Keynote Address from Bishop Christopher Saunders at the ACPA
As some of you will know, I have been, for the last fourteen years, part of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. I have been chair for twelve of those years. I am told I was the longest serving bishop in that portfolio – one that I found forever challenging and at times very frustrating. That I found it challenging is easy to understand. These have been fertile years for the playing-out of gross injustices in our land, and that is to mention nothing of those travesties of justice that pour out continually from a multitude of situations overseas. My frustration in the position is that I tried very hard at all times to represent the voice of the Church on issues that matter. I tried to communicate that which I knew to be the mind of the bishops on a host of issues. I was assisted by a very competent secretariat – creative, dedicated, well-schooled in Catholic Social teaching, and extremely hard working.
They are undoubtedly one of the finest group of people I have ever worked with. But for all that my frustration grew over the years as whenever we spoke out, those things about which we spoke were time and time again ignored by the secular press and media. To add to the burden I would get letters from lay people saying things like: “Why doesn’t the Church say something about Asylum seekers, or worker’s rights, or Aboriginal people, or the plight of the aged.” This is a good Time to say how grateful I was to the majority of Catholic publications and Church media agencies who willingly furthered our press releases and pronouncements – and gave them oxygen.
The few such bodies that seem to have followed a policy of avoiding Social Justice as though it was an added extra that you can do without, I must say, simply don’t understand Catholic teaching and are appallingly ignorant of the tenets of faith. Catholic teaching presented without Social Justice is simply not Catholic teaching. For the Church or any of its component parts to attempt to live the Christian life devoid of Social Justice is tantamount to spitting in the Face of Christ.
Happily, I must say, the great gift of Francis, our Holy Father…is to awaken us from our slumber, to help us see in the plaintive look of the hungry child, the traumatized refugee, the desperately dispossessed and the marginalized poor nothing less than the face of the suffering Christ who begs of us compassion and Christian action for justice. What an inspiration this old man is to the tired Church of the First world. What a galvanizing effect he has been to a self-serving developed world. His words have found new voice in the resolution of some State Leaders in Western Europe who are preparing their nations to absorb the waves of refugees from Syria in the greatest effort at resettlement of displaced persons since the end of World War II. And what about Australia?
I have wondered often lately, if I had my time again, about how much more could be done to combat what I consider to be the greatest scourge on the soul of this nation, namely racism.
Some weeks ago, after a trip out bush away from media frenzies, I became vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding Adam Goodes – I was picking up bits and pieces on my return but not really tuned into the intensity of the debate. Before it reached its crescendo and before political leaders and club presidents came on board with a plan for combined action, I was asked by one of our Sisters had I been following it all. I said I hadn’t and I was trying rather belatedly to figure it out, to catch up with its significance. She commented that in a way, for her, it summed up all the sadness and disappointment of this country - that someone could be vilified because of their race, publically and without due shame – and that it should start with a vulgar and reckless remark from a young girl who was no doubt schooled in such vilification by her elders. Didn’t it just show how hard it is to be Aboriginal, and proud, in such a toxic and tormented environment, the Sister mused. It set me thinking about our past as a Diocese. How and why we came to be. And how it is at the kernel of our calling to love God and neighbour, fully, in truth and in justice.
That evening I experienced the most fruitful of meditations. And my daily examination of conscience had more energy about it than usual. Wasn’t this part of all of our Missionary endeavours I prayed – to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim Liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free… It is on those lines I have been trekking these past few weeks. And asking myself where am I in this debate that surrounds Adam Goodes, and where is my Diocese and where is my country ?
Historically racism as it has existed in this country and as it continues to manifest itself still today has dealt the moral worth of this Commonwealth of ours some savage and reprehensible blows. From our very beginnings as a colonised entity our treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal and Islander peoples has been atrocious and unspeakable. I would contend that our race relations have been so fundamentally tainted by the evil of racism that it has scarred the psyche of this country’s peoples and continues to hinder, even today, our pathway to maturation as a nation.
