Work on the Islands

Fr. Donal McIlraith
May 20, 2010
Mission in Fiji Takes Many Forms

Christmas on Kadavu Cyclone Mick delayed my departure for Kadavu during December 2009, but I finally got on an inter-island ferry. Eight hours later I was on the Kadavu wharf. Since my arrival was unexpected, I was very happy when young Siga Seeto arrived and took me to Nasalia, my first stop. I had baptized Siga on my first visit to Kadavu nineteen years ago.

Work on the Islands

Work on the Islands

I know everyone here very well from my many visits. Nasalia is a tiny settlement nestled on a bay, about ten miles from the government station. The total Catholic population is about 150 and growing. I had a busy weekend with confessions, baptisms and visiting and anointing the sick. I also did some lectio divina for the community on the Christmas story.

There we had our first Midnight Mass on December 21. God’s ways are strange because this early celebration enabled Catechist Jack Lockington to celebrate his last Christmas. He died unexpectedly in Nasalia on December 24. It was Jack’s grandmother, Elizabeth Johns, who brought the Catholic faith to this district some 100 years ago.

On December 22 I got back on the ferry and traveled three hours to Naidiri which was once the hub of the Catholic Church in Kadavu. The historians tell us that in the mid-1800s there were 3,000 Catholics on these islands.

Today there are no more than 500 on all of Kadavu. Naidiri once had a school with the Cluny Sisters and a house with a resident priest. Now two classrooms and a catechist’s house are all that remain of this once bustling area. I slept in one of the classrooms. The other classroom serves as the chapel. And so here, by oil lamp, we celebrated our second Midnight Mass on Kadavu with the 30 remaining loyal Catholics.

Gathering in celebration

Gathering in celebration

The next day, Catechist Bale arrived with his boat and spirited us off to Ono, the northernmost island of the Kadavu group. Here we celebrated Kadavu’s third Christmas. This village, Vabea, was hard hit by Cyclone Mick, and they were still cleaning up when we arrived. Trees were down all over the village but had been cut to enable movement. Crops were also damaged. The government boat was anchored off the beach. Officials were assessing damages and had helped out by using their power saws to cut the trees.

Despite the damage caused by the cyclone, there was a happy mood in the village. Many relatives had come home for Christmas and the New Year. In this festive atmosphere we had our Midnight Mass with about 100 people. Four children made their first communion during the Mass. Their eagerness and readiness to welcome Christ seemed like a Christmas parable for all of us. On St. Stephen’s Day we went by boat to another village, Narikoso, with a Catholic population of about 50. I had half expected that we would have a fourth Christmas here, but they assured me they had already celebrated it and would like the Mass of St. Stephen. This village was also damaged by the cyclone. Thank God there was no loss of life in this part of Fiji though elsewhere eight people perished.

I then made my way back by speedboat to my first stop, Nasalia, and there celebrated New Year and buried Jack on January 2. Who knows? I may be buried here myself some day! The next day, the kids put on an Epiphany drama after Mass. The kings arrived from the East, inquired from Herod where the Christ Child was to be born and then followed the star to Bethlehem. On the way they collected $150 from the congregation. They presented the congregation’s gift to the Christ Child which will go to the papal Holy Childhood fund for the children of the world. Finally, I went back to Suva to get ready for school. Kadavu gets a priest two or three times a year. In between times, the catechists in each village lead the people in prayer and support them in their Christian lives. They are praying that one day Kadavu will have a resident priest again.

Fiji and the Missionary Mandate

“Go, therefore, teach all nations…” are Jesus’ last words to the Church according to Mt. 28:20. The ordination of Archbishop Mataca as bishop in 1974 was probably the key factor in changing Fiji from “mission receiving country” to “mission sending country.” The Archbishop was seriously committed to making the archdiocese an evangelizing force, and today we see that Fiji is fulfilling the missionary mandate in a marvelous way.

Christmas on Kadavu;

Christmas on Kadavu;

The first overseas missionaries from Fiji were lay people — anticipating even at the turn of the last century Vatican II’s affirmation that the whole Church is missionary. There were 150 Catholics of New Hebrides (Vanuatu) origin in Suva and in 1898 two Marists took some of them back to New Hebrides to begin the Church on the Island of Pentecost.

