Forty years after the Jesuits re-established their mission among Indigenous people at Balgo, Australian Provincial Fr Steve Curtin SJ says the Jesuits’ commitment to Indigenous ministry remains strong.
The following letter was sent out to Province ministries this month to mark the anniversary, and encourage people to continue to deepen their engagement with Indigenous people.
Around this time, forty years ago, Fr Peter Kelly, as Provincial, decided to mission Pat Mullins and Brian McCoy to Balgo Mission as part of their regency. This was a new and challenging decision for our Province. When we departed from the Daly River Mission in 1899, we became separated from our relationships and ministry with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for some seventy years.
Since 1973, a number of Jesuits have continued to live and work with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and also form significant links with other Jesuits and Indigenous people in the Asia Pacific Assistancy, in North America and beyond. We are fortunate as a Province to have some Aboriginal people now in our various ministries and also some initiatives that involve forming close and developing relationships with them and their communities.
At the same time, it is obvious that the Jesuits who have been in this ministry – and have dedicated many years of service to it – are now getting older and not being replaced by younger men. What remains encouraging is that there are more and more of our lay colleagues who have expressed interest and commitment to this work, often as aspects of Jesuit ministries such as in the social, parish, intellectual and school ministries.
This growth in expression offers hope, but also a caution. While we have received much in this ministry and been blessed with many long and trusting relationships, we continue to have much to learn. We have made mistakes in the past. We need to learn from them in order to continue to sustain and develop this important ministry.
At our last General Congregation 35 (2008), a number of topics for the attention of government in the Society of Jesus were listed. One referred to Indigenous Peoples. It noted: ‘Because of various political and socioeconomic factors, the indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized and exploited. The process of globalization, which is partly responsible for environmental degradation and the pillage of natural resources, has a particular effect on them. In addition, climatic change continues to seriously harm them. Since this situation threatens the very survival of these peoples, the Society should increase its commitment to them. The General Congregation suggests that in every area where this challenge exists, the Conference of Provincials form “work groups” of Jesuits working in this apostolate.’
In recent years the Australian Province has sought to support financially those ministries that reach out to partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Hence we have supported a capacity-building project in Alice Springs and its links with the Santa Theresa community, the establishing of Redfern Jarjum College and the work done for people seeking ministry training through Manalama, the Catholic partner at Nungalinya College in Darwin. While the Province does not have an established or dedicated fund for this ministry, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remains a priority of the Australian Province and we will continue to support it financially into the future. We will also explore, with Jesuit Mission, how we might better support and sustain these and other projects.
In September 2011 a group, from across various Province ministries, gathered in Sevenhill along with Aboriginal friends and colleagues. Accompanying this letter (linked below) is a report that summarises the key findings of that gathering. These findings are to encourage all ministries to acknowledge and reflect on their relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this land and to seek regularly to deepen and develop that relationship. I encourage communities and ministries to discuss these findings and seek to implement them where possible. I also urge communities and ministries to explore ways in which they can be financially supported and sustained as well.
I currently have an Assistant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry, Fr Brian McCoy, who continues in this role, despite his other and future commitments. He is assisted by an Advisory group that includes: Fr Pat Mullins, Beatrice Sheen, David Sutton, Jennie Hickey, Julie Edwards and Vicki Clark. It is my hope that this Advisory group can continue to develop and advise our Province ministries, particularly when and where we are beginning new projects.
One of the tasks of the Assistant and the Advisory group is to offer counsel and encouragement to our various ministries in any new initiative. We continue to learn how to do this ministry better and we need to learn from past efforts and mistakes. More recent initiatives, such as those in Alice Springs or Redfern, or other initiatives in our schools and social ministries, offer new and important learning experiences for the whole Province. I am asking my Assistant and the Advisory group to draw on their valuable experience and expertise to help support, advise and unite our efforts.
We are, particularly in this work, in need of ‘elders’, Indigenous and our own, who can advise us in relation to our past and future works. At the same time we need to remember our past and the many graces we received in this ministry since making that decision forty years ago.
Fr Steve Curtin SJ, Provincial
Report from the Province Gathering on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry