This week I am travelling to Wadeye (Port Keats) in the Northern Territory for a funeral. It will be a very important and special occasion as we remember and celebrate the life of Deacon Boniface Perdjert Pirrimngiparl. His baptismal name was Boniface and his family name Perdjert. His traditional name was Pirrimngiparl, often shortened to Ngiparl.
Ngiparl was our first Aboriginal married deacon, ordained some 45 years ago on 19 July 1974. He belonged to the Murrinhpatha people whose land is Wadeye.
I remember seeing Ngiparl when visiting Wadeye in the 1970s. We played Aussie Rules together for Thinmel (Seagul) in the local football competition. We caught up many times in the following years. Always gracious and kind, he revealed what I have often experienced: the kindness, faith and hospitality of his people.
In the 1970s there was much change in Aboriginal communities when they ceased becoming missions. There was also hope and excitement after Vatican II when we hoped Indigenous people would assume a greater role within our Church and its leadership.
Ngiparl became Australia’s first Aboriginal married deacon. With the support of many, particular Fr John Leary MSC, he walked that path of Christian faith and Aboriginal culture. He was deeply respected in both.
He is quoted as saying: ‘As a Deacon it became my duty to bring the faith, church and the culture together. I know Jesus did not come to destroy the culture he came to fulfil it … that what is good grows stronger and what is bad grows weaker and hopefully disappears so people of culture … become strong’.
Ngiparl had the capacity to receive the message of Jesus into the depths of his own family and culture. He was one of the most respected men I have ever met for the ways he lived. Quietly spoken, always with a a warm engaging smile. Friendly and welcoming. He would preach in Murrinhpatha and everyone would listen.
It was some 40 years after the first Catholic missionaries settled in this area of the Northern Territory that Ngiparl was ordained a deacon. Since that time we have had a number of Aboriginal men ordained as married deacons.
Hopefully in the coming years, as many in the Church around the world continue to hope, we will ordain Indigenous married men as priests. Ngiparl showed us that such a change was possible. It was something we could desire, support and hope to see.
‘When I read the gospels, I read them as an Aboriginal’, he once said. As many gather this coming week to give thanks for his life, may others rise up within our Australian communtiies in Church leadership and may we recognise that leadership.
As Australians, we will always benefit from hearing the Word anew, especially from those whose life experience in this land goes back many thousands of years.
Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ, Provincial