Celebrating life, history and culture of first Australians

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Photo: paintings / Shutterstock.com
Aboriginals march in Brisbane in 2014 to protest against deaths in custody. Photo: paintings / Shutterstock.com

Descendants of the first Australians will be afforded special recognition over the coming week and the Church marks its contribution to the occasion this weekend with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday.

“The act of ‘black and white’ people praying together for mercy, forgiveness and justice is a powerful symbol of all that the Year of Mercy represents” is part of the preamble to this year’s message from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC).

A similar spirit across the general community will be sought over the next seven days for events organised by the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee as part of NAIDOC Week celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aborigines.

This first week of July has borne a similar label since early 1975, although the addition of “Islander” came only in the early 1990s.

Moves towards establishing NATSICC began in 1989 when a national conference on Aboriginal issues saw the formation of a committee that produced recommendations which were adopted by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference three years later.

NATSICC seeks to promote and celebrate the Catholic identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; to develop their leadership within the community and the Church; and to encourage others to support them in their struggle for justice.

Its logo depicts a willy-willy with the wind force in the centre symbolising God’s spirit, rising to a representation of God and life at the top while figures at the base are aimed at depicting men and women receiving the Holy Spirit.

As one who witnessed a smoking ceremony as part of a welcome to country which opened Sydney’s Battle of Vinegar Hill commemoration some years ago, it reminds me of a small willy-willy which was whipped up then by a sudden wind change – or possibly other forces?

Traditional smoking ceremonies, rites of water blessing, and the Aboriginal “Our Father” are part of spiritual worship which is now practised by Catholic Aborigines who display a strong respect for nature in many of their prayers.

Some will gather along with many non-Aboriginal people in the Reconciliation Church at Phillip Bay near La Perouse this Sunday for the community’s monthly Mass at that location.

On 26 May, the doors of that church were opened for a morning tea marking National Sorry Day when Dr Elsie Heiss led guests and staff of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in prayer.

She reflected: “With tears in my eyes and an ancient song from my heart, I pray” drawing first attention to her “relations in nature” and family before addressing important concerns.

“I ask that you bless … the brothers and sisters who are in prison … the ones who are sick on drugs and alcohol and for those who are now homeless and forlorn,” she continued.

Elsie called for peace among all peoples; healing for this earth; and for beauty to be around us in the name of God.

References she made to “Punaal the sun spirit, to the Ponte-boone the moon spirit” neatly welded aspects of Aboriginal spirituality into what was otherwise a call for help that should be appreciated by all Australians.

While many Aborigines may be in jail, in ill-health as they battle substance abuse, or homeless, such problems are by no means confined to those people.

Pope Francis spoke generally of indigenous matters earlier this year: “Your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society. Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them. How said this is!”

He called for an examination of conscience in relation to these matters and a seeking of forgiveness.

This weekend and the week ahead provide an opportunity to consider those words, with the NATSICC adding its weight to the pope’s words in this Year of Mercy.

It has called for the opening of our hearts to God to seek his everlasting forgiveness and also for the strength for us to forgive to: “Allow ourselves to become unburdened by the weight that many of us have carried on our shoulders and in our hearts for generations”.