An Australian Aboriginal Mass

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Worship. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Liturgical Press

by Carmel Pilcher

At a lecture in 2014 marking the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium Bishop Paul Bird named his paper “Living Liturgy: The Vision of Vatican II.”(1) Bird spoke of the council fathers’ intention that the liturgical reform “promote a more vigorous Christian life, ” in other words that it be “living liturgy.”(2) After reminding his audience that the liturgical reform of the council was in fact conservative in nature, Bird revisited the principles and in particular the directives that resulted in the revised Missal of Paul VI. But the implementation of this reform was never to be simple. Bird remarked that Paul VI himself hinted there would be challenges in balancing values along the way. By way of example Bird focused on the change in policy both with regard to the way liturgical texts are prepared and those responsible for their revision. He counselled: “I would suggest that in the translation of texts, as in other areas of liturgy, we do well to regularly check our approach against the vision of liturgy proposed by the Second Vatican Council.”(3)

Bird then addressed what he termed a related issue: that of adapting the liturgy to the various cultures of peoples. He offered an example from his own experience while visiting the church of Samoa. This related to the inclusion of a familiar domestic funeral ritual into the introductory rites of the Mass.

He described this in detail:

This ceremony had been adapted for use as a penitential rite at the start of Mass. At the start of the Mass the priest would come in procession to the sanctuary, but before going to the altar he would sit on the floor with his head covered with a fine mat. This seemed to me to . . . resonate strongly with Samoan people who had grown up with the ceremony of the fine mat as a symbol of sorrow for any offence and a desire for true repentance. After the priest had sat on the ground with the mat over his head for a short time, someone would come and take the mat from his head. Only then would the priest get up and go to the altar. The priest was seen as a representative of the community. So when the mat was lifted from his head, it was a symbol of God’s forgiveness of the whole community. Then, in union with the priest, the whole community could spiritually stand up and move forward and be welcomed to God’s house and the great family of God’s people. (4)

Bird commented that this appeared to be a rare example of the practice of cultural liturgical adaptation throughout the world.

Returning his focus to Australia, Bird remarked that while in the past worshipers felt at home with the predominantly European nature of the Catholic liturgy, this was no longer the case for worshiping communities with a diverse multicultural face from all continents in the world. He singled out indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with a heritage very different from the Western tradition for a renewed focus on liturgical inculturation.(5) Bird believes that to be “living liturgy” the church’s worship needs to both draw on the “rich tradition of liturgical prayer” and at the same time “be open to the various cultures around the world today.”(6)

This paper will explore one attempt by the Australian Church soon after Vatican II to take seriously the council’s mandate to adapt the liturgy to the needs of its indigenous peoples. The Australian Aboriginal Mass is a unique example that surprisingly has never been studied in any serious way in the past.(7) For that reason and the fact that it continues to be a catalyst for any efforts at liturgical inculturation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics, it deserves our consideration.

We begin with a description of the ceremony. Before offering a brief analysis of the Mass, we will place it within the context of the time. Finally, we will suggest its ongoing significance not just for Australian Catholics but potentially for all indigenous Catholics throughout the world.



The celebration of the Australian Aboriginal Mass took place on the afternoon of Saturday, February 24, 1973, with an assembly of more than twenty thousand Catholics from all parts of Australia and visitors, including bishops from many parts of the world. It was part of the program of liturgical events during the fortieth International Eucharistic Congress held in Melbourne.

Aboriginals from remote Catholic communities provided the singers and dancers. These were prominently positioned behind the altar and facing the assembly.(9) A song accompanied the short procession of servers—four of whom were indigenous—who were followed by the MC, the deacon, and the presider, Cardinal Sheehan, the papal legate.(10) The hymn was sung in English so that all could join with the Aboriginal children’s choir.(11) 

Participants return to their places in the choir after the sign of peace. The presider, center, is Archbishop Sheehan, the papal legate; to his right is Archbishop Dennis Hart, now archbishop of Melbourne and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.
Participants return to their places in the choir after the sign of peace. The presider, center, is Archbishop Sheehan, the papal legate; to his right is Archbishop Dennis Hart, now archbishop of Melbourne and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.

