Each year on the first Sunday of July—and the beginning of NAIDOC Week—Catholics come together across the country to mark Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, a chance to celebrate the contributions made by First Nations people.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli marked the occasion as part of the 11am Mass on Sunday 2 July at St Patrick’s Cathedral, which included the gifting of a new message stick to the Cathedral from the Aboriginal Catholic community of Victoria.

‘I am honoured to be here to represent the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria and recognise that we are on the sacred land of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nations,’ said Sherry Balcombe of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria.

‘The Creator chose Aboriginal people to take care of this land; our lore was to sustain and nurture all that had been created. My ancestors have forever danced and sang the creation stories proclaiming the sacredness of the gift given by the Creator Spirit.’

‘We are proud to gift our beautiful Cathedral this special message stick,’ said Sherry. ‘By accepting this message stick, you commit yourselves to respecting the ancient Dreaming, which has been part of the spirituality of Australia since the incarnation of Christ, and it is the Aboriginal way of touching the mystery of God.’

Sherry explained that there are currently more than 600 message sticks in parishes and schools across the state of Victoria, and that they exist as ‘a testament to the wonderful resource that we offer in reconciliation with the wider community. This message stick represents Aboriginal people’s contribution to the Catholic Church in Australia.’

Traditionally, message sticks were used as a form of communication between tribal groups, with the solid piece of wood etched with a particular motif. ‘Today, it carries an invitation to the wider Church to accept our contribution,’ Sherry explained.

The artwork on the new message stick was designed by Melissa Brickell, a long-time supporter of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria. The artwork includes an image of the Eucharist, a flame representing Christ, and dots and circles to represent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people coming together, explained Sherry.

It is envisaged that the new message stick will be displayed near the entrance of the Cathedral in the coming months.

The message stick’s use in the liturgy is a response to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II’s moving address to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1986.

The pope told First Nations people that the Gospel invites them ‘to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians … You do not have to be 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, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture’ (§12).

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).

Back in 2006 (20 years after the pope’s visit), ACMV launched the ‘Message Stick Relay’. With the help of the Australian Catholic bishops, message sticks were sent to every state and territory. To begin with, only five came to Victoria, but demand quickly grew.

Alongside being a means of communication, Sherry has also explained that the message stick is a guarantee of hospitality, thus making it a ‘living, moving symbol of welcome and inclusion.’