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Celebrating St. Columban’s 1400th Anniversary

Dance about St. Columban

Celebrating in Fiji Style

By Fr. Frank Hoare

St. Columban, a great Irish missionary monk, died in 615 A.D. in Bobbio, Italy. Columban missionaries (who have St. Columban as their patron) have worked in Fiji since 1952. But being a Society of Apostolic Life rather than a religious congregation, they identified themselves mainly as diocesan priests and did not make a fuss about their patron.

singing muller
Columban Lay Missionary Haiti Muller singing a hymn

However, led by the Regional Director, Fr. Donal McIlraith, and inspired by the program of celebration planned in other Regions of the Society, Columbans in Fiji and their local lay Companions in Mission decided to promote mission in Fiji by organizing a number of events for the 1400th anniversary of St Columban’s death in 2015.

On one Sunday of each month during 2015, Columban priests, lay missionaries, seminarians and companions in mission visited a parish in Fiji where Columbans had previously worked.

The Columban priest celebrated Mass with the parish priest, gave the homily, explained the intention of the visiting group and prayed for any current missionaries from that parish. At the end of the Mass, one of the companions in mission presented a large mission candle and candle holder to the parish priest. After Mass, the group gave a presentation to those parishioners on the life and work of St Columban. A lay missionary and Columban seminarian shared how they discovered their call to mission.

The culmination of the commemorations was a three-day celebration leading up to the feast of St. Columban. On the Thursday before the feast, lay missionaries–both past and present–gave a presentation in the crypt of the Cathedral in Suva of their experience of mission over the 25 years of Columban lay mission.

On the following evening, the Cathedral itself was the venue for a Mass and a prayer vigil lasting a few hours during which there were two talks on St. Columban.

On Saturday, November 21, 2015, the final celebration was held in the hall and grounds of a Catholic secondary school in Suva. Archbishop Peter Loy Chong was the main celebrant at the Commemorative Mass and Fr. Iowane Gukibau, the first Fijian Columban, gave an inspiring homily.

After morning tea for the guests, the children of St. Columban’s Church in Votua village on the western side of Viti Levu acted a drama in the Fijian language about the life of St. Columban. They performed so well that many in the audience shed tears, especially at the reconciliation of St. Columban and St. Gall.

The much-awaited meke (traditional Fijian dance) was then performed outside. The dance was about the work of St. Columban, and was specially composed for the occasion. This dance consisted of four different forms of dance movements being done together to the same chant. One group of men did a spear dance, another did a fan dance. One group of women did a fan dance while another group danced using hand movements only. The participants had practiced for weeks beforehand under the leadership of the composer, Mr. Damiano Logaivau. With about 80 participants in the dance and another twenty sitting and chanting the words, it could only be done outside on a large flat area. Luckily the weather, which had been very wild and wet in the early morning, improved so that the dancers and the audience could be accommodated comfortably outside.

When the dance finished, three Columban lay missionaries walked forward through the ranks of the dancers singing, in turn, a newly composed hymn to St. Columban. The singers, Marjorie Engcoy from the Philippines, Haiti Muller from Tonga, and Vasamaca Ratu from Fiji each wore her national costume. They sang with deep feeling the new hymn, also composed by Damiano, and in that setting it was very powerful.

After the formal presentations everyone relaxed in groups, sharing the Fiji national drink of yaqona. Food was provided for all and afterwards there was some free form dancing, clowning and socializing. The celebrations reminded all present of the great missionary work of St. Columban which we are called to imitate in our own way and our own situations.

Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.