The Mass followed the structure of the Roman Rite—a brief Introductory Rite, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, and a short Concluding Rite. While the structure was familiar, various elements of ritual and text were markedly different. We begin with a description of the ritual components, including music, dance, and art that brought unique components of Aboriginal ceremonies to the liturgy.



An Oral Tradition

Following the Opening Prayer the proclamation of the Word was introduced by an elder from an island off the coast of the north of Australia: “We the Tiwi people of Bathurst Island NT we sing mime and dance the Last Supper. Our Lord showed his love for us at the Last Supper when he said ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ We ask you to share with us this story.”(12) The Islanders, whose bodies were adorned with paint and feathers for ceremony, gathered before the altar. Twelve men sat in a semicircle with a number of women behind them. One man on the edge of the circle had a spear. After he gave three hollow claps with his hands the singing began. The leader mimed giving bread to each of the twelve and they ate together. The elder spoke again: “Our Lord gives us the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He gave us food to eat and wine to drink to make us strong.” After “drinking” in unison the group sang several songs that were accompanied by dancing. Finally, the leader danced with the spear in jubilation. The singing was solemn and prayerful and the dancing strong. The Scripture proclamation continued for several minutes.(13) The assembly received this proclamation of the Word in respectful silence.

At the end of the ritual Fr. Hilton Deakin said: “The Bathurst Islanders have just told the story of the Last Supper in the way that they know best.” He continued: “Instead of the Responsorial Psalm we will have a LIRRGA song from Port Keats. It is called a Jesus song and tells us very simply that God is good to people.”(14) The traditional form of song was sung in local dialect and was accompanied by the sound of the didgeridoo and a guitar. At the conclusion of the song the presider prayed: “Father in heaven, your Son, Jesus, has spoken to us. We will listen to his word.” All responded with, “That word is good.” 

The beginning of the communion reflection dance. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.
The beginning of the communion reflection dance. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.

The gospel was proclaimed in the usual way from the book of the Scriptures and the homily and general intercessions followed.

Ceremonial Dance and Song

The Liturgy of the Eucharist began with a procession of gifts according to a dance tradition of Port Keats. Preparing food is traditionally women’s work in Aboriginal cultures so women—dressed for ceremony—danced the gifts to the altar: a traditional bag was later removed to reveal a host on a flat plate decorated with an Aboriginal motif and large conch shells. The dancing was accompanied by clap sticks, and the song was sung in a local Port Keats dialect.

The sign of peace—in the form of a handshake—took an extended length of time, in fact, a similar period to that of the ceremonial dances.(15) The ritual began with: “May the Lord Jesus make you good in your hearts,” to which all responded: “Lord Jesus, make us friends together.” The presider then said “Let everybody see we are all friends.” It would seem that the significance of this moment of reconciliation among Aboriginals and between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians was not lost on the assembly.(16)

During the distribution of Communion the choir sang in their local Aboriginal languages. Immediately after Communion a ceremonial dance of thanksgiving was accompanied by singing. The notes in the Order of Service explain:

The concept of “thanks” is foreign to the aboriginals. Their traditional substitute is contained in the idea and practice of RECIPROCITY. God the Father has given them his Son, and they express this in dance and song. They are obliged to give something back—it will be themselves they give. And they express this also. And the idea of joy is strongly stressed. The tribes from Port Keats and Kununurra have a dance, THE DJANBA, to express this.(17)

Women had danced gifts to the altar. Men now danced with vigour and strength in exchange for the “presents” of bread and wine. The assembly participated in this ritual by clapping rhythmically with the singers.



The texts of the Mass were significantly modified from the Roman texts. All spoken texts were in the English language to ensure participation by the whole assembly, including indigenous Christians from both tribal and urban areas.(18)

Recurring Theme: Father, You Are Good

The opening greeting reflected a simple theme that was repeated throughout the Mass: “May the Father in heaven make you good in your hearts,” to which all responded: “May he make you good in your heart.”(19) The petition “you will make us good” or acclamation of praise “Father, you are good” were other expressions of this theme.(20)

To the prayer at the dedication of the gifts: “Brothers and sisters, may the Father in heaven take these two presents from us,” the response was: “Yes. May the Father in heaven take these two presents. We will praise him and be good.”21 The prayer continued: “May the Father in heaven take these two presents from us,” and in response: “We will praise him and be good.”

