A little over a week ago I was visiting Aboriginal communities in the semi-desert region of the east Kimberley. It was not quite ‘the middle of nowhere’, but was certainly a long distance from towns and large urban cities. We travelled 850km north-west from Alice Springs to get there.
This region of the Kimberley is presently home to three communities: Wirrimanu (aka Balgo), Mulan (aka Lake Gregory) and Kururrungku (aka Billiluna). Some several hundred people live there.
It has also been a home for me, on and off, for some 45 years. I first went there as a scholastic/lay missionary with Pat Mullins in 1973 when Balgo was a mission. This time I returned with Robin Koning, who had joined me in the 1990s in what had then become the Kutjungka Catholic parish (Kutjungka meaning ‘one people’).
One of the blessings of the trip was to reconnect with the local church leaders whom we had first worked with 25 years ago. They, like myself, are now much older but they continue to hold something of the faith, energy and spirit we first encountered back then and which nurtured so much of ourselves and our ministry at that time.
On this visit, one of them recounted the time when Robin, presiding over the funeral service for her mother, had led the liturgy in the local language of Kukatja — much to the surprise and joy of visiting family members.
Now, I am not wishing to exaggerate either Robin’s or my proficiency in Kukatja, but it was an important lesson, as it was again on this return trip, to keep trying to listen, learn and speak the language of the local people. Our lives and relationships in that desert region changed and grew as we kept trying to communicate in their language.
This lesson about trying to learn another language was much more than improving communication involving words. It sought a deeper and more open appreciation of the culture and the people, opening up possibilities for us to be changed by those relationships, and for the better.
It can perhaps also tell us something about our approach to other challenges currently facing the Church.
A week ago Pope Francis sent out a letter ‘To the People of God’. In it he asked us to listen to the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse and allow a deeper conversion within ourselves to occur.
We might understand this as the need within the Church to learn a new language. Not just hearing the words of those who have suffered, but gaining a new understanding of their pain and allowing something deeper to emerge in our hearts, lives and culture.
Pope Francis asks us to ‘return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel’. We can only do that if we listen carefully to what is being said to us, even when the communication is strange, foreign and difficult, even painful to hear.
We may not get our language proficiency fully right but our efforts to listen and learn are important first steps. Allowing new communication and its ability to convert our hearts and behaviour will follow.
Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ, Provincial