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Smoking ceremony welcomes Australian bishop to his diocese — what’s that?

An Australian bishop was welcomed to his new diocese Tuesday with a smoking ceremony led by a member of the country’s Aboriginal community. 

Bishop Kenneth Howell takes part in a smoking ceremony outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, Toowoomba, on July 11, 2023. Screenshot from Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba YouTube channel.

“What the heck is a smoking ceremony?” you might reasonably ask. And many do, with some also wondering if such ceremonies are compatible with Christianity, or suitable for Church events. 

But it turns out, the ceremonies have been a part of Australian public life — including at major Catholic events — for decades.



Bishop Kenneth Howell took part in the ceremony outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba, at the start of his July 11 solemn liturgical reception as the seventh Bishop of Toowoomba, a diocese covering the South West and Darling Downs regions of Queensland.

The ceremony was described in the order of service booklet as a “welcome to country,” a common ritual in Australia recognizing that a public event is taking place on land inhabited by Indigenous peoples. 

The 65-year-old bishop was invited to take part in the ceremony by Janine Mayer, a representative of the Western Wakka Wakka people, an Aboriginal community of Queensland.

Mayer said: “Today is a very special day as we are welcoming your new bishop. I would like to acknowledge and pay respects to all my elders and ancestors from the past and present, and emerging. I’d like to also acknowledge and pay respects to all of your ancestors and elders as well.” 

She continued: “Today I’m doing a smoking ceremony to welcome you all and your bishop, to bring in healing and healthy positive vibes, and to cleanse and remove any past negative energies. I hope that this smoking ceremony brings you all peace and good energies, and that it cleanses the area and brings success and confidence to you all.” 

She explained that she was producing smoke using gumbi gumbi and eucalyptus leaves, which are native to Australia and used for medicinal purposes.

“They are also an antiseptic and stand for strength and abundance,” she said.

After brushing the leaves against the bowl, she continued: “One of the most important things about a smoking ceremony is to just take it in, let it cleanse you, take all that the elders have to offer.” 

“This has been used in many different cultures, many different ways. Us Aboriginals, we use the native plants. Other cultures use incense, for example.” 

She invited Bishop Howell to “take in a bit of smoke to cleanse yourself.” He stepped forward and wafted the smoke toward his face three times.

She then asked him to take a pinch of shaved sandalwood, drop it into the smoke, “and make a wish.”

She shook the bishop’s hand and thanked him for “being a part of our community.” 

While they might seem odd to outsiders, and they have been criticized by some as being incompatible with Christianity, smoking ceremonies are frequently held at Catholic events in Australia — including papal events. They are also seen at gatherings organized by the Anglican Church and other Christian communities.

Aboriginal Australians performed a smoking ceremony when Pope John Paul II beatified the Australian nun Mary Mackillop at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse in 1995.

The Polish pope referred to the Aboriginal community in his homily, observing that “even before the first Europeans arrived here more than two centuries ago, the aboriginal peoples had been present for tens of thousands of years.” 

“In fact, ethnologists tell us that the original inhabitants of Australia are among the most ancient peoples on earth,” he said.

As Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, too, would participate in smoking ceremonies when visiting Aboriginal communities.

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Australia’s Plenary Council — the country’s most important Catholic event in recent years — featured a smoking ceremony at the opening Mass of its second assembly in July 2022.

The Plenary Council issued a decree endorsing recommendations put forward by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC). 

The decree said: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality contains symbols and rituals that, when used appropriately in Catholic liturgical contexts, enrich our celebrations, and facilitate a welcoming environment for Indigenous Peoples.” 

“NATSICC recommends that the traditional custodians of the land on which the Church, school, parish, or organization stands be acknowledged in a prominent and appropriate manner. Verbal acknowledgment prior to meetings and Mass is also encouraged.”

The decree also endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which called for the creation of a body empowered by the Australian Constitution to represent the views of Indigenous communities to the country’s parliament and executive government.

Australians will vote later this year in a referendum on whether the constitution should be changed to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing the body known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, or the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Australian Catholics recently marked the 50th anniversary of the first Aboriginal Catholic liturgy, held on Feb. 24, 1973 during the 40th International Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne.

Nearly 30,000 people attended the Mass at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, which, according to its organizers, sought “to express the Eucharistic Act in cultural and thought patterns of the Aboriginal peoples.”

The Mass was celebrated by the papal legate Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, the Archbishop of Baltimore, on an altar with Aboriginal symbols built out of bark.  

There were an estimated 798,400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia in 2016, accounting for 3.3% of the total population. The figure is projected to rise to one million between 2027 and 2029.

In the United States, Catholic bishops have also participated in similar Indigenous ceremonies, including smudging ceremonies as part of incultrating the liturgy  — including for the Tekakwitha Conference.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, emeritus Archbishop of Philadelphia, is also a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. 

Speaking to The Pillar this week, Chaput emphasized that he could not comment on the particulars of smoke ceremonies in Australia, with which he is not familiar.

But the archbishop did speak from his own experience with inculturation of the Church’s liturgy.

“Incensations do not require specific instruments, so a bowl and feather seems just as acceptable as a silver or brass thurible. And incense can be made of anything that is pleasantly combustible!” the archbishop said.

“Also the laity can use incense in extra-liturgical prayer services so there is no problem with laity doing smudging outside of Mass or before Mass as long as the prayers and intentions are correct,” Chaput said.

Chaput acknowledged criticisms of the practice, and emphasized a focus on the intentions of those involved. 

“The real issues are the prayers used and the intention behind the act which specify its meaning,” he explained. “Unfortunately many people use prayers that do not fit within Catholic theology and that is always a problem.”

But, he said, “if they are Christian prayers and the intention is the same as the Church’s use of incense implies, then I do not see a problem.”

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