In 1986 Pope John Paul II addressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics in Alice Springs, in Australia's Northern Territory. He reaffirmed that the Spirit of God had been with our First Nations People for thousands of years and that their culture, which 'shows the lasting genius and dignity of their race', must not be allowed to disappear. 'Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost,' he said. With these words, Aboriginal Catholic Ministry was established in Victoria, and its mission of sharing Indigenous spirituality and educating the broader community about its rich culture, endures today.
Sherry Balcombe, an Olkola/Djabaguy woman originally from Far North Queensland is the Manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria located on Wurundjeri land in Thornbury, in Melbourne's inner north. She remembers that day and those words in 1986 well.
‘It was a wonderful speech’ and it was ‘the pinnacle of the establishment of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Victoria’, she said. ‘Aunty Joyce Smith, a Muthi-Muthi/Wemba Wamba from the Lake Mungo area was at the gathering in Alice Springs. She came back to Melbourne and organised for a submission to be written to the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne calling for the establishment of an Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Victoria. Previous attempts had failed but this one was accepted right away.’
Sherry said the Pope's words 'provided the mandate’ for a ministry within the Catholic Church that incorporated and encouraged the rich and deep spirituality of Australia’s First Nations people.
‘Pope John Paul spoke about how precious our [Aboriginal] culture is, and how it’s very important for us to pass it on,’ Sherry said. ‘He said that “we’re like a tree that’s been through a bushfire where the bark is burned and scarred, but inside the sap still flows and the roots underground are still strong”.
‘Most importantly, he said, “until Aboriginal people have made their contribution, and until that contribution is joyfully received, the Church in Australia won’t be what Jesus wants it to be”.’
Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria (ACMV) contributes to the life of the Catholic Church by educating and informing the community about the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Indigenous Peoples and to foster acknowledgment, truth-telling, reconciliation and healing both within the Aboriginal community, and with non-Indigenous people. Vicki Clarke was the inaugural manager of ACMV, with Sherry Balcombe taking over in 2016. ‘The heart of our mission is to share our spirituality and to educate about our culture,’ she said.
Sherry is often invited to speak in schools and parishes, including at parish council meetings, across the Archdiocese particularly around National Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week.
‘National Sorry Day is about empathy and recognition. It’s about recognising and being truthful about what has happened in the past. Because what has happened to Aboriginal people is not just 200 years ago; it’s in the last 50 years. It’s still happening. We have more children in out-of-home care now than we did when had the Bringing Them Home report . There’s over 400 people who have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody [1987-1991].
‘So until Australia really recognises – and really recognising means having a treaty – then we will continue to shine a light on that day. It’s not a day to celebrate. It’s a day to recognise and remember.’
Sherry said Reconciliation Week and the upcoming NAIDOC Week (4-11 July) provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous Australians to reach out and to learn something.
‘We are the longest continuous culture in the world. That’s something for all Australians to be really proud of and this should be recognised throughout the year.
The 2021 NAIDOC Week theme is 'Heal Country' and Sherry encourages every Catholic parish in Australia to use the resources that have been developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Sunday on 4th July.
Sherry visits schools and parish communities across the Archdiocese to provide resources and educate people on how to embrace and acknowledge Indigenous culture and spirituality and how to foster reconciliation and healing.
She encourages parish communities to be welcoming and inclusive by having message sticks inside the church as a first step. She also suggests having an Aboriginal flag, saying prayers for Aboriginal people and featuring artwork or posters of Aboriginal people.
‘For us, it’s signs and symbols. If we don’t see those things from our culture, then it’s not a welcoming space for us.’
Sherry also suggests that there be an Acknowledgement of Country at the commencement of Mass and an Acknowledgement inserted into parish and school newsletters and websites.
‘Watch NITV and subscribe to The Koori Mail and leave it in your parish or school office, staff rooms and libraries. To be able to pick up a magazine or a newspaper that has good news stories about us from around Australia is really heartening,’ she said.
Sherry is also heartened by ACMV’s Opening the Doors Foundation, which is celebrating 20 years of providing financial support for books and uniforms to Indigenous children in Victoria so that they can attend Catholic and Independent schools ‘on a level playing field’ with other students. She is grateful to those parish communities that have taken an active role in supporting the Foundation, whether it be by hosting talks so that parishioners can find out more, or in assisting with fundraising.
And she is hopeful by the enthusiasm and engagement from teachers and students from across Victoria that are part of ACMV’s FIRE (Friends Igniting Reconciliation Through Education) Carriers program.
‘The FIRE Carriers program is about educating a whole generation,’ said Sherry. ‘And those students are carrying on the fire with us.
‘Education is the most important thing you can give anybody. It doesn’t matter what happens in your life, if you have an education, nobody can take that away. We want our youth to advocate on our behalf in the future and we need to give them the tools to do that. Education is that tool.
‘The more we can get people to learn and to understand, then the more they’ll understand where we are coming from and hopefully that will change things in the future.’
People are encouraged to visit the office and chapel of ACMV and to make use of the many resources on offer. To visit is to be immersed in Aboriginal culture and spirituality and its elaborate signs and symbols.
The purpose-built chapel features a consecrated altar of polished red wood that was gifted to ACMV by the Redemptorists. The tabernacle is in the shape of a ‘mia mia’, an Aboriginal hut, designed by Pauline Clayton and there is a Baptismal font in the shape of a ‘coolamon’, which sits within thick wooden posts that resemble the crook of a gum tree.
The outdoor garden areas, the offices and the chapel are full of Indigenous artwork, with one whole wall in the chapel dedicated to a seven-metre-long depiction of the 14 stations of the cross, which were painted by Sherry’s brother, John Dunn. On another wall is a large stained-glass window full of colourful and emotive Indigenous imagery.
'There’s a reason for everything in our place and it’s full of symbols,’ said Sherry. ‘It’s a really good learning exercise when we have people out here,’ she said. ‘People can come out and do a self-guided tour. We have resources available, and booklets so they can look up all the artworks and there are questions that they can look at and ponder.’
All are welcome to visit ACMV, or to contact Sherry to enquire about further resources for parishes and schools.
NAIDOC Week will be celebrated from 4-11 July 2021 focussing on the theme, Heal Country. On Sunday 4 July, Catholic Churches across Australia are encouraged to use the liturgical resources developed by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) to commemorate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday and the commencement of NAIDOC Week.
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