The penitential rite was based on the third form of the Roman Missal:

Father above, we have done wrong.

Father, we have forgotten your word.

Father, sometimes we do not look after one another.(22)

The final response, addressed to Mary, was an exception to the normal Roman liturgical tradition: “Mary Mother, say a good word to the Father for us.” Reflecting Aboriginal culture, the mother mediated between the father, God, and the penitent children who had “done wrong.”(23) For the Roman Missal’s “Lord have mercy” was substituted the simpler “We are sorry.”(24)

The Proper Prayers were especially composed for the Mass to reflect the Congress’s theme: “love for God and one another.”(25) The Opening Prayer is an example:

Let us pray,

God our Father,

your only proper Son

has told us about your love for all men.

May we learn about your love,

and love one another.

We make this prayer through your only proper Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,

who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,

for ever and ever.


The prayer followed the prayer pattern and formula of the Roman Missal. The phrase “your only proper Son” appeared as an unusual addition.(26) This term was repeated several times throughout the Mass.(27)

The text of the Lord’s Prayer was taken from the Roman Missal. A distinctively melodic chant was attached to the prayer and the simple words summed up their intention. “You are our Father. You live in heaven. We talk to you. Father, you are good.” This antiphon was sung before and after the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.(28)

The final blessing: “May almighty God make you good in your hearts, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” continued the theme of goodness. The dismissal followed: “Brothers and sisters, that is the finish. You can go now.” To which all replied, “Amen.” The brevity and directness of this statement is indicative of the flavour of all the texts that were used throughout the Mass.



The eucharistic prayer was patterned on the eucharistic prayer from the Roman Missal but again the texts were significantly modified.(29) The preface began with the salutation that was repeated throughout the Mass:

Cel: May the Father in heaven make you good in your hearts.

All: May he make you good in your heart.

“Lift up your hearts” became “May he make you good in your hearts.” The next invitation and response was:

Cel: Listen to the word of the Lord Jesus.

All: We will listen.

All were invited to “listen to the word of the Lord Jesus” in the eucharistic prayer that followed. This additional insertion into the preface appeared clearer when immediately after the institution narrative the assembly said:

The bread has become the body of the Lord.

The wine has become the blood of the Lord.

We cannot see this.

By the word of the Lord Jesus, we believe it.(30)

The eucharistic prayers in the Roman Missal are dialogical in character. The eucharistic prayer capitalised on this structural format by including extra acclamations for the assembly.(31) “Father, you are good” was repeated eight times during the preface. “We remember. It is good” was repeated three times after the words of institution and the memorial acclamation. “Father, you are good” was inserted before the doxology. The simple Sanctus fitted neatly with the theme:

Father, you are good.

We are happy about that man Jesus, Your only proper Son.

Come, Lord Jesus, come and be with us.

The common notion of goodness was affirmed in hearts and minds in words spoken by the presider and the regular spoken responses of the assembly.(32) The whole of the eucharistic prayer carried this simple message of praise for the good God who made the earth bountiful and for the “proper” Son, Jesus, who gave himself as “present” in bread and wine.



In the seventies, Australia, along with many countries in the Western world, was a society in the midst of ferment and change.(33) The Catholic Church’s liturgy was also in a period ad experimentum in the wake of the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium less than a decade before.(34) That the organisers at the time should give significant prominence to the unique needs of its first peoples was noteworthy.(35) That the Conference of Australian Bishops should sanction a Mass with Aboriginal people as its focus remains unprecedented in the history of Australia.(36)

It is important to note from the outset that the genesis of the Australian Aboriginal Mass was not the eucharistic congress as such. It might have been the catalyst, but the adapted elements of the Mass, including the texts, were already part of the worshiping life in remote indigenous communities. Nothing was created especially for the Aboriginal congress Eucharist. The singers and dancers led the prayer of the assembly in the same way they did in their worshiping communities at home. The text of the congress Aboriginal Mass was based on an English translation of the Mass in Garadyari language, celebrated in La Grange Mission, Western Australia.(37)

Together with local Aboriginal leaders in remote communities of Australia, missionaries had taken seriously the mandate of Sacrosanctum Concilium to adapt the liturgy to the needs of local worshipers (SC 37–40). They had heeded the call of Comme le prévoit:

