Aboriginal Reconciliation

Trinity Sunday

St Vincent’s Church, Redfern

St Patricks, Church Hill, Sydney

The one subtle bequest of the colonizer to posterity is the myth. The myth, the enslaving myth that is a very special sort of downright lie. It is like a pernicious virus that pervades the human psyche. In the Aboriginal world it is invasive, the instrument which allows the original Invasion to occur afresh every day.

That is what I want to point to today, in this Week of Prayer for Aboriginal Reconciliation – to that one thing that permeates the psyche of many White Australians, which distinguishes us from pretty well all Aborigines, our seemingly inexhaustible capacity for self deception.


Aboriginal people are not fools – they never have been. Right from the beginning they have been observing and noting in detail the alliance of white people including white Christian missionaries with the cruel colonizing power. By and large, they have decided not to have a bar of either. Today I want simply to suggest that we each go personally to Aboriginal people and ask for their help in extricating ourselves from the cursed capacity of denial which lies like lead on our consciences.

As Paul Keating said in his memorable speech at Redfern Park on 10th December 1992:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases, the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice and our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask “How would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

As I stood there in the open-air gathering in Redfern Park in that summery gala atmosphere, I saw what I had never yet seen in all my years – the tears welling up in the eyes of countless Aborigines who had believed that they would never hear a Prime Minister of Australia say that.

I imagine that you people who frequent St Pat’s here must have a real pride in the memory of the Irish priest, John McEncroe, the first parish priest of this Church. As early as April 1834, before the first Catholic Bishop, John Bede Folding had even arrived in Australia, McEncroe was speaking of the Aboriginal people as "the rightful proprietors of the soil"- He spoke of the "problematical conversion of the Aborigines" thereby showing a healthy distrust of the then current European methods of envangelising indigenous peoples. He suggested that if there were other tribes in other nations who had embraced the "mild sway of Christianity", they should first be consulted. He was more than a century ahead of his time in respecting Aboriginal spirituality as possessing its own right to be. (The 2nd Vatican Council would declare that rightful honour for all non-Christian religions. Yet there are still white Christian missionaries in Australia who can’t even hear the message to stand clear.) McEncroe was particularly derisive of the fundamentalist antics of certain white missionaries claiming to have won aboriginal converts and personally drawing on large amounts of Government funds to increase their merino flock. He defiantly claimed that the black man was only obeying "the first dictate of nature" by repelling the white invasion of his hunting ground – these "lovely forests" which he had held "in- peaceful occupation". McEncroe was surely one of Paul Keating’s "noble exceptions" because he subsequently named and criticised Sir George Arthur, the King’s man, the Governor in Tasmania for exterminating the Aboriginal race. Instead, he publicly charged the British authorities to adopt the truly Christian policy of "doing unto others as you would wish to be done by."

The Protestant Colonial poet Henry Kendall, when McEncroe died in 1868 wrote of him:

In fiery times when Faith is faint,

And Doubt has many words to say,

We’ll often think how well this saint

Kept fear away.

Aborigines could see when white missionaries were compliant with and subservient to the British Crown, so they rejected them out of hand. That is why McEncroe’s friend and fellow Irishman, John Joseph Therry was fully acceptable to Aboriginal people. Certainly it was in that period between 1826 and 1837 when his Government salary had been cancelled and the Colonial Office refused to negotiate with him on any issue, that John Therry lost his own heart to Aborigines and won theirs so fully. I would argue that his seething alienation from the occupying power was an intrinsic condition of his pastoral success with Aborigines.

It was true in the case of Fr Therry in the 1820’s, as it is still true today that Aborigines respond with instantaneous intuition to the undivided heart and uncompromised allegiance towards the poor. It is by no means an indefinable or rare quality. It goes by the name of plain human trust.

