My Lord Bishop,
I want as briefly and frankly as possible to furnish this report through you to His Eminence. It comes out of hearts yearning for active support from the rest of the Church.
There are various ways of describing what this community is about. I think I would prefer to think of it first as a community of prayer. It is not difficult to turn our life into prayer here. Living as close to the poor, as we are, means that we are consistently confronted by the Gospel. We are being compelled to meet them and each other in Gospel terms. In our formal morning prayer and in our daily Eucharist, we are endeavouring to break the Word of God to each other.
Secondly, we are trying to be a pastoral community. It is our aim to know and love every Aborigine in this district, every Aborigine who is passing through. The Aboriginal remains the poorest and most oppressed in our society. We rest on the help of the Aboriginal people to help us change our hidden prejudices. We rely particularly on Mrs Shirley Smith, who lives here. She loves the people, and she loves us, and she tenderly forgives our shortcomings. We would like to think that we are growing to be a sign of Christ’s love, that every Aboriginal person would think of this place as a home away from home, that they would all feel known and loved by us, and assured that we are ready to support them in their sorrows and anxieties, their aspirations for advancement and their fight for justice. We must remain a community of hospitality so that all are welcome to share our food and whatever accommodation we can provide. We are all aware that this stance can carry a double edge, fraught with the danger of paternalism. But we rely on the Aboriginal people, and on Christ who is so truly represented in them to keep teaching us the way. In this matter, we have all a long way to go, before the atmosphere here becomes drenched in blackness, marked with the spirit of aboriginality.
Thirdly, we aim to be a communication post. Aboriginal people, more than most, yearn to keep in touch with those they love. Very few have access to a telephone, particularly for incoming calls. They are usually forced to change their address frequently. We try, therefore, to be a stable reference point to alleviate their difficulty.
Fourthly, we would like to lay the foundation here of an in-service training centre, with an eye to providing religious personnel in areas which are not at present being served in this way. As well as to the future massive expansion of numbers expected here in Sydney. We are working closely with Fr Allan Mithen in this respect, and with other interested priests and religious in country areas.
Fifthly, also in alliance with others working in this field, we hope to provide a service to those Aboriginal people in jails, and Aboriginal children in institutions, both Church and State, and be a communication link between them and their families.
Finally, we are aware that we stand as a bridge between the Aboriginal people and the white community, and that in the process of ourselves being sensitised to respect aboriginality, we have the responsibility of helping other Europeans to be sensitised too. We are conscious then, of the need to communicate with the rest of the Church at all levels, but particularly with the Hierarchy. At this point, I must candidly report that there is a genuine disappointment among a good number of the Aborigines that the Bishops are not sensitive to their needs. One has only to review two points of contact with them over the past five years. On his visit to Australia in 1970, the Pope spoke hopeful words to them. They hoped that the whole Church would take up the same emphasis as the Pope gave to them. The year 1973 saw the Eucharistic Congress and the urgent pleas from the Black and White conferences to the Church to speak up and act on matters such as Aboriginal Land rights, injustice before the Law and the Police and other Government bodies, housing, education, and medical care. In 1974, Mrs Shirley Smith wrote a letter to the Australian Bishops enclosing an urgent appeal for their support in setting up a structure of pastoral service to Aborigines on the East Coast of Australia. It was signed by fourteen priests and religious as well as herself. She received no reply. Later that year, a group of us were received for several hours by the Apostolic Nuncio where we explained the contents of a petition to the Holy Father. After the official setting up of the A.I.C.C., the Bishops failed to consult it, and commissioned unilaterally the conducting of a survey by Fr Hilton Deakin. That survey is now completed, and only reiterated what is already known, and suggests what has already been suggested repeatedly. In 1974 and 1975, Conferences have been held under the auspices of the Queensland A.I.C.C. Motions were again passed, asking the Government to act in the same areas of need. But the wider Church has not, by and large, taken up those causes, and pressed them, or shown the way to Governments and the general community. Little wonder, then, that the image of the Church, in general among Aboriginal people, is that its attitudes blend in perfectly with the attitudes of the white society, that it stands on the side of the oppressor. It is idle to suggest that the very few religious working in the field are acting vicariously on behalf of all, for that is to deny the nature of the Church. We, in the Aboriginal apostolate, are sometimes spoken of as if we are waving the flag for others not present, as though we belonged to the Department of External Affairs in the Church. Or even a subsection of the Department of Archdiocesan Charitable Works.
Yet poverty of spirit is the prerequisite of all Christian life. And there is no poverty of spirit without a sharing of the spirit of poor people. It involves feeling and touching the pulse of their lives, and sharing the weight of their anguish and putting our shoulder alongside theirs, and fighting with them for their rights. If only our Bishops would do this in some realistic sense the gulf would close in. I like to think hopefully of our Bishops standing at an intersection where two roads meet – the road of exposed misery, poverty and oppression, and the road of the Church’s magisterial teaching. It is only here that orthodoxy turns into orthopraxis and that the Word of God begins to speak loudly in men’s ears. I know that the circles in which Bishops often move are not their self-chosen ones, but inherited, and shaped by varied expectations. But until they become mouthpieces for the hot breath of the poor to blow long and hard into the life of the Church, even if this means sending the rich away empty, the Aboriginal people will continue to despair of obtaining support from a source from which they can make lawful claim.
The community here which I have tried to describe is a fragile one. Lack of sleep and pressing work could easily become a threat to our prayer life and to the necessary amount of community reflection and study which the work must involve. The time now seems opportune and urgent for the Bishops to invite the Major Superiors of Orders, both male and female, to allocate personnel to our community. Yet this community will probably always remain, as it were, a single dimension of the Aboriginal apostolate. There is still a need for the Church to foster a group of charismatic poor – who go out by vow without script or sandal or purse. At present, in the whole Archdiocese there is no specialised form of religious life for a boy to join if he feels a vocation to that dimension of apostolic life. And then there is the dimension of active theologising over the real human situation and the inspiring creative publishing which could accompany it. That must be fostered too.
I have a dream that our Bishops would become gripped with the fact of poverty and oppression which exists among the Aboriginal people, that they would see as their prime pastoral role the leading of all the faithful into the spirit of Poverty (and this will never occur while the ‘anawim’ are ignored). If the Church is to be a sign of the kingdom, it must give the respect due to princes to the outcasts of the world. Never again must we allow a rhetoric of idealism, a policy of compromise, but the end result being ‘business as usual’.
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