In 1993, I was living and working as a missionary in Brazil. In addition to pastoral work, I was a member of the overseas training formation program team for seminarians. It was a wonderful time to be a young priest enthusiastically embracing cross-cultural mission in a foreign country, and I remember my years and work in Brazil quite fondly.
Like many missionaries, my strongest memories are of the people among whom I served and with whom I worked.
One young man, who is now Columban Father Ioane Gukibau, was in his sixth year of seminary formation in 1993 when he was assigned to Brazil for overseas missionary experience. Fr. Gukibau hailed from Fiji, and I have long remembered what he told me:
In 1985, I started my studies as a Columban seminarian along with two others. As the first Fijian Columban seminarians, we felt excited, and we were conscious of being pioneers. After our first year, the other two decided that the missionary life was not for them, and I was left on my own – the only Fijian Columban seminarian. I felt a bit lonely.
The sentiments expressed by Fr. Gukibau remind me of St. Teresa of Avila’s words that “Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.” While Fr. Gukibau might have been the lone Fijian seminarian in his class, he was never alone on the journey.
It was in February 1952 that eleven Columban Fathers descended the gangplank of the steamship Aorangi and began a new Columban mission in Fiji. Following our expulsion from China and with the Korean War putting development of our mission in Korea on hold, new seminarians were free to go elsewhere, to start new missions, to proclaim and witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would have been impossible for the Columbans who landed in Fiji in 1952 to conceive of what was then a missionreceiving country becoming a mission-sending country by 1973.
In only twenty-one years, the local Church in Fiji had developed to the point where it would start sending lay missionaries to other countries. The first group of Fijian Columban lay missionaries went to Ireland; I can only imagine their surprise at the change in climate!
In 1976, Fijian native Fr. Petero Mataca was installed as the Archbishop of Suva. In 2009, Archbishop Mataca reached retirement age, although he continues to serve as he, and the rest of the country, waits for his replacement.
Columbans continue to work in Fiji, helping to develop the local Church and evangelize the laity. We continue to develop the vocation program and lay missionary program there. In early 2009, Fr. William Lee was ordained in Fiji and is now serving in Chile. Columban seminarian Etuate Tubuka just completed his course of study in Quezon City, the Philippines, and returned home to Fiji to continue his education. In February 2010, two Fijian lay missionaries went to Pakistan. In June 2010, two Fijian lay missionaries will begin work at our mission at the U.S./Mexico border.
Fijians have responded to God’s call and are actively inviting others to global mission. It is with great joy that we witness both the awareness and the commitment to the missionary mandate that has developed in Fiji.