The purpose of liturgical translations is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. . . . To achieve this end, it is not sufficient that a liturgical translation merely reproduce the expressions and ideas of the original text. Rather it must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that which the Church by means of this given text originally intended to communicate to another people in another time.(38)

A further motivation was the visit to Sydney in 1970 by Paul VI, who told the Australian Aboriginal people: “We know that you have a life style proper to your own ethnic genius or culture—a culture which the church respects and which it does not in any way ask you to renounce.”(39)

For his part, anthropologist Hilton Deakin, the chief architect and coordinator of the Aboriginal Mass, listened carefully to Aboriginal Catholics.(40) They told him they experienced the Roman Rite as completely foreign and too cold and intellectual for them.(41) It offered them no sense of deep belonging.(42) Deakin observed that the theological concepts of “thanksgiving,” “love,” or “mercy” were not part of the lived experience of Aboriginals and therefore were incomprehensible to them. Deakin concluded that this was because “the western and Hebraic cultural forms in the Eucharist with which we are familiar have always proved a difficulty in other cultural surroundings.”(43) By way of explanation for those at the Mass Deakin noted in the Mass program that, even with familiar concepts, “the trained mental processes are such that there must be an immediately realisable connection between the mental abstract and the concrete reality.”(44)



The Australian Aboriginal Mass was an attempt by Deakin and others to bring together both the reformed Roman Rite and aspects of Aboriginal ceremonies from various tribal nations. The liturgical ministers were dressed for traditional ceremony, as were the Aboriginal dancers, singers, and musicians: one in Roman vestments painted with the special emblems and designs of the Port Keats area in Northern Australia, and the others adorned with paint and feathers of their tribal areas. Aboriginal ceremonies use special objects, as does the Roman Rite.(45) The altar, vestments, and vessels for carrying bread and wine were decorated with Aboriginal motifs.46 The chalice was in the shape of a Coolamon,(47) and, while crafted in Melbourne, it featured Aboriginal motifs from Broome, West Australia.(48)

The presentation of the Last Supper during the Liturgy of the Word. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.
The presentation of the Last Supper during the Liturgy of the Word. Photo: © MDHC Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Used with permission.

The shape of the ritual and the adapted texts followed the structure and prayer forms of the Roman Rite. The Scripture message was proclaimed through song, dance, and mime of traditional Aboriginal ceremonies as well as the written text of the lectionary, honouring both the oral ceremony tradition of an ancient culture and the Western tradition of the book. All in the assembly had a copy of the entire liturgy printed in the Order of Service. At various times during the Mass a spoken commentary supplemented the text with its various written explanations. The entrance and concluding songs were commonly known hymns in English that all in the assembly could sing. Regular responses throughout the liturgy aided participation. The Mass texts were in English while the ceremonial ritual of the various tribes was accompanied by song in their language. The use of repetition and the simplicity of texts ensured that all in the assembly could fully participate. The Australian Aboriginal liturgy was one response to the conciliar invitation for a more “radical adaptation” of the Roman Rite while arguably attempting to maintain its “substantial unity.”(49) In the words of the organisers:

It is sought . . . to present the Eucharistic Mysteries to the aborigines in such a way that they may culturally and psychologically identify with the action through their own cultural and psychological patterns, that is the Eucharist not only comes to them, but they can come to the Eucharist.(50)



Some would argue that while the Australian Aboriginal Mass was unique and its components part of the lived experience of various worshiping communities, it was also largely artificial. The remote Aboriginal communities who brought their own dance and song to the Mass were far from their home countries.

The stage set up to look like an Aboriginal meeting place was in fact a manufactured amphitheater in a park surrounded by a large urban city. Although the elements of the Mass were “home grown” and resulted from a collaboration between Aboriginal leaders and missionaries, they were collected and orchestrated by non-Aboriginal clergy.