I believe that, at times and in places, the Church has a remarkable record in correcting the abuses spurred on by racism and greed, so evident in our written history. Bishop Polding, for instance, the new colony’s first Catholic episcopal appointment, was quoted as saying; “The life of an Aboriginal person is valued no more than the life of a kangaroo, and far less than that of a bullock…” He goes on to cite the conversations of young settlers in the colony who spoke openly of the extermination of natives. It was even fashionable in his day for some leading lights to debate whether or not Aboriginal people had souls or whether they were fully human.
The scramble for the possession of land was a primary focus for Australia’s first settlers be they free travellers from the Mother country or ex-convicts. It was a necessary part of the process of occupation by settlers to believe that there was no prior ownership of land and that the Crown had the right to Grant and to sell land irrespective of the presence and existence of indigenous peoples who hunted and gathered on every property. This approach was devoid of any sense of moral obligation to the native peoples, something well illustrated by a local grazier here in the Kimberley, Hamlet Cornish, who in 1883 wrote; “Imagine, thousands of acres of grassland, and all a chap has to do is to march in and squat on it.”
The Church here in the Kimberley was founded largely by an Irishman who recognised the plight of the Aboriginal people and the horrible injustices meted out to them. He set about establishing a protectorate, a mission, as some visible response to the injustices he had observed in the colony of Western Australia and elsewhere. Matthew Gibney was an Irish priest who came to Perth in 1863 and became Bishop of Perth in 1887. [ Incidentally, it is interesting to recall here, now, that he was visiting Victoria in 1880 and was the priest oft- mentioned at Glenrowan at the scene of the Kelly gang siege where he so bravely entered the burning hotel.]
Of Bishop Gibney Paul Hasluck has to say: “To Bishop Gibney perhaps more than to any other single man, belongs the credit for reawakening in Western Australian life a conception of Christian duty towards the natives.” He was brazen in his resistence to Governments and in his resolve in opposition to the exploitation of Aboriginal people by Graziers and Pearlers. In his own words: “So long as there is traffic in human flesh between certain gross and unscrupulous men, and so long as I consider that the blacks are being cruelly treated under the sacred name of justice, I shall not cease to raise my voice.”
I cannot think of a better banner or manifest under which to mount a concerted effort against racism and all policies that have their genesis in racist attitudes. Except perhaps under the banner of the Gospel itself.
To the Kimberley, arising from the efforts of Bishop Gibney, came a series of missionaries – from a variety of backgrounds – all of whom have added to the splash of colour which is the Kimberley Church. Each of them has been a dot as adding to a dot painting, and together all of them have contributed to a pattern and a story that is rich in the telling and compelling in its entirety.
The first priest in the Kimberley was Duncan McNab, a diocesan priest, a cousin to Mary McKillop, a champion of Aboriginal rights to freedom and Land, who ministered for a time in Queensland from where he was hounded by the Landed Gentry and a squatters-dominated State assembly for his outspoken views on Aboriginal issues. After a period as chaplain to aboriginal Prisoners on Rottnest Island, near Perth, he responded to the quest of Bishop Gibney to found a protectorate/mission in the north of the State. He arrived in 1884 and came north to begin his ministry among the Bardi, Nimanboor and Nyul Nyul peoples on the Peninsula north of here. With the aid of a local interpreter he wandered over the peninsula meeting people and telling them about Jesus Christ. His ministry was that simple .
