The Catholic Church is committed to the development of Aboriginal expressions of theology and spirituality. The Catholic Church also aims to promote and support a greater understanding of Aboriginal peoples, cultures and social justice issues amongst the wider community.
Pope John Paul II, in his famous message to the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia in Alice Springs 1986, stated that the Catholic Church will be lacking in its full expression if it does not embrace the spirituality of our Aboriginal people.
The Australian Bishops, in their 2019 Pastoral Letter, call for all Catholics to walk alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to embrace “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality within the wider Catholic spirituality” as a means of deepening their own faith and furthering Reconciliation.
Catholic Schools NSW’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reference Group has produced this resource to support Catholic school communities to give life to this aspiration.
How to Use This Resource
The following information has been compiled to assist school staff engage in meaningful ways with Aboriginal Spirituality to enrich the faith and cultural life of their students, staff and communities.
While this resource draws on the voices of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who share their wisdom and insights from their own personal spiritual journeys, we encourage teachers to find other voices in their local communities to add richness to their understanding and experience of Aboriginal spirituality and in particular to discover how traditional rituals and symbols can be used in culturally appropriate ways within their school’s context.
When embedding Aboriginal Spirituality into the curriculum and experience of the school it is important that you do not rely solely on texts. Localising Aboriginal Spirituality will have more meaning for students and at the same time demonstrate the diversity of experiences of Aboriginal people and communities throughout NSW.
Teaching and Learning Resources
- There are Aboriginal Catholic Ministries in every State and Territory of Australia. These services can provide support in incorporating the gifts of Aboriginal culture, rituals and symbols into liturgy and the spiritual life of the school. Contact details for these ministries can be found here.
- National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC): NATSICC is the peak advisory body to the Australian Catholic Bishops on issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics. Also see
Australian Bishops Conference Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Peoples.
- Stories and Voices: Personal stories that engage with Aboriginal Spirituality which enables the reader to gain understanding through another lens. A powerful part of hearing these stories is making your own meaning as a part of your formation and understanding of Aboriginal Spirituality in action.
What is Aboriginal Spirituality?
All humans are spiritual beings with an innate desire to make meaning of the big questions of life. Our spirituality is about searching for meaning in life and reflecting on how we are in relationship with God, with other people, with the world around us, and with ourselves.
Parker J. Palmer defines spirituality as “…the ancient and abiding human quest for connectedness with something larger and more trustworthy than our egos…” (http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/evoking-the-spirit/). In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been on this spiritual quest for over 65,000 years.
The word spirituality comes from the Latin word “spirare” which means to “breathe life into” and this meaning has particular resonance when exploring Aboriginal spirituality, which stems from a belief that the spirit of life is the result of a power greater than ourselves. When we speak about Aboriginal spirituality it is important to note that there is not one common expression of this lived experience that can be found across Australia. Prior to 1788 our great south land housed hundreds of language and cultural groups who each had their own creation stories and spirituality so there is incredible diversity in the ways that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have and continue to express their spirituality.
However, within this diversity, there are some commonalities in Aboriginal spirituality that can be identified. Aboriginal spirituality…
- acknowledges a Creator Spirit that was at the beginning of the Dreaming and is at the heart of all life.
- recognises that Aboriginal people are spiritual people who are aware of the spiritual reality of the land and of their own lives and that land, language and identity are fundamental to knowing who you are, where you come from and what your place is;
- involves the land and connection to country which demands a responsibility to care for and live in harmony with the land;
- includes totemic relationships with birds, plants and animals that connect people to both the physical and the spiritual world, underpinning a reciprocal obligation to care for others and for the natural environment;
- celebrates the sharing of stories and the passing down of stories from generation to generation.
What is not Aboriginal spirituality?
Many texts and books use ‘Aboriginal religion’ when addressing Aboriginal spirituality. But these two terms should not be confused:
Spiritual “relates to people’s deepest thoughts and beliefs, rather than to their bodies and physical surroundings”.
Religious is “something that […] is about or connected with religion”, i.e. “the belief in a God or Gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as prayer or worship in a church or temple”.
Hence spirituality is the foundation of religion, the deeper layer of any religious practice and expression.
Why should I embed Aboriginal Spirituality?
Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. People experience and express their spirituality for different reasons and in different ways.