It could further be argued that the inclusion of dance and song from individual communities appeared more of a spectacle that restricted rather than fostered participation in the liturgy. Of necessity, the major language of the Mass was English, but for some non-Aboriginals the Mass texts were perceived to be simplistic and demeaning to the Aboriginal Catholics they sought to include. While none of these criticisms has been recorded, some local scholars today continue to express them. Those speak with the benefit of hindsight, and perhaps do not reflect the experience of those who participated in the Mass at the time.(51)



Were this Mass simply an Australian celebration it might be memorable but of little interest beyond this nation. However, the Australian Aboriginal Mass took place during an International Eucharistic Congress and so received much worldwide exposure. Visitors came to Australia for the congress from many parts of the world. Included among the bishops was the Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla—later Pope John Paul II. Because it was an official part of the Eucharistic Congress the Aboriginal Mass required Roman approval. While most liturgies were ratified quickly, some months passed before the Congregation for Divine Worship sent their response.(52) The Aboriginal Mass was finally approved—albeit only for this event—with only four minor modifications.(53) The local church officials were instructed that the formula of the consecration of the bread and wine must be from the Ordo Missae; the usual Lord’s Prayer should be included along with the sung refrain;(54) the bread must be broken during the communion rite in the “normal way”; and the word “heaven” was not to be substituted with another term.(55) That the Roman officials required so few changes was a further indicator that the Aboriginal liturgy was faithful to the spirit of liturgical adaptation invited by Sacrosanctum Concilium.(56)

More than forty years later the Australian Aboriginal Mass continues to be a landmark moment in an ongoing development of liturgical inculturation among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics.57 Small remote Aboriginal communities bring cultural elements into their regular worship. Urban communities of Aboriginal Catholics who come from diverse cultures include song, musical instruments, and art in worship. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday” is an annual celebration in the Australian liturgical calendar where all Australian Catholics are invited to honour and celebrate the first peoples of this land.(58) Could a radical inculturation modelled on the Australian Aboriginal Mass of 1973 provide the celebrations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics with a more effective way to fully participate in the church’s “living liturgy”?


Carmel Pilcher, a Sister of St. Joseph, is a liturgy consultant who has taught in many dioceses of Australia and is currently also assisting the church in Fiji. Carmel is a former director of liturgy in the Archdiocese of Sydney and her doctoral thesis focused on the prophetic character of the Eucharist. Carmel was responsible for the papal liturgies for the beatification of Mary MacKillop in 1995, and this ignited an interest in liturgical inculturation under the guidance of the then–papal master of ceremonies, Archbishop Piero Marini.


1 “Living Liturgy: The Vision of Vatican II,” Knox Lecture, 21 May 2014, Melbourne. Australasian Catholic Record 91 (2014): 334–49. Paul Bird, CSsR, is an Australian bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat and a member of the Bishops’ Commission for Liturgy. For more than two decades prior to that he served as a member of the National Liturgical Commission.

2 Ibid., 340.

3 Bird cites SC 36, in ibid., fn. 29.

4  Ibid., 347.

5 Bird agreed with other liturgists who believe that elements of Aboriginal ritual could be used in Christian liturgy in Australia. See Carmel Pilcher, David Orr, and Elizabeth Harrington, eds., Vatican II: Reforming Liturgy (Adelaide: ATF, 2013).

6 Bird, “Living Liturgy: The Vision of Vatican II,” 348.

7 See Questions Liturgiques/Studies in Liturgy 96 (2015): 129–48.

8 The name given by the organizers of the Eucharistic Congress. The text of the liturgy is found in Liturgies and Programmes, 103–14. More recently a complete professional visual and audio of the ceremony was discovered in the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Commission titled Divine Service Aboriginal Liturgy 40th International Eucharistic Congress.

9 Divine Service Aboriginal Liturgy.

10 All bishops and priests in choir dress were seated in the assembly behind the Aboriginal dignitaries and only came to the altar to serve Communion.

11 “All the Earth proclaim the Lord” by Lucien Deiss. Deliberate efforts were made to enable all in the vast assembly to participate Several times throughout the Mass commentator Fr. Hilton Deakin offered explanatory commentary. In addition, all participants had access to the entire text of the Mass, including the notation and lyrics of the songs. See Liturgies and Programmes, 101–14.

12 The entire “first reading” was proclaimed without a written text. Unless otherwise indicated, the description of the Mass is taken from Divine Service Aboriginal Liturgy.

13 Aboriginal peoples come from an ancient continuous oral tradition of thousands of At the Congress Mass the Aboriginal people were invited to proclaim the Scripture message honouring their traditional way.

