Catechists are the corner stone of the Catholic Church in Fiji. Semi Sasai, head catechist in Navala village, epitomizes the generous voluntary service that catechists give to their people and to their Church. Semi takes his turn with two younger catechists to lead the Liturgy of the Word and preach on the three Sundays in the month when there is no Mass in his large village of 800 Catholics. He conducts funerals when the priest is not available. He also instructs couples for marriage, parents for the baptism of their children, and young people for confirmation. He regularly travels by bus to Ba town to assist villagers, to report to the priest and to attend the monthly catechists’ meeting.
Semi is now 60 years old and has served as a catechist for the last 40 years. He not only serves in his own village but, down through the years, he has also walked or ridden a horse on Sundays in scorching sun or drenching rain to nearby villages and settlements which have no catechist of their own. All this is unpaid voluntary work though he may occasionally receive a present of food or a mat from the people he prepares for the Sacraments.
Well into his forties, Semi remained unmarried. He looked after his widowed mother until her death. Even afterwards he remained single. Many supposed that he was a committed bachelor.
Some years ago I invited Semi to accompany me to Tabaquto, a Catholic village almost one hour journey further into the hills from Navala. I had decided to stay there for a few days to get to know the people better than the quarterly Mass visit allowed. The villagers gave us a great welcome. Over the long weekend, we prayed, did some planting in their gardens, washed in the river, drank yaqona, shared stories and feasted with them. In Fiji, sitting around the yaqona bowl, exchanging stories, and sharing the experience helps create a bond between all participants. Visitors feel acceptance and inclusion in a new community. Many business deals and social contracts are achieved around the yaqona bowl.
As is common in these situations, some people slept on the soft matted floor of the house where we were being entertained. On the third morning, Semi woke up to find that a young girl not yet twenty, Kalara, was lying beside him. After exchanging greetings she said to him, “Are you ever going to get married”?
“I might if I found the right girl,” he replied.
“Well, some of us are ready” she said meaningfully.
“But I am too old for you,” exclaimed Semi, surprised. “I am not interested in young men,” said Kalara, “They don’t know how to treat a woman properly.”
Semi thought about it and later arranged for some of his relatives to approach Kalara’s father. Marriage was agreed, and Semi observed the traditional custom of bringing food to her family for some months before the marriage.
I had to leave Fiji before the marriage was to take place so I asked Semi what I could give him as a wedding present. He told me that he needed a saddle for the horse for his pastoral visits to the villages. I duly got him the saddle and left Fiji sometime later.
A few years later I returned to Navala on a visit and found Semi and Kalara very happy. Their only regret was that they had no children. Then after a further absence from Fiji I returned to Ba town to hear that Semi and Kalara had a baby girl after ten years of marriage. I was unable to visit them that day, but I sent a congratulatory present to the happy couple.
Recently I visited Navala again and met Semi, Kalara and their three-year-old daughter. Semi says that his daughter reminds him to say family prayers at night if he seems to be distracted by other things. Semi clearly dotes on his little daughter and loves to cuddle and play with her.
I asked Semi if he still has the saddle I gave him. He said that he has the saddle but added sadly that someone stole the horse some years ago. Jokingly I said that for his next marriage I would present him with a new horse. “No,” he said. “Things are fine as they are.”