And a Pilgrimage to Rotuma
Pat Visanti was born and raised a Methodist on the island of Rotuma. Rotuma is both an island and a nation. It is about 400 miles north of Fiji and, even though ethnically and linguistically different from Fiji, was made part of Fiji during the colonial period. When Pat was twelve, his mother along with Pat and his brother and sister joined their father as Catholics. Pat finished his schooling in Suva, Fiji, and then joined the bank. After several years as a successful bank worker he decided to try his vocation and, urged by Columban Fr. Pat Colgan, he joined the Columbans. He did his seminary training at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, the seminary of the Bishops of the South Pacific. From 2014 to 2016 he worked as a Columban seminarian in Pakistan where he learned Urdu.
The Columbans are celebrating our centennial from St. Columban's Day 2017 to St. Columban's Day 2018, and so the Fiji Region opened their celebrations with the ordination of Fr. Pat. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Peter Loy Chong at the Suva Cathedral on the Feast of St. Columban, November 23, 2017. A Rotuman celebration followed the ordination at the Hall of St. Joseph's High School, run by the Cluny Sisters. Cluny Provincial, Sr. Allison, was present also and had been one of those who helped Pat arrive at this day. The President of Fiji, Major General (Rtd) Konrote, himself a Rotuman, attended the ordination and the festivities. These included the famous Rotuman communal dance which takes about an hour. Fr. Pat's first Mass in Suva took place on the following evening once more at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart which is his home parish in Suva.
Months of planning went into developing these events but especially the "pilgrimage" to Rotuma which followed. The Columbans had hired a commercial boat called the Brianna so that some 140 people could accompany Fr. Pat to his home island for his first Mass there. We charged everyone, of course, and in that way were able both to cover all expenses and enable those wishing to go to Rotuma to do so at a very reasonable rate.
We left Suva on Wednesday, November 29. The sea was amazingly calm both going and coming. This was a blessing as the engine broke down half way there and when repaired the boat could only travel at four knots an hour. We spent an extra but enjoyable day on the boat. The central event each day was Mass at 11 am. We wedged ourselves in, and everyone who wished joined enthusiastically in the Eucharist with the Columban seminarians and lay missionaries leading the choir. They had fundraised to join the trip. Three other Columban priests besides Fr. Pat accompanied the "pilgrims," Fr. David Arms, Fr. Ioane Gukibau and myself. We were also accompanied by the Fijian parish priest of Rotuma, Fr. Emiliano Lasaqa, SM. A young Methodist minister who was a cousin of Pat's also accompanied us. I discovered I had corrected his degree paper some years ago. Luckily, he had obtained a good mark, so there was no strain on our relationship!
Rotuma is a dream island, small with white sandy beaches, and the 2,000 Rotumans live in beautiful villages along the sandy road that encircles the island. We arrived a day late. They had prepared a feast of fish and lobsters for us on Friday and had to eat it themselves. There is no electricity on the island apart from generators. However, when we arrived on Saturday, they had trucks ready to accompany us to the Parish of Our Lady of Victories in Sumi, the district of Pepje. There they accommodated the sixty of us who comprised the Columban party. The others were Rotuman relatives and friends of Pat's, some returning home after many years.
The first Mass in Rotuma was held at 10:00 am on Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent at the beautiful Church of St. Michael. The music and liturgical dancing was superb. Providentially, it was the Feast of our Missionary Patron, St. Francis Xavier. It was scheduled for Saturday, but our late arrival meant a quick change of plan. It was also an ecumenical event. The Methodists had planned to join us on the Saturday but with the change in schedule, they moved their Sunday services to 7:00 am enabling them to join us. The palpable joy of all Rotuma at Pat's ordination was very moving to us.
The Mass went well. Young Fr. Pat showed no signs of nervousness but then he did not have to preach. He had given me that task. After Mass we gathered outside, and the first cultural event was the bringing of gifts by the Methodist community, a mountain of food and mats.
After this there was the traditional welcome to all of us who were on the island for the first time. This is called the Mamasa. We all sat on specially prepared mats and are formally welcomed.
The traditional dance came next. The Catholic community had offered to drop this out of respect as generally the Methodists don't dance on Sundays. However, the main, Methodist chief, gave an exception, and the dance went ahead.
Then followed the traditional Rotuman banquet, a true feast and something we will never forget. Each of us was served individually by a young lady. Maureen was the person who served me. She had a plaited basket which contained my food. She served the food on a large banana leaf. The food included taro, the local root crop, chicken, beef, pork and a tin of corned beef that took me back to my childhood in Macroom. I did my best but couldn't make much inroad in the food. It was just too much. Afterwards I asked what happens, and it seems each server gets to take the leftovers home, so none of that delicious food is wasted.
The evening was well on when the feast finished so we sat around then, chatting. It was truly a day to remember.
After a final Mass, we all rested on Monday. In the morning there was a tour around the island which took about two hours. In the afternoon, at 5:00 pm, we reluctantly left Rotuma. The next day, we had another drift, this time for nine hours. During this time, we had the first of our two homeward Masses. This lifted our spirits. However, they fixed the engine good this time, and we were just a few hours late getting back to Suva, tired but happy.
Fr. Donal McIlraith lives and works in Fiji.