14 “The LIRRGA songs . . . are composed for various purposes, e.g. to tell of an event, or to express an inner feeling. .  .  . [T]he one used here .  .  . in the Murinyangarr dialect.  .  . is a song of praise in Christ.” Liturgies and Programmes, 106.

15 Aboriginals moved from the stage to greet those in the front rows of the assembly.

16 Aboriginal Australians have a tragic history of violence, murder, oppression, and the removal of children from families at the hands of the European colonisers that con- tinued well into the twentieth century. “A handshake at this Mass could be offered as a unity gesture among all aborigines, and of the unity founded on Christ between aborigines and whites.” Liturgies and Programmes, 113.

17 Ibid.

18 At the time there were many hundreds of Aboriginal groups across the vast continent of Australia and each had its own language. Bishop O’Loughlin noted more than  seventy languages in his own diocese of Northern Letter dated 29 November 1971 to Father Brian Walsh. Hilton Deakin states that “there is a complexity of dialects amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, and the absence of a  common linguistic substratum.” Michael Costigan, News Release 4, January 1973. Accessed from the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne (hereafter  MDHC).

19 “To be ‘good in one’s heart’ is synonymous with a state of well-being, e. peace.” Liturgies and Programmes, 105.

20 Examples include the “offering” of bread and wine; during the preface and the eucha- ristic prayer, the Communion rite, and the final blessing. Liturgies and Programmes, 109–14.

21 The term “gifts” from the Roman Rite was substituted with “presents.” A “gift” that might be given freely was replaced with the more culturally understood “present” that could be exchanged.

22 See Hilton Deakin: “A Tentative Text for the Aboriginal Liturgy to Be Held at the Myer Music Bowl—February 1973 during the Congress Week.” Accessed MDHC.

23 This notion reflected the strong sense of family in Aboriginal cultures and the high value placed on such relationships.

24 Aboriginal people might not understand “mercy” but they did know what it meant to be “good.” The response recognized the failure of humanity to be “good.” During this period of ad experimentum, penitential invocations were often written by those preparing the liturgy and were characteristically penitential in nature.

25 See “A Tentative Text for the Aboriginal Liturgy to Be Held at the Myer Music Bowl— February 1973 during the Congress ” Accessed MDHC.

26 “Proper” continues to this day to be used in Aboriginal conversation to define and give emphasis to anyone or anything that is real or genuine. We are daughters and sons of God through baptism, but Jesus is God’s  only “proper” Son.

27 Examples include the dedication over the gifts, the preface of the eucharistic prayer and the prayer after Communion that reads, “eating the living bread, the body of your only proper Son.” See Liturgies and Programmes, 108–12.

28 “KM [Fr. Kevin McKelson] had provided Fr Willis of Kununurra with a translation into English of the Our Father in Karajarri (also Garadyari) from LaGrange. He modified the text and it was sung in English at the Congress Mass using as a basis the Tiwi Tune of Daniel Puatjami from Bathurst Island.” Kevin McKelson, Introduction to an Aboriginal Mass: The Missa Indigena, unpublished manuscript, 35. Accessed from archives, Diocese of Broome, Western Australia.

29 For a thorough theological and liturgical examination and assessment of the Congress Eucharistic Prayer, see Patrick Michael O’Regan, The Contribution of the Australian Aboriginal Eucharistic Prayer to the Understanding of the Eucharist, Institut Catholique de Paris Universitas Catholica Parisiensis, Mémoire de Maitrise en Théologie, unpublished manuscript, July 2002.

30 Aboriginal cultures are grounded in symbols and signs that are material and concrete. In their minds the bread continued to look like bread and the wine still looked like wine. Outwardly they appeared the same, and no one could observe any physical difference, but faith invited the assembly to believe that bread and wine had become the Body and Blood of Christ. So how did these elements become   transformed? The change occurred through the power of Christ’s word spoken by the priest. The assembly might fail to “hear” this word and so believe, so they needed to be reminded to listen.

31 The children’s eucharistic prayers follow a similar format and although were not intro- duced by the Congregation for Divine Worship until 1974, drafts of the texts might have been available. O’Regan commends this format but questions why acclamations could not have been added to all sections and in particular to the second half of the eucharistic prayer. The Contribution of the Australian Aboriginal Eucharistic Prayer to the Understanding of the Eucharist, 104–5.

