ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER SUNDAY
This year the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council have adopted the NAIDOC, (National Aboriginal and Torres Islander Day Observance Committee), theme for Aboriginal and Torres Islander Sunday – Heal Country. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis has called us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritages from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.
Today’s Gospel is very fitting because Mark tells us of Jesus returning to his ‘native place’ – Nazareth – to a non-accepting, hostile reaction. Jesus had been welcomed and revered in other places, why is it that he is mocked and disregarded in his own home? “Is he not the carpenter?” the crowd called because they saw him as “without honour” and were unable to believe in him. He did not fit into their ideological view and thus did not deserve respect in their eyes.
In Australia, our own First Nations people have suffered a similar reception to Jesus in Nazareth. Their knowledge and complex cultural systems, created and honed over millennia, are often dismissed as primitive and irrelevant to our fast-paced world of today. This could not be further from the truth, particularly as we become more aware of their continued care, love, and respect for ‘country’, grounded in a relationship with the creator that formed independently of Western influence.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are inextricably connected to country in Australia and its waters. This connection to country and all of God’s creation is core to their spirituality as a people and that of their ancestors. The term itself – Country – encompasses far more than the physical land. “For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains.” explains Professor Mick Dodson.
Deacon Boniface Perdjert, who was both Australia’s first permanent Deacon and first Aboriginal Deacon clearly expressed the translational role that ‘country’ or nature plays bringing together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture and Catholic faith:
“We like the way he uses the things of nature to teach, and the important part nature plays in the Sacraments.” Deacon Boniface specifically mentions sacraments, because to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, all elements of life are sacramental. The gifts of God are evident and intertwined into every aspect of life, not just on Sundays, or when convenient. First Australian’s are called to be stewards of creation, to care for and watch over their gift, and this responsibility is intrinsic to their belief systems. Many Language groups assign a Totem (a natural object, plant, or animal) to a child at birth. This totem defines the responsibility of care between individuals and with creation itself. It is intrinsic and it is core to their survival and relationships.
For Catholics, the Eucharist itself is a foundational sacramental reality in which natural elements—grain and grapes—symbolize not only our lives but also Jesus’ farewell meal and his presence today. In those natural elements and through the Eucharistic prayer, Christ is truly present to us. These elements display the abundance provided by the Creator to sustain us, both physically and spiritually. It is a very natural and familiar ‘ritual’ to First Nations Peoples because it combines the elements of life with a greater being. It brings all aspects of life together.
Because of the connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognise between country, faith, and the wellbeing, it is no surprise that when the world is in pain, Australia’s First Peoples are in pain. During the COVID 19 Pandemic, many of the trappings of Western life became impossible. The rivers were calm and clear from the absence of boats, the cities were quiet and still as restrictions took hold. We saw images of animals returning to previous habitats, and the smog clearing from above cities across the world as our common home took a ‘breath’ from our constant consumerism and drive for development.
On this special Sunday, a day where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-indigenous Catholics come together and sit side by side (adhering to COVID restrictions of course!), we should acknowledge that we are united in a fight to save God’s creation. It is one we cannot fight alone. We must combine the knowledge of First Australians with the technology borne of Western culture to ensure that future generations shall have the opportunity to experience the gifts of God’s creation as intended.
Let us move forwards as a united people in Christ, committed to embracing the gifts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge to not only Heal Country, but to Heal our relationships with one another, and in doing so our creators’ gifts to us all – this world.