New Year celebrations were in full swing in Namoto village in western Fiji. It was after midnight, but loud music was blaring from the radios and groups of people were noisily drinking alcohol. Samu, a powerfully built man in his thirties, staggered to his feet and followed Manoa, an unmarried youth from a neighboring village, out of the communal shed. Samu was obsessed by rumors that Manoa was carrying on a liaison with his wife. His suspicions and resentment, fueled by the alcohol, gnawed at him. His anger quickly boiled over.
Outside on a path between two houses, Samu challenged Manoa and cursed him roundly. He struck Manoa with a savage blow from his fist. Manoa fell to the ground, hit his head against a rock and lay motionless. A young man died as suddenly as an unexpected flash of lightning.
The following Sunday I faced a full church in Namoto. It was a difficult homily to preach. People were stunned. A Catholic family in a nearby village was mourning a son. A Catholic family in Namoto was weighed down with guilt and shame. I could not ignore or avoid the situation. It was important to put words on the shock and acknowledge the rupture of an ordered existence. But it was not my place to point the finger of blame. The tragedy was wider than lust and revenge.
It was a teachable moment in which to examine the contributing factors of alcohol abuse, rumor mongering and the failure of leadership. Manoa’s tragic death pointed to a breakdown in the communal ethos as well as the religious values of the village. We all shared some responsibility. It was a moment for communal conversion. Forgiveness and reconciliation might come later, but it would take time.
In the wake of the tragedy, Samu received a three-year sentence for manslaughter. During that time, I visited him in prison. Samu was glad to see me. He requested a rosary and asked how he could learn more about the Bible after he completed his sentence. Wary of a sudden but shallow conversion, I recommended that Samu attend the weekly village liturgy preparation meeting.
During those meetings, the Bible was brought in procession to the family responsible for reading in church on the following Sunday. The family, together with the catechist and liturgy committee, read, reflect and share on the Scripture readings.
This, I suggested, would bring him in regular contact with God’s word with the support of a faith community. The catechist and his wife could be Samu’s mentors and the midwives of a new life for him.
Meanwhile, Samu’s clan felt alienated and defensive. Manoa’s family was in shock and rejected early overtures of reconciliation. The village catechist and liturgy leaders discussed the situation during Lent. As Holy Week approached, the liturgy leader approached me to request a different Good Friday Stations of the Cross. Instead of holding them in the church, he suggested incorporating them into a procession that would embrace both villages, both extended families, the living and the dead.
But would the two key families agree to participate? The liturgy leader approached them and persuaded them to take part in faith. Good Friday morning was hot and humid. A large crowd of villagers gathered outside the house of the deceased Manoa.
His family gathered around the seven-foot cross as we began with a prayer linking their sorrow with the sorrow of Mary and sufferings of Jesus. I was asked to carry the cross from the first station to the second followed by the people singing a hymn. At the third station commemorating the first fall of Jesus, Manoa’s father took the cross and led the procession from his village to the outskirts of Namoto a few hundred yards away.
The fourth station commemorates Mary’s sorrowful meeting with her son Jesus. After the Biblical reflection, Samu’s widowed mother offered, as a profound sign of apology, a whale’s tooth, the most sacred symbol in Fijian culture, to Manoa’s father.
Tears were shed as Manoa’s father accepted this traditional and much revered symbol from Samu’s uncle.
With that acceptance, Manoa’s family accepted Samu’s clan’s apology and reconciled with them. Another emotional station was the twelfth where Jesus dies on the Forgiveness and reconciliation cross for the salvation of the world.
At the spot where the fatal accident happened, we meditated on how Jesus’ acceptance in love and forgiveness of His death overcame the evil let loose in the world by Adam’s original sin and the sin of Cain’s killing of his brother Abel.
Afterwards I requested that the large wooden cross we had carried that day be planted and erected on that spot as a reminder to the community of a needless tragedy but also of a memorable process of reconciliation of not only two families but also two communities.
Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.
The article originally appears in the December 2010 issue of Columban Mission.