Australian Indigenous leader in the Vatican for week-long visit

Dr Ungunmerr Baumann, one of Australia’s most respect Aboriginal leaders, will meet with Pope Francis and other senior Vatican figures, and unveil a new artwork at the Vatican Museums.

May 31, 2023

Dr Ungunmerr Baumann

By Joseph Tulloch
Dr Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, an Australian Aboriginal elder, teacher and artist, is in the Vatican for a week-long visit.

During her stay, she will meet with Pope Francis and senior Church officials, speaking on themes of spirituality, ecology, and reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous Australians. 

Dr Ungunmerr Baumann, who is one of Australia’s most respected Aboriginal leaders, will also visit the Vatican Museums.

There, on Tuesday evening, she will unveil a new painting of hers, drawing– like much of her artwork, such as her renowned Aboriginal Stations of the Cross – on both Indigenous and Christian traditions.

Encountering God in the natural world
Her new painting, Dr Baumann explains in an interview with Vatican News, depicts the “dry season” in the Northern Territories, her region of Australia.

She wanted, she says, to illustrate the signs that nature gives to indicate the end of the rains: the arrival of dragonflies, for instance, and the appearance of barramundi fish in the river.

For Dr Ungunmerr Baumann, the relationship between these natural phenomena and her Catholic faith is clear: nature is the place she encounters God. When, before our interview, another journalist asks her about how her community of Indigenous Australians came to convert to Christianity, her answer is simple: “We found God in nature.”

She has also chosen this phrase – so central, it seems to me, to her philosophy – to serve as the name of her new painting.

Fifty years of Indigenous liturgies
On Wednesday, the day after she unveils We Found God in Nature at the Vatican Museums, Dr Ungunmerr Baumann will attend a Mass marking fifty years since the first Aboriginal liturgy.

On that occasion, in 1973, a large number of Aboriginal people had gathered in Melbourne for the first Mass incorporating elements of Indigenous languages and culture.

“Jesus was there for everyone”, says Dr Ungunmerr Baumann, when I ask her about the significance of the anniversary. “When he leaves himself in the host at communion time, he’s there for everybody, it doesn’t matter who.”

Meeting with Pope Francis
On Wednesday, Dr Ungunmerr Baumann will also meet with Pope Francis.

She hasn’t quite decided what she’ll tell him yet, she says, but she expects that the problems faced by Australia’s Indigenous communities will be on the agenda.  

This is not, in fact, the first time that a member of Dr Ungunmerr Baumann’s family has met with a leader of the Catholic Church. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Australia in 1986, he met her sister, and blessed her young son.

That son – Liam – went on, only two decades later, to commit suicide, in a stark reminder of the many struggles and inequalities still faced by Australia’s Indigenous communities.

Discussions with Vatican officials
Dr Ungunmerr Baumann‘s meeting with the Pope will be the first of several with senior Vatican figures. On the same day, she will participate in a public discussion with Bishop Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Education and Culture.

She will also meet with representatives from Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s charitable arm, and the Union of International Superiors General, which brings together leaders of women’s religious orders from across the world.

With them, she will speak on the subject of “An Indigenous perspective on integral ecology: the concept of Dadirri.”--Vatican News

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