A Guilt-Edged Travesty Before the Altar

If you have any interest in Christianity in Australia you might want to watch the first ten minutes of the Australian Catholic Church’s Plenary Mass on July 3. There you will find the Aboriginal ‘smoking ceremony’, a purportedly religious practice dating back to the 1970s.  It is accompanied by the music of the didgeridoo.  Much more importantly, and of enormous theological significance, there follows an invocation of ‘male and female spirits’ by an elder of the indigenous community. Be patient, the spectacle doesn’t begin straight away.

Dealing first with the secondary issue of suitable church music, one accepts that the Catholic Church in this country is not noted for the high quality of its music, generally preferring songs written for the most part in America during the past 50 years to more traditional compositions.  Few Catholics seem aware these days that musicians of the first rank, such as Haydn and Mozart, were also Catholic, and that they wrote hymns; congregations usually prefer simple songs such as Hear Then What Jahweh Asks Of You, by such authors as Marty Haugen, not distinguished by the excellence of their melodies or profundity of their content.

Against that backdrop it is unreasonable to take exception to the use of Aboriginal music on aesthetic grounds.  In fact the didgeridoo produced quite an attractive sound, perhaps somewhat repetitive (if you want catchy tunes you’ll look elsewhere) but quaintly evocative and ‘atmospheric’, and certainly much more appealing to me than the folksy stuff we usually hear through the church PA system.

But the invocation of spirits is and always has been strictly forbidden by the whole Christian church.  In the First Book of Samuel, King Saul secretly consults a witch at Endor, having previously forbidden his subjects to engage in any form of necromancy.  This deceitful hypocrisy on Saul’s part leads to his own downfall and suicide.  Such a practice has always been regarded, in both Judaism and Christianity, as an insult to God.

There is no room here for controversy as to the facts and no point in pussy-footing around it: the inclusion of this ritual at the start of the Plenary Mass was a completely pagan act — pure paganism without intellectual content or integrity.  It should never have taken place within a Christian Church.  The fact that it did, and that it did so as a sort of preface to the Eucharist, and in the presence of a high proportion of the bishops, almost beggars belief.  You couldn’t make it up.

It’s a sorry fact, however, that in today’s Church such an absurd folly is all too easily believable.  The Australian church, like so many others in the imbecile west, has lost its way.

The good news is that the clip has been viewed by a tiny proportion of the nation’s practising Catholics and a vanishingly small number of their non-Catholic fellow citizens. As an item of news it ranks with small town fetes and minor folk festivals, and well below even the most trivial localised sporting event in our sports-mad country.

The Plenary’s apologies to all the usual victims, which predictably topped the agenda, will contribute nothing to the unity and harmony of the nation, but neither will they further weaken its social fabric, for their impact is virtually nil.  As Australia advances in maturity — if not always in wisdom — that sad old woke company of Baby Boomers, rusted into the fancies of the 1970s, is fast fading into insignificance and oblivion.

I do not question the personal integrity of those who conducted the smoking ceremony. They passionately value their Aboriginal inheritance and consider its preservation vital.  But the plain, sad truth is that the culture and language of many of the coastal aboriginal tribes is now extinct, and that rituals such as this are largely synthetic and therefore, in a strict sense, spurious. 

“My DNA predates Australia,” claimed the elder, and that is no doubt correct.  But what DNA?  Aboriginal DNA only, or the DNA of all the other peoples whose blood flows and blends together in our veins?  And what is this ‘connection with the Earth’ of which we are constantly reminded?  Many Australian families of Aboriginal and European descent, or both, have lived here for centuries.  Is not the land our common home?  The congregation was invited to touch the ground, and all obediently complied.  A nice gesture perhaps, but hardly appropriate at a Mass that has its focus on Heaven.

A second non-Aboriginal speaker apologised on behalf of the Church for its abuse of indigenous people.  No surprises there.  But surely after years of saying ‘sorry’ we can finally let it go?  Endless talk of the ‘stolen generations’, while refusing to acknowledge so much good and often sacrificial work that men and women of the Church did for Aboriginals, is ungracious, dishonest and plain bad history.  Those much-maligned missionaries brought not just religious instruction (which of course counts for less than nothing in the secular mind) but also literacy, numeracy, education in the arts and sciences of the Western world, social work, housing, the common law, medical care.  And most of that at a time when the state did next to nothing to aid the native peoples.  

The poor old Church has lost its mojo. Hardly anybody listens to it anymore because, by and large, it has forgotten its own message.  Chastened by disproportionate shame, dwelling chiefly on its past failings, ignoring its own best work, hoping only for acceptance by the trend-setters of the present age, it must recover its duty to preach the Gospel without apology or dilution.

David Daintree lives and writes in Tasmania

14 thoughts on “A Guilt-Edged Travesty Before the Altar

  • DougD says:

    Could this article be displayed in each seminary (there are probably one or two left). Or it might be better to wait until the current Pope has gone.

  • Blair says:

    “Those much-maligned missionaries brought not just religious instruction (which of course counts for less than nothing in the secular mind) but also literacy, numeracy, education in the arts and sciences of the Western world, social work, housing, the common law, medical care. And most of that at a time when the state did next to nothing to aid the native peoples. ”
    And in the Torres Strait, the “Coming of the Light”, the arrival of Christian missionaries on Darnley Island July 1971, is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islanders.
    “The acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups….The acceptance of missionaries and Christianity into Torres Strait led to profound changes that affected every aspect of life from that time onwards”.
    Queensland Museum
    The Colony of Queensland at the time ignored such inter tribal “head hunting”.

