Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Sunday

Today, July 4th, is National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Sunday. I have had calls in recent weeks from people who are unsure how to mark the occasion appropriately in parishes.

The first thing that needs to be said is that special intentions such as this one are not liturgical events. The ‘theme’ of Masses this weekend, as for every Mass, is the paschal mystery - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The purpose of our coming together for worship is always to give thanks and praise to God for the free gift of our salvation through, with and in Christ.

Hence, the readings and prayers for this Sunday will be those of the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, which is today’s designated in the liturgical calendar.

I have been asked whether parishes may use the special Aboriginal Eucharistic Prayer on this day. Only Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander communities, for whom the prayer was especially composed, are entitled to use this prayer.
I have real concerns about those who want to appropriate the customs and ceremonies of other cultures and traditions for their own purposes. I have reservations, for example, about the eagerness of some Christians to incorporate the Aboriginal smoking ceremony in liturgy. I wonder how Catholics would feel if the Buddhist community decided to add Benediction to their prayers in the name of inclusiveness and multiculturalism?

Aboriginal ceremonies should only ever be included in Christian worship after frank discussion about the meaning of the ritual between the Indigenous people and those preparing the celebration, and should take place only with the full participation of indigenous leaders. It is also vital that all participants at the liturgy be given a clear explanation of the significance and purpose of the ritual.

I have seen the Aboriginal flag displayed in some parishes on this day. It is never appropriate to have the national insignia of a particular group in churches which are meant to be places where ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female….’. The allegiance which draws us together for liturgy transcends cultural and national boundaries.

There are some appropriate ways in which observance of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Sunday can be incorporated into a Mass. These include a brief reference to the day before the Entrance Procession, inclusion in the homily and petitions in the Prayer of the Faithful. Prayers for worshippers to use at home and information about indigenous issues can be included in parish bulletins, distributed after Mass or prominently displayed on parish bulletin boards.

These possibilities are somewhat limited. Parishes need therefore to look for possibilities outside of the Sunday Mass to raise awareness of indigenous people and issues and to encourage people to pray about them. The week following 4 July is NAIDOC Week. Parishes might hold a special prayer service during the week, have a guest speaker from the Indigenous community one evening, or encourage all parish committees and groups that will meet during the week to include prayer for the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people in their agenda. Resources are available from Murri Ministry in Brisbane.

Using the Sunday Mass as the sole means of marking such commemorations doesn’t do justice to the special intention and is a misuse of the liturgy.

Elizabeth Harrington