Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Thoughts on Telling the Stories of Catholic Australia

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

Thoughts on Telling the Stories of Catholic Australia

Article excerpt

In True History of the Kelly Gang, the novel that won the Booker Prize in 2000, the voice of Australia's second most famous Catholic (perhaps, after Mary MacKillop) testifies to the religious dislocation of his family. Ned Kelly's immigrant Irish parents lost the bearings of their faith in their new surroundings. Author Peter Carey has Ned evoke a religious culture of folk devotions defeated by Australia.

   In the colony of Victoria my parents witnessed the slow waning of
   St Brigit though my mother made the straw crosses for the lambing
   and followed all Grandma Quinn's instructions it were clear St
   Brigit had lost her power to bring milk down from the cow's horn.
   The beloved saint withered in Victoria she could no longer help
   the calving and thus slowly passed from our reckoning. (1)

If Australia did not offer sacred ground for the traditions of faith, neither did the Kellys live comfortably in the rational world of the British Enlightenment. Ned tells his readers that, unseen and unheard by the dominant culture, the dark figure of the Banshee had stolen away on the first convict ships, and 'were thriving like blackberry in the new climate'. Even though 'there were not an English eye could see her.... The Banshee sat herself at the bow and combed her hair all the way from Cork to Botany Bay.' The folk herald of death was constantly at work in Ned Kelly's world. St Brigit had not travelled, but 'the Banshee would not go home'.

Now, Ned Kelly is an icon, a legend, and Carey's reconstruction is not documentary evidence of the typical nineteenth-century Catholic in Australia. Religion is a very subtle sub-text in the story of this folk hero. But, alongside all the other causes Ned Kelly now stands for, I want to suggest that as an immigrant detached from his religious past, his brogue captures something of the experience of ordinary, less notorious nineteenth-century Catholics, and indeed of all those Australian Catholics before and since who are the focus of the work we do. And contemporary Catholics, mostly not Irish, mostly not notorious--contemporary Australian Catholics nevertheless--stand alongside Ned in an ambivalent relationship to their devotional past. We are often not quite sure whether St Brigit has faded away or the Banshee has been successfully evaded, not quite sure what should be seen or owned.

'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' (2) L.P. Hartley's elegant reminder that issues of migration can apply to time as much as to place is pertinent for Australian Catholic historians at the edge of another millennium. Forty years since the Vatican Council shifted realities that had not moved significantly for four hundred years, it is good to recall that the experience of migration from one time to another can be as demanding and disorienting, as empowering and as liberating, as the experience of migration from one country to another. Catholics in contemporary Australia, of all ages, are immigrants in a new country. Migrants need their stories, migrants need their storytellers. Religious culture, like all cultures, is sustained by the stories told and held. Catholic history, as a keeper of memory, whether it is developing or declining, helps shape the culture.

You will notice perhaps, that so far I've spoken about Catholics, rather than Catholicism. The distinction between the institution and the lives of the people who make up its many communities is of course false theologically; but it is useful, and even important to recognise, in terms of historical methodology. The institutional histories of bishops and buildings are important, and often shape key questions, but they are not the whole story. The currents of faith and belief running beneath the gothic arches took people out onto the streets and kept them at home. Whether resisted or embraced, faith shaped conversations around the dinner table and decisions in daily life--and, if our definition of culture is to be solid enough to stand on, we need to hear those ordinary stories too. …

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