The Cistercians from Sept Fons, mainly French, followed the brave Father McNab and arrived in 1890 . They were hard working, pious, determined and well intentioned. They learnt the local language, taught some agricultural skills and ran a school with a little success. Local people learnt French too and could sing the responses in liturgical celebrations in Latin. The Trappists were diligent in their efforts to protect the Indigenous people from exploitation although the length of the coastline meant that black-birding, basically slavery under a kinder name, continued still to a significant degree. When the German Pallottines came to supplant the Trappists in 1901 they brought with them a measure of discipline different to that of the French. They remained in the area for a hundred years and during that time began schools and boarding facilities and hospitals and clinics. When the Irish and then Australian St John of God Sisters arrived in 1908 they participated in and led an education revolution for Aboriginal people. In Broome for instance they staffed St Mary’s Primary school and welcomed local children to attend. Prior to that such children were excluded from the state-run educational facilities.
On the health front The St John of God Sisters ran hospitals for Indigenous people and for Asiatics. In Broome they specifically looked after the health of the Japanese involved in the Pearling industry and in Derby they staffed a Lazaret. There they cared for patients separated from their families by the scourge of leprosy and they pioneered the new medicines that would change for the good the lives of those who suffered from the dreadful disease.
Pallottines and St John of God Sisters provided care for children who were separated from their parents either through need or as a result of government Assimilationist policy. And it needs to be recognized that the enactment of the Stolen Generation policy had far greater effects upon the Aboriginal world in Australia than ever we might imagine. In the Kimberley there were accidental benefits experienced by those living in Catholic institutions notwithstanding the wanton cruelty of taking children forcefully from their parents in the first place. Many of those placed by Government authorities in Church orphanages and hostels remember the warmth of the Sisters care for them with fondness.
Looking back in history we can see a fascinating synergy that existed between the Missionaries and the Aboriginal people. The latter recognized the genuine desire of the missionaries to do good. During the wars the German Missionaries were at times as despised as the Aboriginal people by the ruling elite. Gangs of nationalistically minded whites in Broome attempted to organize lynching parties to go to Beagle Bay to punish the German missionaries for allegedly refuelling U boats off the coast – an impossible task as it was preposterous. And along with the local people the Missionaries went hungry at times and suffered great deprivations all in the cause of goodness and the gospel. In the East Kimberley before water was found to establish Balgo Mission the Missionaries, Germans and Aboriginal Lay Missionaries from the Peninsula, wandered the desert living with their herds of goats and sheep and cattle, sleeping under canvas and moving about as the local nomadic peoples did.
This has been a Church of the people and with the people. One, I am happy to say, that is unashamedly poor in material goods but rich in the wealth of its generosity towards others and in its affinity with gospel values. The question to be answered is can the present bishop and the missionaries of today, in their ministerial efforts, keep it that way and continue to attempt to be the enduring face of Christ in a Christless age. Well, in all honesty I must say, we struggle with our imperfections daily and much of what must happen in desperation we leave to God as we pray for the courage to be clay in the potters hands.
The service of the Church in the Kimberley has so often been a countersign to those forces that have exploited local indigenous peoples. It has stood openly in opposition to the power of racism, which along with greed is the engine room that drives the exploitation of peoples and excludes them from just participation in the common wealth of the region.
Through the on-going efforts of our schools and communities there are leaders emerging who can more easily stand their ground against the forces of tyranny. The Church Is called to stand in solidarity alongside of these leaders, to be with the marginalised and the oppressed and to do so while proclaiming the mantle of Christs love.
I believe without hesitation that the Church in Australia is called to be bold in its part in the service of Australian society - even though we so often appear these days to be on the back foot. We share a unique moment in the pages of our country’s history and we are being well prepared as we learn humility which we know is the foundation of all Christian endeavour. During these days of the Royal Commission our Church is being scrubbed clean of the soot and grime that comes from arrogance, power and a twisted sense of vocation.
I believe that you in media hold a unique part to play in the growth of a Church in Australia that is devoid of Racism, one that actively promotes the fundamental option for the poor, and ceases to be a parody of royal courtism and dated ecclesiastical nonsense. The Holy Father has spoken clearly in recent times of the evils of clericalism and the brandishment of wealth. Are we listening to him? Will we be courageous enough to follow him in our pursuit of a just Church in a just world?
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