Born in 1963, I am from a chiefly family in the highlands, up from Ba, Fiji. My father and grandfather were chiefs, my elder brother is presently the chief, and I am next in line. I went to school at St. Thomas with the Marist Brothers in Lautoka. On completing high school I joined the Fijian army in which I served for 20 years.
I met my wife, Teresia, when stationed in Labasa in 1991. She was a Catholic and worked as parish secretary. We became involved and within six months had decided to get married. Teresia asked me to have the wedding in the Catholic church but I was not in favor of this. However, the priest in Labasa at that time, Martin Dobey, had taught me catechism in primary school in the early 1970s, so when he spoke to me about my wife’s wish I agreed.
We married in the Catholic church, but my wife’s family was not supportive as I was not a Catholic. There were only ten people at our wedding, none from my family and my wife’s parents were not present. My family—in fact one might say, my tribe—was strictly Methodist. My grandfather was chief of seven villages and decreed that the French Catholic missionaries could visit only two of these villages. The rest were Methodist and only Methodism was to be permitted.
My wife always prayed morning and evening, and I constantly spoke to her of coming over to Methodism. Like many army officers I used to drink a lot and when drunk would become abusive, and at times threw the Catholic statues and pictures out of the house. I was not a happy man, and I also stopped going to the Methodist church.
The first child came along and then two more. We remained in Labasa until 2000, moved to Lautoka until 2005 and then to Ba. In Ba I began to feel a wind of change in my life. I could see that my children were becoming devout Catholics.
One day Columban Fr. Paul Tierney, our parish priest, came to my house to ask me if it would be okay for Teresia to work in the parish as secretary. He had known her in Labasa when she was single and working as parish secretary. He invited me to come to Mass with my wife, so I did. I did not know the first thing about the Mass, but knew how to say the rosary and also knew all the Catholic hymns as I had had to learn all that at school in Lautoka. However, my wife and children going up to communion and me left sitting down in the back of the church did not feel right.
Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith arrived in the parish after Fr. Paul returned to Ireland to be with his dying mother. Fr. Donal used to visit our house, and he told my wife that he wanted to talk with me. That was during the hurricane season in 2012 when Ba was flooded. He asked me to help him with the distribution of emergency food relief, so I began to work with three men (all Catholics) from the parish.
Then, soon before Easter Fr. Donal invited me to his house for lunch; it was the first time I had been in the priest’s house for a meal. He gave me a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church and suggested I read it to find out more about the Catholic church.
He made it clear that the decision to become a Catholic must be mine and mine alone; others might invite me, but only I could decide and do so in absolute freedom. I had to use an Oxford Dictionary to look up many words in order to read the catechism, but I slowly worked through the whole book over the period of one month.
Then, one day I woke up and asked my wife, “How do you become a Catholic? Is there some test you have to do?” Another priest, Fr. Jaime, came to my home to speak to me as my wife told the priests that I’d said that I wanted to become a Catholic. He asked me if that was so and I said, “Yes.” He said that he would come back the next day.
Fr. Donal then arranged for Fr. Jaime and a catechist to talk with me every day for five weeks about what it means to become a Catholic. They wanted me to be ready to be welcomed into the Church at the Holy Saturday night Mass celebrating Christ’s resurrection. I have been truly inspired by Fr. Donal’s simple and direct way of explaining things to people in our parish and by his kindness to me.
Now, each evening when I pray I look at the statue of Mary and remember how I used to get angry and throw it outside, and how afterwards I would feel remorse. Also, having come to realize the value of being a Catholic, I regret that I did not join the Catholic church a long time ago.
Soon after that Easter I went to my village to visit my brother with a recently ordained priest, Fr. Petero Nimilote, whose family is from our parish. At first, my brother was quite upset that I was bringing a Catholic priest into our village; it was the first time ever. But I said that the rule had been man-made and so could be changed by men. I then told him that I had not come with the representative of just any church but of the “mother” church, as the Methodists in Fiji recognize that they come originally from the Catholic church.
I explained everything slowly and calmly and they accepted it. In fact, there were already people of other religions in our villages as they had married into families of our tribe. In our village there are ten to fifteen women who are born Catholics; I saw that they were crying when they saw me arriving with the priest.
To help strengthen the Catholic faith among our Fijian people I would like the parish to organize renewal workshops in the villages on a regular basis, especially for the youth.