and from Kununurra in Western Australia, performed a ceremonial thanksgiving dance. A song of praise to Christ, sung in the Murinyngar dialect and composed by Port Keats song man Claude Narjic, was sung in place of the responsorial psalm, and other hymns and traditional religious songs were sung by the 45-member Aboriginal Children’s Choir, also from Port Keats. The Our Father was sung to a tune of the Tiwi people.

In a commemorative booklet produced after the Congress, titled Congress of the People, the Mass was described as ‘one of the most memorable occasions’ of the Congress and a ‘celebration that broke new ground in the Church’s liturgical renewal’.

Vicki Clark was a schoolgirl ‘in pigtails’ when she found herself in the congregation at the Music Bowl in 1973, having received a ticket as one of about 20 Aboriginal students in Melbourne’s Catholic schools at that time:

I vividly remember; I can still see it today, even though I was only a little kid, a primary school child … It was incredible to see our Mob on the stage singing and dancing the gospel … a lot in language too, you know.

A Mutthi Mutthi Wemba Wamba woman, she would go on to become the first coordinator of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Victoria, a position she held for more than 25 years.

She says the liturgy was ‘quite a watershed moment when it comes to the Australian Catholic Church recognising Aboriginal people and their contribution through the gifts given to them of ceremony, song and dance—gifts given to them by the Creator Spirit and their ancestors.’

According to the organisers, the inspiration for the inclusion of this liturgy in the Congress program had come from a statement by Pope Paul VI to Aboriginal people during his visit to Sydney three years previously:

We know that you have a life style proper to your own ethnic genius or culture—a culture which the Church respects and which it does not in any way ask you to renounce.

In his planning for the Congress, Melbourne’s then Archbishop James Knox (soon to become Cardinal Knox) gave a young anthropologist-priest, Fr Hilton Deakin (later Bishop Deakin), responsibility for ensuring that Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and cultures would be a central focus of the Congress. As well as organising an Aboriginal conference as part of the Congress—with the aim, among other things, of asking Aboriginal people ‘what they think of the Church, how it has helped or hindered them in their aspirations and development and how the Church may serve them in the future’—Fr Deakin oversaw the development of a liturgy that used ‘traditional cultural forms as the means of expressing the Gospel message and the act of Christian worship’.

The liturgy was the fruit of extensive consultation and reflection, finally being approved for use at the Congress by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in November 1972. Developing a liturgy that could speak to Aboriginal people across Australia was no easy task. It required sensitive and deep listening, and while the final liturgy was the work of many hands, it owed much to the good will and generous contributions of Aboriginal people who had already, for many years, been expressing their deep Catholic faith in their own languages and in ways that resonated with their Aboriginal spirituality and cultures.

The Mass made news internationally, with the New York Times reporting that ‘The dances, progressing gradually from gentle swaying to complicated leaps, were accompanied by hand claps, tapping of two sticks together and the deep vibrant tones of an elongated woodwind called the didgeridoo’. An ‘astonished priest’ from Auckland was quoted as saying that ‘There has never been a mass like this before.’

According to Vicki Clark, it was a moment that paved the way for the greater involvement of Aboriginal people in the Church. In the years that followed, the Australian bishops put a great deal of energy into establishing a range of different Aboriginal ministries, particularly in Queensland. Vicki explains that many of these ministries sought to offer the sacraments and Mass in their communities, which in turn led to the first Aboriginal deacons being ordained. From the ministries established in Queensland, various state gatherings of Aboriginal Catholics also gradually emerged.

That first liturgy, then, had been a small but significant ‘step forward towards having our own people ministering to our own people’, Vicki says. She acknowledges that progress has often been slow, but points to the Aboriginal Church networks and ministries that have gradually spread throughout Australia, leading eventually to the formation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC).

Having spent many years working with Aboriginal communities in northern Australia, Fr Brian F McCoy SJ also recently reflected on the significance of the first Aboriginal liturgy. He attended the Mass as a young seminarian and was part of the coordinating group that helped host the more than 300 Aboriginal people who had gathered from around the country. He recalls that the Mass was ‘the first time we had witnessed Aboriginal people expressing their Catholic faith in ways that were culturally different from our own but very significant to them. The ancient Catholic liturgy took on a new dimension of life and energy as people sang in their own language, mimed the word of the Gospel and danced.

This new liturgical expression sought to acknowledge that Aboriginal people had lived within a context and consciousness of the transcendent for generations. This element of religious experience was part of the fabric of their daily lives and the ceremonies that they regularly conducted.

In 1993, Vicki Clark was closely involved in organising a celebration on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne to mark the 20th anniversary of the liturgy. About 2000 people came from all over Australia, including the children and grandchildren of some of those who had participated in the original liturgy, evidence of the special place this event still had in the hearts of many Aboriginal Catholics.

Vicki warns against an inflexible sense of nostalgia, though. She says that some people today just ‘want to see the same thing, and they’re not going to see the same thing’.

We’ve moved on in our culture; we’ve moved on in how we do things. It ain’t going to be in that very unique way it was back in ’73 … What we are doing today is just as authentic as what they were doing back [then]. We do a different dance today, we sing different songs today, but it’s no less Aboriginal.