And we catholics who each stand today under our own personal challenge in this Week of Prayer – have we not the right and duty to ask "where was the Catholic Church on the fateful Australia Day Massacre of 1838 at Waterloo Creek NSW, where up to 400 blacks lay dead?" Ironically it was the 50th Anniversary of the Invasion, and the Bishop of Sydney was calling for prayers of thanksgiving to God for the blessings bestowed on the Colony. There were no pastoral letters sharing any of the anguish, where he should have spoken loudly and openly throughout those months when the daily papers were crammed with the debate on whether blacks were simply vermin.

Archbishop Polding is on record as making a plea for Aboriginal land rights in 1845. On the other hand, John Hosie, the Marist Father, in his excellent book "Challenge" recontextualises Polding’s life by showing that there was much to be desired in his pastoral attention to Aborigines. In 1869 Rome nudged the Australian Bishops into a call for the cessation of the bloodshed. But then followed the long drought of more than a century when the Catholic Bishops remained silent about Aboriginal rights. Judge Roger Therry, reminiscing in 1860, admitted with some alarm, that as the law stood in the Colonial Government, Aborigines had the right to vote. That right to our shame was taken away. The Catholic Church said nothing, as it said nothing in 1%7 during the Referendum when white voters of Australia showed enough compunction to include Aborigines as persons, in a move certainly not spear-headed or even adverted to by the Catholic Church.

By that time the graphic words used by St Paul to describe apostleship-in-action could have been applied with most accuracy to the aboriginal people.

But it seems to me God has put us apostles at the end of his parade with the men sentenced to death; we have been put on show in front of the whole universe, angels as well as men …..We have no power but you are influential; you are celebrities, we are no-bodies.

To this day we go without food and drink and clothes; we are broken and have no home……We are treated as the offal of the world, still to this day, the scum of the earth.

1 Cor. 4, 9-13.

I ask you; to whom do those words most aptly apply in Australia today?

For us whites, reconciliation starts not with guilt but with the acknowledgment of the truth. Unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated. Great Britain was unquestionably guilty, and countless settlers and convicts followed suit. The Catholic Church was silent for too long.

Guilt cannot be passed down, for Christ has taken guilt away. Guilt is unproductive, indeed harmful.

But shame is another matter. We do share the shame whether our ancestors came on the First Fleet or we are new migrants who came on the last plane, we all share the shame. We must all remember that not one of these good things which we non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy today – benefits which are the envy of the world, which seem to sparkle the more in the Australian sunlight, not one of these good things have been attained without the wrenching distress and the grieving, starvation and dying of Aboriginal people in the past.

There was denial and fantasy and there was white self delusion in Henry Lawson’s lines in 1891.

They needn’t say the fault is ours

If blood should stain the wattle.

The real truth should be reflected in our shame that the golden Australian wattle had already been drenched in blood. Unacknowledged truth has a way of setting iron bands on the soul. The paralysis chokes. And unacknowledged truth also has one of those perverse ways of imposing a sadness and a false guilt on the victim’s heart. As a child can carry the hounding guilt of a father’s abusive betrayal of trust, so many Aboriginal people can carry a false internalised image of themselves that the perpetrating coloniser has created for them. It is true that shame brings its own embarrassing confusion. But there is a single exit from that confusion. It is by letting go of the grand, deluding myth, so pervasive in the white psyche as to cause us to brandish hollow sounds of what we call "Australian pride", so invasive of the Black world as to assure them that the Invasion is still going in.

When Aborigines notice that we non-Aborigines are beginning to see that our liberation is bound up with theirs, the healing power of truth will begin to set each of us free.

I mourned again for the Murray Tribe

Gone too without a trace,

I thought of the soldiers” diatribe,

The smile on the Governor’s face.

You murdered me with rope, with gun

The massacre my enclave,

You buried me deep on Me Larty’s run

Flung into a common grave

You propped me up with Christ, red tape,

Tobacco, grog and fears.

Then disease and lordly rape

Through the brutish years;

Now you primly say you’re justified,

And sing of a nation’s glory.

But I think of a people crucified –

The real Australian story


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