While it’s generally true that Irish people love song and dance, once we go inside a church our tongues seem to be stiffen and our legs become rigid. Traditionally, we find ourselves solemnly self-conscious when we gather to worship: to express ourselves spontaneously before the Lord can seem irreverent. Generally, this means that it is difficult for us to freely express the joy that comes from our faith during a liturgical celebration.
Despite this cultural background, as a newly ordained priest I had wanted my first Mass to be a truly joyful occasion. While I planned to celebrate it in the rural church where several generations of my family and neighbors had faithfully attended Mass, I was determined that it wouldn’t be another regular Sunday Mass. However, I was unsure about how to evoke a real sense of celebration in such a traditional setting.
Soon after I began the preparations, providence intervened: five Columban lay missionaries from the Fiji islands in the South Pacific arrived in Ireland. Columban missionaries had first gone to Fiji more than forty years previously, and now this first group of Fijian missionaries was returning the favor by coming to rekindle the faith of the Irish. Their love for song and dance helped them to quickly form friendships. However, one surprising difference soon emerged: the Fijians loved to sing and dance wherever they found themselves, including in church. Perhaps, they could provide that extra ingredient for my first Mass!
During my first Mass they not only sang with deep fervor, but one of them, Katarina Diratu, danced barefooted up the aisle – to the beat of her companions’ drums – while holding aloft the book of the Gospels. Her poise was elegant; her movements were slow and graceful; her face was radiant with an inner light. By the time she placed the book reverently on the lectern so that I might proclaim the Gospel, the congregation was filled with an expectant joy toward hearing God’s word.
Reflecting back on the intervening twenty years since my fi rst Mass, I have come to a deeper appreciation of the gifts that those Columban lay missionaries from Fiji gave to the church in Ireland. They invited us to joyfully express our Christian faith both inside and outside our churches. Furthermore, they reminded us that our gifts of song and dance were not simply intended for our own enjoyment, but were also meant to delight God. Finally, they helped us realize that, despite our long Christian tradition, our church was in need of missionaries who would open our minds and loosen our tongues, warm our hearts and move our feet so that we might learn to express the beauty and joy of our Christian faith.