The Church and First Nations people

From the Regional Director of Oceania

Fr Trevor Trotter Regional Director of Oceania

Anyone following the news about the Pope would not have been surprised by what he did in Canada recently. For some time now, there had been requests for him to go to Canada and apologise for the Church’s role in treating First Nations people in that country. For us Australians, there is much that is familiar. The same policies informed the actions of Governments and the Church in both countries. Offering apologies, as well as seeking reconciliation and healing between peoples, is part of the mission of the Church. 

If one needed more evidence of this, we need to look no further than the recent Plenary Council held here in Australia. 

Of the eight major areas of Church life discussed at the second Assembly, the first one was the relationship between the Church and First Nations people. There was an admission of the poor treatment of First Nations people by Church people. There was also the famous quote from Pope John Paul II at Alice Springs that we cannot be “fully the Church that Jesus wants” until the contribution of our First Nations people is recognised.  

What was great to see was the ease with which this paper was accepted and passed. Like the rest of the nation, there is much more that we can all do, but I was encouraged by what the Plenary Council said on behalf of the broader Australian Church.

A number of proposals had been put to the Plenary Council by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC), and all of them were accepted. Because we believe that the Church is guided by the Spirit, especially when it gathers in a synodal mode as it did with the Plenary Council, it is only sensible to spend some time reflecting on what was said on the topic.

One of the recommendations was to encourage people to use what is now one of the most common practices in this regard - the Acknowledgement of Country. In most Catholic gatherings these days, on radio, in parliament and on many other occasions, we begin with the Acknowledgement of the Country. 

It was strange for me when I first heard it used. Still, once I got the idea that there are many different nations on the Aboriginal map of Australia, I could understand why people from one nation coming into another nation would have to wait until they are invited to enter. With that invitation also comes the promise to provide safety and protection for the visitors. The Welcome to Country makes sense to me now.

The other part of the acknowledgement of the country includes the acknowledgement of elders, past, present and emerging. When I first heard this, I wondered why to mention the elders. Indeed, we want to acknowledge everyone who lives in this land. After some reflection, I realised there is a lot of depth to this short ritual. There is a deep spirituality that I was not picking up on initially.

I started to understand something about the place of elders in the culture of First Nations People. The elders know the land. They know what to eat and what not to eat. They know the different seasons and the geography. The elders also know the stories, the songs and the dances, which are all full of meaning for the people. By sharing these, the spirituality of the people is passed on. 

This is the way that the younger people are initiated into the community and the way they learn the values and beliefs that hold the community together. It is from the elders that the rest of the community knows of the spiritual dimension of the community. Our spirituality sustains us through life and connects us to all that is, including God. All of this is held by the elders.

It seems to me that when we hear the acknowledgement of country and of the elders, it is not just the old people that are being acknowledged. We are recognising and affirming the culture of the people in the country that we are on. 

In affirming the culture, we are also affirming their spirituality. We are acknowledging that the God that they meet in the country is the same God that we meet there too. We are one people before God. From that oneness may a more just and equal Australia emerge.

Fr Trevor Trotter signature

Fr Trevor Trotter
Regional Director of Oceania
rdoceania@columban.org.au

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