Nourishing My People

Erica Bernard is at home in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, where she has ancestral roots as a Yawuru (Broome) and Kidja (Halls Creek) woman. She has been working in Catholic Education for over 20 years, and is currently the Community Liaison Officer for the Catholic Education Office of Western Australia, based in Broome. Yet she has felt an increasing crossover of school and church roles, as she is called “to serve ministerially to our people”.

It all started in 2006, when Erica accepted a secondment to the Diocese of Broome as the Kimberley World Youth Day Coordinator. As she explains, she only really recognised her journey in ministry as she helped people to prepare for the big event in Sydney. As part of the experience, she took the WYD cross and icon to every community in the Kimberley only one week before they arrived at their final destination. While the pilgrimage was “full on”, she was lifted up by the excitement and energy of it all. Erica had a feeling of burning desire that she needed to follow, as “it is usually the Holy Spirit.” 

Since then, Erica has been to several National Catholic Youth Festivals, bringing mobs of young people from her area. The event in Perth was particularly special as she saw the youth transform from very shyly observing to becoming “like celebrities” and fully involved. At this nationwide gathering, they celebrated their own Kimberley Mass of the Holy Spirit, in which her bishop as well as other bishops got painted up in their traditional celebratory practice. Erica found “teachable moments” in her conversations with the young people, who had discovered ways to connect, and were making sense of the faith.

In her more everyday work and life, Erica builds up the faith community in many ways. The rosary is a popular devotion among her people, especially when someone passes away. Like the grandmothers of old, members of the parish bring people together to lead this special prayer for her people. Erica has found that it helps to put things in a way that will help everyone to understand. She uses their way of talking to summarise the mysteries in her own words.  

And at funerals, Erica is often called upon to assist and to support the families. People knock on her door to ask for help in choosing the readings, songs, prayers and preparing the service. She considers and suggests what would really suit the deceased and make people feel comfortable. She is especially attentive to Catholics who are not regular attenders and might be nervous about what to do and when.  

Just recently, Erica’s uncle passed away, who had been a stalwart of the local church. He asked her and her nephew to be the MCs at the funeral, and it turned out to “flow really nicely.” Another tough time came earlier in the year, as her big brother was very sick, and taken to Perth on life support. Erica brought her people together to pray and she witnessed the power of collective prayer – he is now recovering very well. While she doesn’t want to be too bossy or preachy, she has learned to “drop little hints with people”, to encourage their faith. 

This happens in a variety of situations. Erica uses social media to share prayers, scripture verses, anniversaries and feast days. She provides opportunities for people to experience her people’s ancient spirituality in a way that makes them feel at ease. She sits down with people to pray, and to foster community. She was often invited to share at a retreat to bring together participants of a sacramental program (Confirmation and First Communion) and the Religious Education Coordinators. As part of the cultural learning, she was able to connect being on country with the Christian life. Erica spoke about how the land enriches them, how they are nourished and fed by its food. Sitting around the campfire, they are safe. And so it is with coming around the table of the Lord.  

Other people have seen these ministerial qualities in Erica too. Her priest asked her to serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and she is part of her parish committee, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council and a Member of the Australian Plenary Council. Erica feels that on returning from this national discernment process, “there will be a hunger to serve ministerially to my people.” She knows of places where there are no priests, where a Sister runs a liturgy, invites prayers and leads a reflection on the scriptures. Erica reflects, “That is the sort of thing I’d like to do in my parish.” And we hope you are able to too. Thank you for sharing!

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