From Australia to the Vatican: ‘Aboriginal Mass’ seeks official recognition

Aboriginal Mass Aboriginal dancers perform an Indigenous welcome ceremony at the opening Mass formally celebrating the start of World Youth Day 2008 at Barangaroo on July 15, 2008, in Sydney. | Credit: Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Australia’s Catholic bishops officially approved a liturgy used in a remote Western Australian diocese that incorporates elements of Aboriginal language and culture. 

The liturgy has been celebrated for over 50 years in the Diocese of Broome, where some 13,000 Catholics live in nine parishes across an area about the size of Texas, with a total population of just over 50,000.

The Mass of the Land of the Holy Spirit — in Latin, “Missa Terra Spiritus Sancti” now awaits the Vatican’s official recognition after the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference passed the motion at its plenary meeting in Sydney on May 7.

Bishop Administrator Michael Morrissey of Broome said the decision was a milestone. “After a lengthy period of engagement, it’s a significant acknowledgment by the Australian bishops.”

Two Indigenous elders, Maureen Yanawana and Madeleine Jadai, presented the Mass to the bishops and shared its impact on their community. “Singing at the top of our voices brings us peace,” Yanawana shared during the presentation at the bishops’ meeting in Sydney’s Mary MacKillop Place, highlighting the spiritual enrichment it brings.

This Mass features multiple local Aboriginal languages and has been a fixture in the Diocese of Broome since it was first authorized for use on an experimental basis in 1973. 

Originating from Bidyadanga, the largest remote community in Western Australia, it was developed when Father Kevin McKelson collaborated with local elders to translate and adapt the Roman rite to resonate with Indigenous cultural and linguistic contexts.

After rigorous refinement, the current version of the Mass was published in 2018. 

According to the Australian Bishops’ Conference, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council described the Mass as a harmonious blend of Catholic and Aboriginal traditions. In a letter of endorsement, the council praised the Mass as a concrete demonstration of the Church’s dedication to embracing Indigenous peoples’ spiritual and cultural dimensions, promoting an environment of inclusivity and respect.

This development echoes St. John Paul II’s words during his historic 1986 visit to Alice Springs, when he emphasized the essential contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the Church in Australia.

“You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you,” the pope wrote at the time. “And the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.”

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