  • lbloveday says:

    Fifteen years ago, my daughter’s Catholic-Anglican school held its end of year Presentation Night in a Catholic Cathedral (it was a large school of over 1,500 students).
    We were subjected to didgeridoo music (not attractive to me, but would be to some), regaled with the story of the Rainbow Serpent… A form of Welcome to Country was throw in, without the title being specified as I recall, but I was not paying rapt attention.
    My letter to the Principal about the inappropriateness went unanswered.

  • Daffy says:

    I’m unsurprised that the ‘sorry day’ farce got a run. Of course, that risible ‘day’ needs to be converted to Rescue Day, to mark the fact that the only ones who cared about the welfare of Aboriginal children were the church and some government officials. No one else gave a damn.

  • Brian Boru says:

    “Welcome to Country” introductions are political statements, sometimes including racist hate speech and have no place in a religious setting. If you don’t agree you you say that aloud if you want to avoid acquiescing.and being taken to have accepted what has been said.
    Now we can look forward to a spew inducing, guilt laden campaign for the “Voice”.
    In our family, all our children and grandchildren are loved equally. None of them have a special “Voice”. So it should be with our Nation, no special “Voice”.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Further to my above comment. When the Welcome to Country includes respect for Aboriginal Culture and Elders; that includes infanticide, cannibalism, violence, pedophilia and rape.
    Again, if you do not agree in respecting those things you should say so aloud. If you don’t, you have acquiesced.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    The Church, called to be a light to the world has, instead, become a mirror of the world’.
    “Ah! Would the scandal vanish with my life. How happy then were my ensuing death”. William Shakespeare, King Richard 11, Act 2.

  • Dr Gary Johns says:

    Bravo. The missionaries were right. The tragedy is that they left before the job of integration was complete. All today’s problems stem from that withdrawal.

  • lbloveday says:

    Brian Boru,
    I limited myself to writing a protest letter to the Principal rather than saying it out loud at the Presentation Night, which would identify the loud protester as my daughter’s father and make her liable to repercussions “Your Dad’s an idiot…(chose a word).
    I refute any and all claims I acquiesced.

  • Max Rawnsley says:

    We know a great number of indigenous people are hostage to an elite headed industry. With the billions tipped in for ‘their’ betterment a visit to many sizeable country towns, for example Dubbo and Kempsey, will reveal a number of grant beneficiaries enjoying a very well paid existence. New cars, pockets of cash, the local clubs do very well in the pokies with indigenous customers. Building are owned but staffed very selectively and zip for any indigenous not in the family group. A visit to Darwin reveals the poster for indigenous complaint, well managed chaos 24/7. I recall Land Council meetings in Parramatta and the joy it bought to a Range Rover dealer who cheerfully swapped over the vehicles on demand.

    Now the voice is a blatant attempt to commandeer the legislative agenda concerning the proposed power such an unrepresentative body may receive. This is a power grab supported by Greens and Labor to consolidate their pandering to the indigenous elite and thereby control those who choose to identify as ‘indigenous’. Another very useful constituency? Not a word or remote interest in the endemic domestic violence and other near unspeakable acts. But our betters will seek to con the voters with vague options that could hardly be declined, power to the legislature? Not for me.

  • Brian Boru says:

    lbloveday . Please understand that I was not in any way intending to refer to you. In fact I was not even thinking of your comment when I wrote. You certainly, by your letter to the Principal, did not acquiesce.

  • lbloveday says:


  • Kevin Donnelly says:

    David, how dare you question the Church’s right to celebrate the authenticity and spiritual richness of the nation first peoples – they lived in harmony, peace and without anger and discord before the white supremacist invasion led by the colonial imperialist Captain Cook and Arthur Phillip. You are pale, male and stale not to appreciate what a utopia this land was before the intergenerational conflict and trauma was inflicted on the Indigenous people. Who cares if the missionaries taught Indigenous children how to read, add up and lead a healthy life and stopped practices like infanticide and cannibalism. You obviously need re-education – and quick! Kevin from danustan

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    I was brought up by my parents to be proud of my Catholic faith. In turn I took my children to Sunday Mass most Sundays. Then the church started modernising, not saying the Mass in English which I for one thought a smart move, but in massaging Christ’s message to make some more comfortable. As a father I know my children are not faultless as I am not faultless and I am forgiving. God is our father and as such would be far more forgiving but, as we believe, He loves the sinner but hates the sin. It seems the church now accepts some of those sins in order to placate the sinner’s conscience which weakens the whole concept of trying to be true to God’s word. No need to abstain from some sins any more apparently. Israel Folau pointed that out and was pilloried for his trouble. I don’t recall the Catholic bishops springing to his defence. As for celebrating Aboriginal culture we should ask which bit are we to celebrate? Brian Boru asks the same question and so far no answer. My grandsons Catholic primary school will be celebrating NAIDOC this Friday but I will be sick that day. They had a Sorry Day last term and I wrote the principal a lengthy letter on why I did not feel sorry and that some gratitude would be nice. No answer.

Leave a Reply