Homily for the Opening and Blessing of the Aboriginal Catholic Centre at Emerton


Uncle Ray Leslie (our Master of Ceremonies), Aunty Janice Kennedy (Assistant Senior Manager of Aboriginal Catholic Services) and all the excellent staff and volunteers of ACS, Uncle Brian Boney (who conducted our Smoking Ceremony), Uncle Ben Taylor-Cuiermara (Nyungar Elder from Western Australia), Aunties Gloria Matthews, Jenny Ebsworth, Janice Brown, Rhonda Randall, Daisy Barker, Margaret Farrell and other elders of the Aboriginal Community in Western Sydney, our Aboriginal dance group, all members of the local Aboriginal community and their guests here today; 

Mr Ed Husic MP (Federal Member for Chifley, representing Minister Kate Ellis and the Commonwealth Government), Mr Michael Chan (from DEEWR) and Mr Francis Vella (who assisted with the grant process); 

Mr Otto Henfling (Executive Director of CatholicCare Social Services Parramatta) and the many staff of CatholicCare, as well as many other friends representing local Aboriginal agencies and from the world of social service;

Fr Ed Dooley sj (Parish Priest of this parish of the Holy Family), Fr Paul Bird cssr, Redemptorist Provincial and other Redemptorists, here today to support Fr Phil Medlin (Chaplain to CatholicCare), Reverend fathers and religious sisters; 

Leaders and representatives of the Chancery, the Catholic Education Office, our Diocesan Social Justice Office, MacKillop Services, Marist Youth Care, Campion College, Sydney Technical Institute, Wilmot Public School, Blacktown Council, the Western Sydney Area Health Service, the Parish of the Holy Family Emerton and other Church and community organisations; 

Mr John Gatt and Miss Alicia Gatt (from Peaceplan Designers) who designed this Centre and Mr Ben Bartlett (of Linden Construction) who actually built it; and all of you here present today: 

Let me begin by echoing the words of acknowledgment of the original custodians of the land upon which our new centre is built and of all the lands in our Diocese of Parramatta – the Burramuttagal people of the Dharug nation. As an ‘elder’ of the Catholic Church I am honoured to be welcomed by Aboriginal elders today and I wish in turn to acknowledge your elders and people, past and present. 

We have apologies today from Bishop Kevin Manning, Emeritus Bishop of Parramatta who first backed the building of this centre when he was the local bishop, and who is now Administrator of the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes; from a number of civic leaders such as Richard Amery, David Bradbury, Greg Donnelly, Alan Pendleton; from a number of parish clergy: all those who could not be with us today but join us in spirit we carry in our hearts. 

The short reading Fr Phil just read to us from St Paul (Eph 2:19-22) reminds us that we are no longer strangers to each other but brothers and sisters in Christ. Sounds great: but how real is such talk? 

Well, the previous verses of the same letter of St Paul make it clear that the context is one of alienation, of people feeling left out, even of their own land. What Christ does, Paul says, is break down the dividing walls of hostility and reconcile us to each other and to God. So why does Paul have to remind the people in Ephesus to behave as one family, clan, people – the household of God? Presumably because they were not behaving that way, or not always. New walls of hostility or rivalry were emerging, new distinctions and separations. The project of reconciling human beings to each other and to God is not complete, not this side of the grave anyway. We can never tick the box on justice and reconciliation and compassion as if we’ve done that and can move our attention elsewhere. No, the building project is an ongoing one. Certainly, Christ’s death and rising is once and for all; but our response to that is gradual and fragile and sometimes contradictory. 

And so in our small ways we try to build. We build on the foundations of the prophets and apostles, our ancestors and elders. We build centres like this one which we open and bless today, conscious that what really matters is the spiritual building project that is going on within each one of us and between us, a project that is never finished even if externally things look new and beautiful and hospitable.

Though today’s opening and blessing is, in important ways, a new beginning and a sign of great hope for the relationship of care between Church and state and the Aboriginal people of this district, in another important sense it is not the beginning or the end of anything, but more like a spear thrown into a moving river that lodges in the sand and remains as a marker in time. The river has been there a long time: the Indigenous people of this district for perhaps tens of thousands of years; the Catholic community for 223 years; and the relationships, sometimes tense, sometimes, thank God, loving and caring.  

The river has been there a long time and will, please God, long flow into the future. So this new Aboriginal Catholic Centre in the grounds of the Holy Family Parish Emerton is not the first place or the last place for various interactions between the Aboriginal people of Western Sydney and the Catholic Church. The addresses, the personalities, the kinds of service and care that go on in them, have changed over time and will change into the future. And the challenge from St Paul is never to imagine we’ve ticked the box and finished with reconciliation, justice and charity: that is a project that will continue, in various forms, until kingdom come. 

But this is an important marker event. For one thing, it means that the works of the Catholic Church within the Aboriginal community will no longer be conducted in ‘borrowed premises’, as it were. They now have a home. Not just any old home: a purpose-built, genuinely beautiful home, a home you can be proud of. Several of the women have said to me that it is even better than they had dreamed. That dream was a long one of the Aboriginal Catholic community and its friends. Now you have it: a centre conceived by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people. Others helped, including the Commonwealth and State governments with their substantial grants, the diocese and parish with its land and other contributions, the architects and builders with their craft, CatholicCare with its oversight and planning for future services. It is already a sign of that godly collaboration for which we all dream.  

So today is an historic occasion and a cause for great celebration. But in this life joy is often mixed with sorrow and I want to acknowledge the hurt felt by some by the provision, or lack of provision, or changes in the provision, of various kinds of care by the Church in Western Sydney for Aboriginal people over the years. This, of course, is in the context of wider neglect and damage done to indigenous people in our community over the past two centuries. There were and always will be different views on how and what the Church should do with and for Aboriginal people, who should lead and serve in that work, where it should be done and so on. 

I am determined to keep listening to the Aboriginal people of Western Sydney and to respond as best as we can as a Church. My Episcopal Vicar for Health and Community Services, Monsignor Bob McGuckin, who is presently overseas and sends his apologies; the Executive Director of CatholicCare, Mr Otto Henfling; the Team Leader for Aboriginal Catholic Services, Mrs Janice Kennedy; and all the ACS and CatholicCare teams share with me a conviction that our Church must be a humble force for reconciliation and unity within the Aboriginal community and between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities of Western Sydney. 

Despite any tensions or concerns we all recognize that today is an historic occasion and a cause for great celebration. Indigenous people are a very significant group within our Diocese, the largest urban population of Aboriginal Catholics, equivalent in numbers to a whole parish. While they are centred here in Mt Druitt and Blacktown they are also to be found throughout the Diocese from Rydalmere in the East to Mt Victoria in the West, from Kurrajong in the North to Greendale in the South. The Indigenous people living in the Parramatta Diocese are not passive recipients of care but active agents of Christian discipleship, leadership and service in Western Sydney and I think we are very fortunate to have these women and men – and children – involved in the work of ‘building a house where God lives’, as St Paul described our work this morning. 

I am very excited and pleased today to be with you for this opening and blessing, for the laying down of this marker in the long and ongoing history of God’s work amongst the Aboriginal people, the Catholic people, the Catholic Aboriginal people of Western Sydney. We pray, as St Paul exhorts us, that this physical building may be a sign and help to the spiritual building project in each one of us and within our communities: that we might indeed grow in to ‘one holy temple in the Lord’, putting behind us our grievances, aligning ourselves to Christ our chief cornerstone, and with our spiritual ancestors as our foundations, embracing the future with hope.

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