In the voices of our group today, we heard the Spirit saying that being Indigenous and being Catholic are not two separate ways of being: they are two elements of spirituality that exist side-by-side for the First Nations People within our Church community.’

This was the opening sentence shared on Wednesday 6 October by the Plenary Council small group called to deeply discern, deliberate and share its reflections on one of the Council’s 16 agenda questions: How might the Church in Australia open in new ways to Indigenous ways of being Christian in spirituality, theology, liturgy, and missionary discipleship? How might we learn from the First Nations peoples?

The 26-strong group, which includes Fr Kevin Lenehan, Master of Catholic Theological College and Father Steele Hartman OCSO of Tarrawarra Abbey, as well as members from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Commission, John Lochowiak, Sally FitzGerald and Shirley Quaresimin, share each morning in a public livestream how the Spirit is moving them with regard to this question.

‘We heard the Spirit calling our Church to further consideration of ways that we can listen more deeply, sit with and come to understand that the Living God and Aboriginal spirituality arise from the same source,’ said Carol Teodori-Blahut from Diocese of Parramatta, speaking on behalf of the group this morning.

There is an authentic point of connection for us all in the life of Jesus, in the experience of suffering, in our vulnerability, in the call to see the Spirit in each other and in the desire to be at home in our Church.

‘We also heard the Spirit calling us to name and respond to the darker side of our Church and society where racism, exclusion and injustice have caused trauma, woundedness and suffering. Truth-telling around this part of our story is really important.’

Welcome to Country Three Crosses

Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. ... Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost. … You 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 you.

Pope John Paul II, Alice Springs, 29 November 1986

The group shared that although they hadn’t ‘identified any concrete actions yet’, two strong themes were emerging from their discernment, which appears to be drawing them to action. ‘The first is a yearning for a Church that celebrates and brings into respectful dialogue Indigenous people and others. This would enrich our understanding and way of being Church together. It would also prioritise resources to enable Indigenous people to minister to each other pastorally and spirituality and in a culturally appropriate manner.

‘The second is something that we see as being more urgent and more challenging for us as a Church.’

We are called to use our privilege and our voice to influence society. This might be a posture or disposition of the Church to be more pastoral, but also to change the structures that lead to injustice, trauma and suffering. With our collective influence and privilege, we should be able to do that work together bravely.’

Plenary Member Toni Janke, an Indigenous woman joining the assembly from Turrbal land (Brisbane) in Queensland is also part of this small group discerning how we might learn from First Nations peoples. In a recent online interview with journalist and broadcaster Genevieve Jacobs, Toni shared, ‘There is a big push for really redefining and working out who we are as a Church and what is the future of Australia for the Catholic Church.’

‘For me, that is all about asking what our identity is as Catholic, today? It’s completely changed over the years, certainly since I’ve been to school. … We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. There are still issues around social justice, and our working with people who are largely Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, who are vulnerable and particularly in need of support through not just our Church, but our agencies and our services and our schools.

‘These are ongoing issues. They’re not issues that we’re just going to talk about this week at the plenary. They’re at the heart of this nation and at the heart of our faith. I do believe, there has been a lot of work done in some dioceses and some archdioceses but there is still a lot to do in parishes and in agencies.

Toni works for a Catholic agency, CentaCare Brisbane, where she works closely with people who are struggling with family and domestic violence and child protection issues. ‘We continue to see high incarceration rates of our people,’ she said.

‘So, there are all those issues, but I think at the heart of it, it is about our mission and what is different about us in Australia, as opposed to the broader global issues that other Catholics face around the world. And we as Indigenous People, as First Nations People have a lot to contribute to that dialogue in a very meaningful and significant way.

There’s been a lot of talking about listening and discernment and while that has an incredible place in this whole process and is very important, of course we want to see a call to action and that requires the commitment and the good will and the willingness of people.

‘I’d like to see that we do have some specific direction and support. Because it’s not really Aboriginal people or First Nations people always leading the charge. It is about everybody being responsible and having a voice, and wanting to share in, walk together and share together in the history of this country and to heal that history and to move forward not just in terms of reconciliation, but in truth telling and justice for all.

‘This is a long journey of healing, and not just recognition, or the odd acknowledgement but really working deeply and thinking deeply about these issues and who we as a whole faith community can move forward, with Christ at the centre.’

Stancea Vichie by Fiona Basile
Stancea Vichie MSS, congregational leader of the Missionary Sisters of Service Image by Fiona Basile

‘Dadirri’: Deep listening a call to all

Though not in this particular small group, Indigenous spirituality and recognition of our First Nations people is something close to the heart of Stancea Vichie MSS, congregational leader of the Missionary Sisters of Service, an Australian congregation of Catholic women. In a recent plenary podcast, Stancea shared that she was particularly moved by the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country on the opening day.

‘It was beautifully done. What struck me … it wasn’t paved over, “everything’s lovely”. In the visuals, some of the very painful things that have happened to Indigenous Peoples were presented – dispossession of their cultures, languages, land and so much else.’

‘But in saying that, it also presented the very strong resilience of Indigenous peoples in this country, which I was pleased to see; the consciousness and awareness of the deeper history of this land has really developed as the years are going by. I think I could say with confidence that this presentation would not have happened at the 1937 Plenary Council.’

Speaking of the impact of the opening Welcome to Country, Stancea said, ‘It’s something that’s had a long-standing impact on me, and it included a wider part of the story of the impact of colonisation on the Indigenous peoples in this country. It’s a story that I’ve been reflecting on for a very long time, seeking to understand and share.

I feel very privileged and honoured to live on this land, having been born on this land. My place as an Australian woman has been so deeply enriched by the knowledge, awareness and consciousness that I too am connected to this land, a beautiful gift which my Indigenous sisters and brothers have given me. Theirs is a particularly unique connection to the land for over 60,000 years.

‘The other part of the Welcome to Country this morning was with Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann … Again, it’s something that I’ve loved hearing her speak about so often over the years, ‘Dadirri’, that whole concept of deep listening and listening in the way of the Indigenous peoples and not rushing things.

‘As she said, “We wait for the water in the river to do what it does, and we wait for our young children to grow and we wait for the seasons to pass”. So, I think it was a wonderful leaping off point for the Plenary Council.

‘This whole notion of dadirri, is so much a part of the peoples who have inhabited this land for so long. That’s a wonderful basis to go from, in a prayerful contemplative way, and connected to this land on which we find ourselves.’