32 O’Regan is of the opinion that the redactors focused too much on the word “good” and a richer vocabulary was needed. The Contribution of the Australian Aboriginal Eucharistic Prayer to the Understanding of the Eucharist, 82.

33 Significant for this discussion is the fact that although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had occupied the continent for many thousands of years, they were only included in the Constitution of Australia as citizens after a national referendum that took place in 1967.

34 For a discussion on this period of the liturgical reform, see Annibale  Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948–1975, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 257–77.

35 The then-archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal-elect James Knox described Aboriginal people as “the church’s greatest social imperative” and always intended that Aboriginal people would be prominent at the fortieth eucharistic congress. He authorized Hilton Deakin to undertake doctoral studies in anthropology. The idea for a Mass evolved from ongoing discussions between the two. Sourced from handwritten notes and anecdotal conversations with (now–Bishop Emeritus) Hilton  Deakin. Accessed MDHC.

36 Archbishop Thomas Cahill, secretary of the Australian Episcopal Conference wrote: “The Institute of Pastoral Liturgy has studied the text [proposed for the Aboriginal Mass] and I have now forwarded it to the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship. I shall be in Rome shortly and I shall do what I can to have the Mass text approved.” Correspondence to Bishop John Jobst, Bishop of Broome, Western Australia, October  4, 1972. Accessed from the archives, Diocese of Broome, Western Australia.

37 Archbishop Cahill returned this text, complete with explanatory notes prepared by Fr. Kevin McKelson, Pallottine missionary, and Aboriginals from La Grange community, Western Australia, to Bishop Jobst (cf. fn. 27). The final text of the Congress Mass was based on this translation.

38 Comme Le Prévoit: On the Translation of Liturgical Texts for Celebrations with a Congregation Consilium for Constitution on Liturgy Issued January 25, 1969.

39 The full text of the papal address can be found in “Ad Continentis Australiani Aborigines,” in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 63 (1971): Referred to by Hilton Deakin in “A Tentative Text for the Aboriginal Liturgy to Be Held at the Myer Music Bowl— February 1973 during the Congress Week,” a document that appears to be a draft of the rationale written to accompany the proposed text of the Aboriginal liturgy sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship for approval. Retrieved from the private papers of the late Rev. Dr. William Jordan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne who assisted with liturgical music during the congress.

40 Indigenous Australians have a rich heritage of ceremony unsurpassed in the world. They have passed on their heritage continuously for up to 60,000 years through ritual and symbol, story and ceremony.

41 John Perrett, coordinator of the Aboriginal art exhibition at the congress, recorded that Aboriginals in Darwin had reported these sentiments to Deakin. Source: hand- written notes titled “Aboriginal Arts Exhibition.” Accessed     MDHC.

42 Hilton Deakin, “A Tentative Text for the Aboriginal Liturgy to Be Held at the Myer Music Bowl—February 1973 during the Congress Week.” Accessed MDHC.

43 Michael Costigan, News Release 4, January 1973, Eucharistic Congress Deakin believed that before Australian Aboriginal people could identify with the Roman Rite, the church’s liturgy would need to “break into new anthropological forms.” Source, handwritten notes, Hilton Deakin. Both accessed from MDHC.

44 Liturgies and Programmes, 104.

45 For a detailed description, see Ernest A. Worms and Helmut Petri, Australian Aboriginal Religions, Nelen Yubu Missiological Series No. 5 (Kensington NSW: Nelen Yubu Missiological Unit, 1998).

46 So much of Aboriginal life has a meaning and is interrelated. “Aboriginal art is art for a purpose as distinct from art for its own sake. Thus not only is the outlook and development of the community discernible through an analysis of the art, but with Aboriginal art the community is directly involved in the development, the making and the use of   the works themselves that was part of the Eucharistic Congress and included the elements used at an aboriginal Mass.” John Perrett, handwritten notes. Accessed from MDHC.