Catholicism does not strive to take the place of Traditional Culture, rather it harbours a deep desire to be enriched by the gifts that the first Australians can bring. As Catholic educators it is imperative for us to acknowledge Aboriginal Spirituality and recognise the rich cultural expertise and teachings of Aboriginal peoples in the teaching of our Catholic faith.
Stories throughout the Bible serve to teach about sharing and caring for each other and the land. It also serves to provide moral guidance. Similarly, traditional Aboriginal culture uses stories to serve the same purpose. Today, whilst there is still an acknowledgement of Aboriginal (and Torres Strait Islander) spiritual beliefs, there is little understanding of these beliefs or how they impact on lifestyles and behaviours. We can commit to celebrating and promoting awareness of Aboriginal culture by placing God’s teachings into Aboriginal cultural context. Once these connections are made, the Gospel is perfectly relevant and at the centre of the faith systems of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Catholics.
This diagram expresses a framework for Aboriginal Spirituality drawing from a holistic approach to develop formation or identity of self, family and community
A Call to Act
Pope John Paul II’s teachingsPope John Paul II’s visit to Australia in 1986 and his address to Aboriginal people was pivotal in the journey of Aboriginal Catholics.
‘Take heart from the fact that many of your languages are still spoken and that you still possess your ancient culture. You have kept your sense of brotherhood. If you stay closely united, you are like a tree standing in the middle of a bush-fire sweeping through the timber. The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burned; but inside the tree the sap is still flowing, and under the ground the roots are still strong. Like that tree you have endured the flames, and you still have the power to be reborn. The time for this rebirth is now!’
Pope John Paul II reminds us …
“Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost.”
Pope Francis in Laudato Si’:
“It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values”.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015, 146.
Symbols, Rites and Celebrations
Many symbols associated with Aboriginal ceremonies are similar to those used in the religious rituals of the Catholic Church.
(Adapted from Catholic Education Office WA)
- Damper is the result of a collective of activities. Aboriginal women: collect seed, crush into flour, make dough, cook dough
- When the dough is cooked in the ground it is known as damper. This is then shared by community members.
- Anything that is cooked in the ground has a spiritual influence.
- Unleavened bread is the result of a communal effort: farmers harvest the crop, the grain is crushed to make flour, bakers make the dough, the dough is cooked. When the dough is cooked it is known as unleavened bread.
- In the Mass we bring ourselves and our lives to the community in the Offertory.
- The priest blesses, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, changes the bread & wine into the body & blood of Christ and it is shared amongst the congregation.
- A smoking ceremony cleanses and heals the body and spirit.
- A smoking ceremony is used in the practice of warding off unwanted spirits, eg cleansing a person, home or area.
- In Benediction, the priest burns incense to make smoke to purify and sanctify the church before the exposition of the blessed sacrament.
- Incense smoke is used in the sanctification of the body during a Requiem Mass.
- Water is important to Aboriginal people. In the driest parts of the country, water is life-giving,refreshing, cooling and cleansing to country and to the people.
- Water is the symbol of Baptism, which gives new life and hope and makes people one with Jesus and with each other.
- Water is used in blessings and sprinkling rites.
- Animal oils are used for healing purposes.
- Application of certain oils can assist in helping one connect with his/her spiritual side.
- Special oils are used in anointing and for healing purposes, in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Healing of the Sick & Holy Orders.
- Anointing of the body prior to death prepares for meeting with God.
- Decorations are used to convey the things that are important to the living and spiritual world of Aboriginal people.
- Natural body paint and other materials are used for decoration.
- People can be immediately recognised by the decorations used.
- The priest’s vestments immediately identify him as the leader of the faith community.
- White Alb – Baptism, Stole – sign of office,Chasuble – historical link to Jewish high priest,Colours reflect the liturgical season.
- Water is used in blessings and sprinkling rites.
- Ceremonies are performed to reinforce the connection between the living world of the Aboriginal people and the spirit world.
- Church celebrations follow the liturgical seasons and help create a deeper relationship between people and God.
- Campfires are important hubs of the community where people gather, and food and information is shared.
- Fire is used for creating a sense of togetherness, a sense of belonging,strengthening identity.
- Cultural knowledge is often maintained when people gather around campfires (e.g. stories,ceremonies).
- Fire is used for cleansing and purification.
