Columban Fr. David Arms has a gift for languages. He used his Ph.D. in linguistics to research the Parkari Kholi language in Pakistan and the Subanen language in the southern Philippines and facilitate their study by missionaries.
He decided to study Fiji Hindi also. He would squat on a mat in the shade each day, and chat and with Rajen, a farmer who had no formal schooling. Fr. Dave wanted to hear only spoken Fiji Hindi. Rajen was delighted. He told his wife to have a nice curry ready for lunch.
After a while Rajen found that he had left is tin of tobacco on the mat just beyond his reach. He shouted for his wife, though she was busy inside cooking the meal. She came out. “Hand me my tobacco,” he barked. She obediently stooped down, picked up the tobacco and put it in his hand. “Now carry on with the cooking,” he ordered. Fr. Dave said afterwards, “If I am ever reincarnated, I want to come back as an Indian man!”
In 1987 Fr. Dave became the head of VOSA, a Columban translation service. He and his committee put together the lectionary in Fijian. Thy translated the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament and had them included in a new edition of the Fijian Bible in 2013. Next, they translated the sacramentary into Fijian and had it accepted by the Vatican in 2015. This careful work is time-consuming but essential for the life of the Church.
However, Fr. Dave was not just an armchair missionary. As Parish Priest of the Lau and Kadavu islands in the 1970s, he travelled extensively in the Church boat, the Rogokaci. His adventures were many: avoiding cyclones, trudging up boggy hills and slipping in mud, floating helplessly with a seized-up engine while waiting for a rescue boat. On a trip with the Prime Minister to Lakeba Island, Ratu Mara insisted that Fr. Dave, as his priest, take the lower bunk in their cabin. Fr. Dave was further embarrassed to be seated in the front row for the welcome ceremonies for the Prime Minister.
Fr. Dave had a particular concern for justice and democracy. Soon after the 1987 coup in Fiji he joined the Citizens Constitutional Forum NGO (non-government organization). Requested to take the elections portfolio he studied the subject in the library of Victoria University in Wellington during holidays. Later at a conference he realized that he knew more about elections than an invited speaker, so he gained confidence. He made submissions to the Reeves Commission in Fiji, but it opted for the Alternative Voting (AV) system instead of a Proportional Representation system recommended by Fr. Dave.
He was a local observer for the 1999, 2001 and 2006 national elections in Fiji. He demonstrated, in a review of the Fiji election of 2006 at a University conference, that the AV election system was unfair. In 2007 after Fiji’s fourth coup, Fr. Dave put his radical proposals for a fairer election system to the cabinet and top military. He was invited to be a member of the Electoral Commission in May 2007. He presented papers in 2011 and 2013 at the Attorney-General’s Conference. The Proportional Representation election system he proposed was substantially adopted in the Fiji Constitution of 2013.
Through all this Fr. David’s patience, perseverance and scholarship shone through. He is a Columban who has made his mark on public life and pastoral ministry in Fiji.
All his many friends wished him a very happy platinum jubilee of priesthood.
Columban Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.