47 A traditional utilitarian vessel used for carrying anything needed in daily life.

48 For a contemporary description of the elements used in an Aboriginal Mass, see

49 See Sacrosanctum Concilium 37–40. It is not the purpose of this paper to critique it against subsequent documents concerning liturgical inculturation, especially Varietates Legitimae (1994) and Liturgiam Authenticam (2001). See Mark R. Francis, CSV, “Another Look at the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Substantial Unity of the Roman Rite,” Worship 88, no. 3 (2014): 239–54.

50 From “A Tentative Text for the Aboriginal Liturgy to Be Held at the Myer Music Bowl— February 1973 during the Congress Week.” Accessed MDHC.

51 The DVD of the Mass was presented to several hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics who gathered for a meeting in Darwin, Northern Territory, in July 2015. All expressed surprise and appreciation at what the Church had sanctioned at the time. Several who had been at the Mass shared their memories of pride and excitement at being Aboriginal and part of such a historic liturgy in the life of the Australian church.

52 Correspondence to Archbishop Knox indicates the majority of the liturgies were ap- proved on August 29. An explanation for the later approval of the proposed Aboriginal (and the liturgy for children) was due to consultation needed with other competent Vatican consistories. Sacra Congregatio Pro Culto Divino, 1 November 1972, signed Arturo Card. Tabera, prefect, and A. Bugnini, secretary to Archbishop Knox, sent on November 1, 1972. Prot N. 1477/72. Accessed from MDHC. It may well have been hastened by the personal visit of the secretary of the Australian Episcopal Conference to Rome as indicated in correspondence between T.  Cahill and Bishop Jobst (October 4, 1972), see fn. 35.

53 Listed in the order received from Sacra Congregatio Pro Culto Divino, Prot N. 1477/72.

54 The organisers had asked that the chant replace the Lord’s Prayer. Instead, the Roman authorities suggested that the chant be used as an antiphon that could even be sung between phrases of the official prayer. Letter addressed to Archbishop Knox from the Sacred Congregation for Worship, Prot N. 1477/72. Accessed MDHC.

55 A request was made to the Worship Office that the concept of “heaven” was too difficult for the Aboriginal to understand and that other terms might be substituted. However, as the Congregation pointed out, the submitted text used the term twenty- two times, so “for the sake of consistency it would be best to use heaven throughout.” Accessed MDHC.

56 This was affirmed by a favourable report on the congress liturgies, including the Aboriginal Mass, found in Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 920–22.

57 This will be developed in a forthcoming paper.

58 For a discussion on the liturgical resources surrounding National and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, see John Francis Fitz-Herbert and Carmel Pilcher, “Towards Inculturation: An Australian Indigenous Contribution,” in Pilcher et al., Vatican II, 61–79.


  1. Bird’s remark about how previously congregations had felt at home with the ‘european’ liturgy begs the question as to if, and why, they no longer did so.

    Was this part of a new emerging self-consciousness among ethnic peoples, or did it rather reflect some preoccupations of ‘european’ academic liturgiologists ? And how authentic would such inculturation be ?

    I remember reports of this Mass taking place. At the time I was all in favour of this sort of thing, but with the passage of years, I am less clear about it. I was more closely involved with a parallel case, however.

    At the same period, in India, moves were made to ‘inculturate’ the Roman Liturgy, and an ‘inculturated’ rite of Mass was constructed and approved by the Episcopal Conference, together with a new Eucharistic Prayer, containing many classical Indian references. I attended celebrations of this rite while a student in Rome in the mid 1970’s.

    This rite proved controversial, and I remember reading a letter from a Jesuit priest, long resident in the Subcontinent, remarking on the ‘high caste’ nature of the adaptations.

    His argument was that the people who had put these inculturations together were not acknowledging those low caste and caste-less people who actually form a large constituency among Indian Catholic folk. For them, the rite represented a world from which they were excluded. The ‘european’ liturgy was fine, because it did not have any caste references about it.

    My sense is that this is an area where we have to tread very cautiously. The question of whether culture informs liturgy or whether liturgy moulds culture is relevant here. Am I alone in finding some of the simplifications in the Aboriginal Mass a touch condescending ?


  2. Thank you many Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders have been working hard for many many years hoping that an Aboriginal mass would finally be accepted many have lost hope, strength and are sick of arguing our case
    Let’s hope that our Contribution will one day be Joyfully Accepted

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