Saturday, July 19, 2008

From the Outback to the Pope's Back: The Legend of "Marjorie's Bird"

With WYD's grand finale shortly to come -- the climactic closing liturgy at Randwick (vidstreams and Missal) begins at 10am local (2300GMT, 7pm ET Saturday) -- in one of the week's many nods to Australia's indigenous community, topping the stage at the major events has been a popular Aboriginal rendering of the Holy Spirit known as "Marjorie's Bird."

Now, with the design about to take on an even bigger visibility as a key element of the specially-designed vestments for tomorrow's liturgy, Marjorie Liddy, the Tiwi islander behind the image (who never painted before seeing its outline in the sky in 2004) tells her story:
It is not quite Our Lady of Fatima, and Liddy is a long way from beatification, but the legend of Marjorie's Bird has swept the Catholic Church in Australia, which has adopted the symbol as the main image of World Youth Day.

Cardinals and bishops from around the world will wear Marjorie's Bird on the back of their earthy-red chasubles, the outer garment of their vestments, and the Pope will stand under the image on the sanctuary surrounding the altar at Randwick before hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Whether the vestments of the Pope will contain the image of Marjorie's Bird is the "million-dollar question", World Youth Day organisers say.

Liddy, who lives at Condor Point on Melville Island, three hours' drive through eucalypt and cyprus forest from the closest airstrip, is awestruck that the image of the bird with the golden aura that she saw above her island under a dry-season sky four years ago has attracted the attention of the Vatican....

"When I first heard that on the island, I just grabbed a handful of dirt, threw it all over myself," she said. "I felt unworthy."

The Tiwi woman says she was touched by God after a day out fishing in the Timor Sea with her son. Under a full moon, close to 9pm on August 30, 2004, Liddy caught her son staring at the sky.

"My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets," she said. "There was a big painting of a bird in the sky, all done in dots. He had a yellow halo across his head. His wings touched from one end of the horizon to the other, just covered the whole sky."

Filled with joy, Liddy began to dance and sing a Tiwi Catholic hymn.

"My son was staring at me, looking at me like I was going nuts," she said.

"I said: 'Son, can you see what I can see?' He told me: 'A bird, Mum.'

"I said: 'That's the Holy Spirit.' And when I said that, that halo burst. Sparkles of gold like I had never seen in my life were just falling on the earth."

The Australian Catholic Church's director of evangelisation, Steve Lawrence, said he had received a strong indication that "the papal household is very happy" that Marjorie's Bird will adorn senior church figures' vestments.

But Mr Lawrence said it did not indicate the Vatican officially endorsed Liddy's vision, describing it as a "private revelation". Mr Lawrence, who has met Liddy, said he believed she had seen the enormous bird in the sky. "She's the genuine article, in my opinion," he said.

Darwin's recently retired bishop, Ted Collins, has no doubt the quiet, gentle woman he has known for almost 40 years saw an indigenous image of the Holy Spirit. "Marjorie is a lady that has been very close to God, and I believed her," Mr Collins said.

Liddy is one of hundreds of Aborigines brought up in missions, which multiplied across the Northern Territory from the mid-1930s. Many former missions retain strong connections to the Catholic Church. The late pope John Paul II visited Aborigines in Alice Springs during his 1986 tour of Australia, saying the church would be incomplete without the involvement of indigenous people.

Of 450 pilgrims travelling to Sydney from the Territory, 183 are Aboriginal. Poor families have raised up to $3000 to send their children to World Youth Day - the first time many had saved such a large sum.

Older people from communities such as Wadeye and Daly River, and the Tiwi Islands elders, have blended their traditional spirituality and dreamtime stories with their Catholic faith.

"Most Aboriginals feel the spirit in the bush," Liddy said.

"The Holy Spirit, the spirit of the land, it is the same. It's in the land for everybody. It is not just for us."
As a specially-named WYD VIP, Marjorie was present as the Pope made his official arrival on Thursday, and seemingly won't be far off the dais when her Bird takes flight later today.

While the new image will take the back of the vestment, on its front'll be the more traditional symbol of Australian faith, yet one likewise found in the stars: the Southern Cross.

PHOTO: Andrew Taylor/Sydney Morning Herald