Reduced Numbers, A Week Delayed, But "The Saint Marches On" in Fiji!
Since laborers from the Indian subcontinent started coming to Fiji under the colonial indenture system (1879-1914), the small number of Catholics among them brought a strong devotion to the Italian Saint Anthony, a Franscican friar of the twelfth century. It is not clear how such a devotion had become strong in India and how it managed to survive in the harsh working conditions among the cane fields of Fiji, but every year, on the Sunday closest to June 13, a procession of the statue has been held at RaviRavi, which has a church dedicated to the saint and is part of the Columban parish of Ba.
Due to the COVID 19 restrictions, it had been decided to cancel the celebration, a cause of dismay to many Indo-Fijian Catholics, but suddenly, with the partial lifting of curfew by the Fijian Prime Minister, it became possible to have the procession and Mass one week late. We duly observed the 20-persons rule, and instead of 4 men carrying a very large statue, we all – men, women and children – took turns carrying a smaller statue of St Anthony around the church three times. No one quite knows why that number was chosen in tradition, but the statue becomes an object of particularly Indian ritual when it reaches the end, with women, couples and families wave a flaming camphor (‘aarti’) bowl in front of it, and leave money at the saint’s feet. That money is considerable, and is often sent by Fijian expat Catholics in the US and ANZ in thanksgiving for their new life there.
St Anthony had a keen desire to preach to the Muslims in Morocco but a storm blew his ship to the island of Sicily and from there began a different career of preaching, with great success, to Christians in both Italy and France. Sometimes we too want to do ‘great and public’ things for God in civic and global life, but COVID has taught us the importance of being at home, that the preaching of the Gospel always “begins from Jerusalem”, as we often say in Fiji.
We thanked St Anthony for the way he has protected us from any Fijian COVID deaths, we prayed for all who kept this devotion alive in times of coups and floods, and we asked that the saint who is always invoked to find lost objects may help us never the lose the one thing truly necessary – trust in God and love for his people.