Today the parish of Melsisi which they helped start is itself producing priests, Sisters and brothers. In 1899 Bishop Vidal brought nine Fijian catechists to the Solomons to help start the Church there.

The Church in Fiji grew and was consolidated under Bishops Nicholas (1919-1941) and Foley (1944-1967). In 1923 Bishop Nicholas set up a seminary in Fiji, but the first ordination did not come until 1939. Fr. Tito Daurewa, SM, was the first Fijian to be ordained. After that came a trickle of priests but that became a steady stream when the Pacific Regional Seminary was established in Suva, with fifteen students, in 1972. The seminary currently has 130 seminarians and many of these are missionaries. Columbans study there.

The Columbans arrived in Fiji in 1952 but did not open a seminary program here until 1986. The Columbans are unique in that we focus only on mission. Among the first seminarians was Ioane Gukibau who was ordained in 1994. Fr. Ioane served for twelve years in Peru and is currently Vice Director of the Fiji Region. Others followed Fr. Ioane and today five men from this program minister abroad and there are six in the formation program. Fr. William Lee and Fr. Vincent Ratnam both work in Chile. Fr. Palenapa Tavo is missioned to Peru, Fr. Felisiano Fatu to Pakistan. Seminarian Taaremon Matauea, a Banaban from Rabi Island in Fiji, serves in Taiwan.

Since the Columban lay missionary program was launched in 1993, 48 Fijian lay missionaries have gone to six other countries: Ireland, the Philippines, Peru, Chile, Korea and Pakistan. The Pakistan mission from Fiji began with two young men, Peter and Paula, who left Fiji on February 12, 2010. There are currently fourteen Fijian and Tongan lay missionaries overseas. Right now the Columbans are the only ones sending lay men and women on mission from Fiji. So Fiji, though small, is emerging as one of the mission sending countries of the Catholic Church. Archbishop Petero Mataca has written many pastoral letters encouraging mission during his 30 years at the helm. The Lord has blessed his efforts mightily. From an archdiocese that numbers about 80,000 people in all, some 80 missionaries are carrying out the missionary mandate in 2010.

An Ecumenical Experience in Fiji

The biggest Church in Fiji is the Methodist. The next largest is the Catholic Church followed by the Assembly of God, the Anglicans and the Seventh Day Adventists. Traditionally these Churches have worked together in a group called the Fiji Council of Churches. Today there are more than 1,000 denominations registered in Fiji.

Students at the Pacific Theological College;

Students at the Pacific Theological College;

For more than twenty years now, I have been teaching Sacred Scripture at the seminary of the local Bishops’ Conference (CEPAC). This is based in Suva and serves about twelve dioceses throughout the Pacific. Up the road is the Ecumenical Pacific Theological College opened by Archbishop Ramsey of Canterbury in 1964. We have a close working relationship between the colleges.

So when Dr. Tevita Havea, their New Testament professor, was suddenly recalled to be General Secretary of the Free Methodist Church in his native Tonga, I was not too surprised to get a call from the dean of the P.T.C. “Donal, can you help us out?” “Can you make things easy for me and put on a course on the Apocolypse?” “I’ll get back to you.” So, some days later the dean called again. “In fact, it is a few years since we had an M.A. course on the Apocolypse. You’re on.”

And so for the next eleven weeks I explored this wonderful book about the Resurrection with seven eager students, five men and two women. Four were Tongans from the Methodist Church, one was a Congregational pastor from Tuvalu and two were Anglican priests. It was a rich mix indeed but par for the course at the P.T.C.

Parishioners on Kadavu

Parishioners on Kadavu

Twice a year we have a joint ecumenical gathering between the two colleges. My personal highlight during the course was being able to preach to the two colleges on Rev. 2:4, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love.” In the Book of Revelation, the Risen Jesus is presented as “the one loving us.” The verb “to love” in this context is only used of Jesus, not of disciples. The response He seeks is described as “works” and Rev. 2:19 describes these as “love, faith, service and endurance.” The heart of these is love. So what is most important for each Church and each individual is to love Jesus.

This realization was also behind Pope Paul VI’s invitation to the Patriarch Athenagoras to meet him in the Holy Land in 1964. His reasoning was – let us each bring our Church to Jesus. He alone, through His Spirit, can make us one.

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