Fiji Changes from Mission Receiving to Mission Sending
I arrived in Fiji on Christmas Eve, 1974, having earlier been missioned in Japan and on vocation ministry in the United States. I left Fiji on September 20, 2005, to take up my present assignment in Chicago. In those intervening thirty-one years, I was privileged to see the mission cycle turn 360 degrees. Let me explain what I mean.
One of the first people I met in Fiji was Joe Lee, a parishioner in Holy Family Parish in Labasa, the principal town on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. From the time he was a young man, Joe was involved in the development of Holy Family Parish and schools. The parish was founded in 1967 by Columban Father Dick O’Sullivan, who used to celebrate Mass in the movie theater after parishioners swept up the peanut shells from the night before.
Labasa was then a sleepy sugar mill town with dusty streets. Now it is the busy center of the Northern Division of Fiji and over the years a church, rectory, convent, elementary and secondary schools with over 800 students and chapels in several nearby villages have been built and extended. Columban priests still serve there.
Joe Lee has been one of those closely involved in this process. A hard-working and successful farmer, Joe always seemed to have time for the Church. Be it by way of hard physical work, advice, knowing the right contact, whatever, the Church was top priority for Joe.
The old proverb has it, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Joe and his wife Unaisi raised a wonderful family of nine children. Their fourth child, William, was ordained a Columban on August 2, 2008, and is now serving in Chile. Fr. Willie did his final studies in Chicago, Illinois. When I asked him one day why he joined the Columbans, his answer was simple.
“All my years growing up I saw different Columban priests far from their home countries, being with the people and working hard to serve them and bring them Christ. I’ve always wanted to do the same.” And so he is. A revolution of the mission cycle: incoming from United States, Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand, outgoing from Fiji.
In 1976, I was the first Columban assigned to Solevu Parish at the farthest tip of the same island. It was founded in 1861 by the Marist Fathers who served there for 115 years. The old mission is 110 miles from Labasa and sits on a lovely bay surrounded by hills. There are four Fijian villages nearby and a government station six miles away with three tiny retail shops. Replacing the Marists, I was named as pastor along with a newly ordained diocesan priest, Father Daunivucu, as associate pastor.
For the first several weeks two women living in the mission compound, Ulalia Lawa and a friend, brought us prepared food three times a day from their houses up a steep hill from the rectory. They did this in addition to preparing meals for their own families and continued until we engaged the services of a cook. Ula’s husband, Leone, was involved in caring for the mission property and tending the school’s root crops and gardens. The Lawas had two children and the older, Katarina, was just a little tyke running around the mission in those days.
Fast forward to 1997. I was now coordinator of the Columban Lay Missionary Program which had been founded two years earlier by Fr. Ed Quinn. Lo and behold, who applied for the program but “Little Kata,” now a mature young woman. It was a joy to return to Solevu, interview her and revisit the family. Kata was accepted, trained for ten months in Suva, the capital of Fiji, and was assigned to Chile where she served ten years in difficult missions there among the indigenous Mapuche people.
Three years ago, at the request of the Columbans in Fiji, Kata was reassigned back to her home country to serve as the coordinator of the Lay Mission Program there. So the mission cycle has made another complete 360 degree revolution.
There are other examples. Fr. Ioane Gukibau was the second Fijian ordained as a Columban in 1994. His grandfather, Josefo Dau Gukibau, served as the captain of the archdiocesan boat for decades and braved many stormy seas. Fr. Ioane’s parents, Mika and Ana, are involved in many parish and archdiocesan activities. Again the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. Fr. Ioane served many years in parish ministry and seminarian formation in Peru and is now back in Fiji as the Vice Director of the region, assistant in our Columban seminarian formation house and vocation director for the country. You get the idea – another rotation of 360 degrees.
When the Columbans were invited to Fiji in 1952 and sent there by the Vatican’s Mission Congregation, we were assigned three existing parishes and asked to establish a fourth. Since those early years, we have served in those parishes and many others as well as in many different and varied capacities within the Archdiocese of Suva which encompasses the entire country. In my own experience, for example, I served as pastor or associate pastor in five different parishes, as vicar general to the first indigenous archbishop, Petero Mataca, as the Columban Lay Mission Coordinator and as a part time lecturer at the regional seminary in Suva.
Other Columbans, in addition to fulfilling their parish assignments, have specialized in ministry to the Indo-Fijian communities requiring learning the Hindustani language, full-time teaching and formation of seminarians and of Catholic teachers, justice and peace work, linguistic and translation specialization, hospital chaplaincy, administration and the list goes on. There is little chance to get bored under the swaying coconut palms.
In recent years, Columbans have ordained priests from Fiji and nearby Tonga. Those Columbans are ministering in Pakistan, Chile and Peru. Nine teams of lay missionaries have served or are serving in those countries as well as the Philippines, Ireland and Korea. As we older Columbans become more conscious of graying or disappearing hair and a little less spring in the step, it is a real joy every time that mission cycle clicks another revolution. It is a wonderful grace to experience these young men and women being attracted to the Columban Society and sharing our hopes and vision.
That vision is simple: to share the Good News that Christ brought to the world by crossing boundaries of country, language and culture. Our patron saint, St. Columban, back in the sixth century, said it more simply: Peregrinari pro Christo, to be a pilgrim for Christ. As younger people from the various countries where Columbans have been working for the past 92 years join in the pilgrimage, we welcome them. Together we strive, in the words of the Columban Constitutions “to be witnesses to the universal bond of love which should unite people as children of the Father.”