Aussie pilgrimage highlights goal of racial healing

Published May 1, 1999

In their first major project together, the national heads of Australia’s main churches will make a pilgrimage to Uluru, in the heart of Australia’s central desert. The trip is designed to highlight the need to heal divisions: between black and white Australians, between ethnic communities and between the nation’s churches. The Reconciliation Pilgrimage, to be organized by the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), is shaping up as the major millennium project for Australian Christians. Chairing the March 4 launch of the Pilgrimage to the Heart in Sydney, the dean of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic cathedral, Fr. Tony Doherty, called the NCCA project “a gesture with some imagination and some power ? to celebrate the end of the second millennium of Christianity.” National Anglican church leader, Melbourne’s Archbishop Keith Rayner, says the spiritual must have a place alongside the expected party-atmosphere of millennium celebrations. “Of all the ways that have been proposed to celebrate the millennium, to me, this is the one that has most grabbed me,” said Archbishop Rayner. “It’s simple but I believe very expressive and has the possibility of catching for Australia the awareness that in our celebrations the spiritual has to have its place.” While inter-church and multi-cultural tensions are to be targeted by the pilgrimage, “divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians” are a special focus of the trip, Archbishop Rayner said. Relations between black and white Australians are currently “at a cross-roads and as church leaders we have committed ourselves to play a significant part in the very necessary process of reconciliation,” he said. “That truth which is at the heart of our faith must be expressed in the life of our nation. . . . We want to call upon the members of our churches and indeed the whole community in Australia to share in this challenge.” Around 20 national church leaders are expected to make the trip by bus arriving at Uluru for a service of reconciliation with the governor-general on Pentecost Sunday next year (June 11, 2000). As well as the church leaders 20 young people, one representing each denomination, will make the weeklong 3,000-km journey which will begin in the national capital, Canberra. Organizers are seeking corporate donations and government funding to cover the costs of the trip. A bus company has already agreed to supply coaches for the pilgrimage. Internationally, it’s believed to be rare for national heads of churches to engage in a joint project of this kind. The event will be held three months before the next Olympic Games in Sydney. While the bishops are hoping the leaders’ pilgrimage will capture the imagination of the churches, planners are actively discouraging suggestions that grass-roots churchgoers could join in the event. Fr. Doherty said organizers had moved away from the idea of a mass gathering because of the “ecology around Uluru and the sensitivities of the people there” due to indigenous sacred sites in the area. Speaking at the launch, Archbishop Rayner told reporters he wants to encourage Australians to take part in the pilgrimage in other “creative ways” such as a study program but added “there are good reasons why it wouldn’t be desirable to have thousands of people conver-ging at Uluru at that time.” “There would be criticism if we had a very large scale thing which could have ecological consequences,” he said. “Just as a Prime Minister, whatever your political views, symbolizes the country on significant occasions, so heads of churches do that for their church, and I think it’s imaginative having a young person to go with them.” It’s not clear how each church will select one person to make the pilgrimage. The Salvation Army suggested an essay competition. Allan Reeder is editor of Marketplace, a national Anglican newspaper.


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