- On Pentecost Sunday, the Apostles gathered as a community of people, were filled with knowledge by the Holy Spirit who appeared through the symbol of fire.
- At the Easter Vigil, the people gather around the Easter fire, where the Paschal candle is lit.This candle is then used throughout the Easter season, at Baptisms and Funerals.
- Aboriginal youth are introduced to the sacred meaning of life through certain ceremonies.
- They acquire knowledge of ceremonies and rituals which is an inherent part of reaching adulthood.
- As they receive more knowledge, their participation in ceremony increases.
- Youth are fully initiated into the Catholic faith through the sacraments.
- The youth upon receiving the gifts of each sacrament, participate more fully inthe life of the Church.
- Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation are the three sacraments of initiation.
- Paintings or engravings on the walls of caves or in other sacred places, depict the spirituality of Aboriginal life.
- Spirit ancestors feature in ancient rock art.
- Reminders of connection to the land and spirituality abound in nature all around.
- Churches use a crucifix and Stations of the Cross which depict important events in the life of Jesus.
- Churches usually have pictures and statues of saints.
- Other art works may decorate a church and are symbolic of God in nature and all around,eg banners, floral arrangements, focus area.
- These forms of art ore a reminder of beliefs and encourage participation in prayer.
Aboriginal people may refer to a female as Aunty as a sign of respect.
Creator Spirit for many first nations people across Australia.
First nation North Coast New South Wales region.
Can also be known as corroborees being dramatic representations, in mime and song, of the histories and spiritual beliefs and survival skills.
In Aboriginal English, a person’s land, sea, sky, rivers, sites, seasons, plants and animals,place of heritage, belonging and spirituality: is called ‘Country’.
Shared stories, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours or practices that give a group or individual a sense of who they are and help them make sense of the world in which they live. Culture is a shared system but inherently diverse – it is a lens through which we see the world (NSW PDHPE Syllabus pg: 127)
It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.
A western term used to describe the Aboriginal Spirituality system. The dreaming
encompasses all the cultural values, laws and knowledge which is passed down through song, dance painting and storytelling to each generation. Each language group has their own term to describe their belief system.
Highly respected Aboriginal people held in esteem by their communities for their wisdom,cultural knowledge and community service. They are responsible for making decisions within the community.
A term used to define a higher creator spirit.
Traditional kinship relations continue to play a role in contemporary Aboriginal communities.While Australian family life often centres on the nuclear family made up of parents and children, Aboriginal family life includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and the mob.
Also known as Lore. Handed down by the Creation Ancestors and upheld by Aboriginal communities for thousands of generations, Law includes the accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving and shared understandings relating to land, language, ways of living, kinship, relationships and identity.
Refers to the customs and stories the Aboriginal peoples learned from the Dreamtime. Aboriginal lore was passed on through the generations through songs, stories, and dance and it governed all aspects of traditional life. It is common to see the terms ‘law’ and ‘lore’being used interchangeably.
A way to refer to a group of Aboriginal people who have a connection to one another. For example, ‘my mob comes from Walgett’ or ‘that mob travelled along way.’
Land is mother, the giver of life who provides us with everything we need.
First nation area Daly River Northern Territory region.
Sacred Places and Sites
These are significant areas which include, but are not limited to natural landmarks and waterways that hold meaningful stories of creation and continued knowledge for ceremonial practices.
A songline is a track across the land, sky or sea following a journey of a Creation Ancestor.Songlines are recorded in Creation stories, songs, paintings and dance. A knowledgeable person is able to navigate across the land by repeating the words of the songs describing the location of landmarks, waterholes and other natural phenomena. By singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, Indigenous people could navigate vast distances. Australia contains an extensive system of songlines, many that pass through multiple Aboriginal countries.
Between 1910-1970, many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the Stolen Generations. The policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma and loss that continues to affect Indigenous communities, families and individuals.
A natural object or animal that is believed by a particular Aboriginal first nations group to have spiritual significance.
Senior people in the community, who are responsible for their traditional land and waters,are referred to as ‘Traditional Owners’.
Aboriginal people may refer to a male Elder as Uncle as a sign of respect.
First nation area of Central New South Wales region.
First nation of South Coast New South Wales region.
Creator Spirit from Gumbaynggirr first nations.