A personal reflection

My earliest memories of St Vincent’s concern the church itself.

By late ‘71 I was back in Sydney after having done the rounds of “training” by the then policy of Conscription which took some of my peers off to their deaths or reduced them to a traumatised state in Vietnam. Others, like myself who were considered poor military material were given softer options. I mention this personal historical detail because I think that St Vincent’s offers a challenge in real life terms to anyone who is prepared to come to it “”just as they are “ and be confronted by it ….

It was and is a meeting point for many things. For myself it was asking: who was I (?) and because of the very preferential option of St Vincent’s for the urban Aboriginal, whether I could look beyond stereotypes to see real people who lived in a very different sort of world – a real life “parallel universe” in fact – and whether I could or wanted to even know about that world.

The fact that I was in uniform meant that I was no radical. The fact that I had opted for the Medical Corps meant that I was searching for a way to live some sort of real life spiritually inspired integrity. And so I came into Redfern…

By early ‘72 the church had been emptied of all the adornments of traditional Catholic piety. More than that: all but the most essential and almost none of the original artefacts of Christian worship remained. There were some pews and a new wooden altar (which has always looked deceptively like stone) rested parallel to the northern (longitudinal) wall. No carpet, which had undoubtedly been originally in such a conservative little enclave of Catholic piety, remained. The rough wooden floor was given a cover of grass matting. (In subsequent years this was in turn disposed of.) Above the altar hung a single crucifix suspended between two ceiling beams. A stone monolith stood in the area under the choir loft. This was the tabernacle and a relocated communion rail formed a curved demarcation to an area which would be used for things like meditation, the less well attended non Sabbath masses, the little weekly gospel discussion group that evolved over the years and a host of celebratory occasions – including our own wedding reception. But that would be 10 years later…

It was a shock, this church which had been reduced to the most elementary of sacred spaces. In the years that followed the dimensions of the sacred would increase and deepen in ways that would be etched both within the church and within the very souls of those who would celebrate both life and death in that place.

The stark reality of this emptying of the church was an act which both allowed and signified a journey towards many things – hospitality (lived out in the church of course, but especially in the presbytery and later in the convent), repentance, reconciliation and in a living and humanly costly way, real compassion – a “being with” people who had been born into structural violence. I came to understand that it was intended to be the sort of space into which the alienated urban Aboriginal person would feel not oppressed by the very Un-Aboriginal Sydney Catholic Church. A perception which was later to receive formal acknowledgment as a key raison d’etre for the Australian Catholic Bishops” Social Justice Statement of 1978 (Introduction, paragraph 2).

I also came to understand that it is not possible to be with people who have been born into structural violence and not be required to share, in some way, the consequences of that violence.

One way of this sharing has come to be that disarming sense of embarrassment which comes as one enters the church for the Sabbath liturgy. The unapologetic presence at the gateway to the church of the unapologetically dispossessed urban Aboriginal is without doubt a confronting experience. In biblical terms it reminds me of the unapologetic presence of the “Lazarus who was once poor” at the gates of the very rich Dives (Luke 16. v9-v31). There are many layers to this experience. I’ve often been struck by the spiritual incongruity of my “struggling to survive self” on my way to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ – what greater paradigm of richness could there be? – being obliged to pass through the disarming presence of those whose lives (as a group, not just the individuals immediately visible) reveal the absolute devastation of the spiritually dispossessed. Born into a challenged identity which had already been robbed of the land which forms the core and wellspring of all Aboriginal spirituality! Yes it is a confronting experience this. Mercifully I am “released” to go through briefly enough.

In reviewing these years I see now the importance of the personal kenosis, the self emptying, modelled by the church itself which the sacred space of St Vincent’s asked of the many who would “come and see”.

Unlike the church, the process in myself was neither sudden nor unduly obvious. Before Maggie and I celebrated our marriage in the church I had never been game enough to be a full-on volunteer in the daily life of hospitality. Being something of a drifter I was known by Ted and Tom (Hammerton) and Mum Shirl to be recognisable for years as one who visited. I/we were known well enough by Mum Shirl that she came to our wedding – and, not surprisingly to those who knew her, simply “took charge” in matters of directions to guests and later when it came time to give a blessing at the cutting of the cake!

The real changes within me came with the natural unfolding of our lives together in the context of other lives at St Vincent’s, both Aboriginal and not. It is difficult, even impossible to do justice to these experiences. It needs time and much reflection to bring out the reasons why, for instance people like Pattie Newman touched us most deeply. Why she became significant to us such that we shared the celebration of her child and ours in a common baptism ceremony. And why, less than two years later we came together with the community to grieve her loss (at the age of 26).

It would be fair to identify a kind of raw vulnerability to a young girl who had been so alienated from her nurturing history that at the age of fourteen she had little idea that she was Aboriginal. Pattie wasn’t a radical either. I recall that she thought Land Rights was bunk!

It was undeniable though, that despite her levels of awareness, her life was viciously circumscribed by powerful forces which contributed to her death as an Aboriginal without Land Rights!

There were many Baptisms (of both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal). Our own three being among them. But there were also many, many funerals. It would be fair to say that the majority (obviously not all) of these were young Aboriginals who died far too young and often in tragic circumstances. That is why members of both groups hold St Vincent’s to be a sacred space.

The (progressive) history of the land upon which the church and all of the surrounding buildings stands is important to any understanding of what is now St Vincent’s Church and the Aboriginal Medical Service.

Originally, of course, all of the land was (still is and always will be) Aboriginal land. It is axiomatic that this fact is not recognised by either contemporary society or by the contemporary Catholic Church. This failure of recognition is in spite of the Church’s own proclamations of principle, but not its practice. Anyone doubting this should seek out a copy of the 1978 Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops!

No one knows (now) whether the particular land in question was the sight of actual bloodshed by the colonising powers. What we do know is that the land became “the property” of a strawberry farmer. The farmer in turn gave it to the Religious Sisters (Mercies ?) who subdivided the land, placed a school on the land they retained and gave the unneeded (?) section to the Archdiocese. This once taken and once given parcel of land is where the church and presbytery and car parking space now are.

There is considerable poetry that in the same year as the self emptying of the church – 1971- the Aboriginal Service opened in Redfern and would come to occupy the building – archaic as it is – of the former school at the back of the church. This land and property had come full circle: once taken, once given and then given back again – no strings attached – by the Nuns to the descendants of the original owners.

There is considerable odium emanating from the fact that the car space at the rear of the presbytery, attached as it is to the parcel belonging to the Archdiocese and desperately needed by the Medical Service to provide an Ambulance thru-way is tied, not with string, but with considerably more power by the Archdiocese who show no sign of knowing anything of the open handed Justice of the good Sisters. One struggles to plumb the depths of renewed meaning to the saintly maxim that “possession is theft”.

One is even more dumbfounded to read the CCJP 1978 Statement, signed by the Bishops, called ABORIGINES, that draws its inspiration in turn from the world Synod of Bishops in Rome of 1971.

This is a powerful document and it is difficult to believe that the same Church which says that “….Church bodies – dioceses, religious communities, parishes should be especially responsive to such an appeal (p11/12) – (the process of restoring further land)”- could today show no sign of being able to live out this particular “cost of discipleship”(p20).The developed understanding of evangelisation (p18) which the Bishops professed in 1971 seems to have evaporated over the years. One might well ask: “If the Aboriginal people of Australia do not feel hope, fidelity and love from the Christian community, this would be a sign that we are being unfaithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (p20).

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