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How to vote in the referendum


‘You are part of Australia and Australia is part of you. 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.’  These words, spoken by Pope John Paul II, now a saint, on November 29 1986 in Alice Springs, form part of a longer address he gave that day to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Blatherskite Park. Even though he did so 37 years ago, they are well worth reading and meditating by every Australian Catholic, particularly in the lead up to the referendum on October 14.

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It has been instructive, and saddening, that while some people know there is a referendum coming up, few know the question to which we shall all be asked to respond. The question is:

‘A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?’

It would seem that the debate around the referendum, for some at least, is answering an array of many other questions, questions that we are not being asked to answer on October 14. Some are clearly trading on fear and hoping that when people arrive at the ballot box they have one or many other questions in mind other than the one being asked. It seems that for some the referendum has become something of a lightning rod for other issues, and in doing so obscures the question being put before us.

My suggestion on how to vote in the coming referendum is simple: namely to put other considerations aside and simply answer the question as put. To me the answer is simple.

A few other paragraphs from Pope John Paul’s speech might assist us:

‘At the beginning of time, as God’s Spirit moved over the waters, he began to communicate something of his goodness and beauty to all creation. When God then created man and woman, he gave them the good things of the earth for their use and benefit; and he put into their hearts abilities and powers, which were his gifts. And to all human beings throughout the ages God has given a desire for himself, a desire which different cultures have tried to express in their own ways.

As the human family spread over the face of the earth, your people settled and lived in this big country that stood apart from all the others. Other people did not even know this land was here; they only knew that somewhere in the southern oceans of the world there was The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.

But for thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with you. Your Dreaming, which influences your lives so strongly that, no matter what happens, you remain for ever people of your culture, is your only way of touching the mystery of God’s Spirit in you and in creation. You must keep your striving for God and hold on to it in your lives.’

The coming first session of the Synod

By the time you are reading this I shall be readying to attend the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Our Archdiocese has held three well-attended sessions in preparing us for the Synod on Synodality on the three main themes: Communion, Mission and Participation. Each parish and community has been deeply encouraged to both explore these themes as well as to pray that the Holy Spirit, whom Pope Francis calls the protagonist of the Synod.
(A protagonist is: ‘the leading character main character of a movie, novel or event; an advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea’).

I have received many pieces of correspondence and have had many conversations in all parts of the Archdiocese and beyond. In preparation I have read deeply in both theology and the history of the Church over our first 2000 years. I have sought to listen to not only the voices and concerns and hopes of the People of God here in our Archdiocese and other parts of Australia, and I have also had the joy of doing this at the Oceania Synod assembly in Fiji earlier in the year.

Reminding people that if they think this is all ‘new-age piffle’, as one person expressed it, I would invite them to read Acts Chapter 15, which recounts the Council of Jerusalem, to see that this dynamic has been characteristic of the Church from the beginning, and go from there. Things take time, after all it took more than 300 years for us to settle on the wording of the Creed.

When I was nominated as a bishop nearly nine years ago, I remember that rather discombobulating experience was also accompanied by a deep experience similar to God’s call to Abraham, when God said ‘Go to the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1 and quoted by Stephen in Acts 7:3).

My sense is at this moment that we are at another ‘Abrahamic’ moment in the life of the local and Universal Church, and thus a moment of hope. It is God who calls, and implicitly promises to accompany and ‘show’ us the way, as God did with Abraham and Sarah. They are our patron saints, as is the oft forgotten third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, who has a neat way of being not only the protagonist but the ensurer and completer of that call of God.

St John Paul II’s words of November 1986 are still fresh in my mind and heart, and might serve as we hear them spoken to us:

‘In the new world that is emerging for you, you are being called to live fully human and Christian lives, not to die of shame and sorrow. But you know that to fulfil your role you need a new heart. You will already feel courage rise up inside you when you listen to God speaking to you in these words of the Prophets: ‘Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.’ And again: ‘I am going to…gather you together…and bring you home to your own land…I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… You shall be my people and I will be your God.’

‘With you I rejoice in the hope of God’s gift of salvation, which has its beginnings here and now, and which also depends on how we behave towards each other, on what we put up with, on what we do, on how we honour God and love all people.

‘Dear Aboriginal people: the hour has come for you to take on new courage and new hope. You are called to remember the past, to be faithful to your worthy traditions, and to adapt your living culture whenever this is required by your own needs and those of your fellowman. Above all you are called to open your hearts ever more to the consoling, purifying and uplifting message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died so that we might all have life, and have it to the full.’

Please continue to pray, and do not be afraid, for God is good, good indeed.

View the bishops’ statement on the Voice at


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