Today was Palm Sunday, and a very busy one for me, serving as the lone priest here in Christ the King, Ba, Fiji. We have three Masses each Sunday, one in the main town church followed by two in village churches. Today’s liturgies were obviously longer, encompassing both the procession of palms as well as the reading of the Long Passion (this year, according to St. Luke).
Up bright and early, we began the town Mass at the bottom of the field that serves as the playground that serves our adjoining school, St. Teresa’s. We processed up the field holding our palms and singing to the church where the liturgy took place in three languages — English, Fijian and Hindi — to cater for our multicultural congregation.
Straight after, I hit the road for the settlement of Ravi Ravi, where Mass is normally conducted in Hindi for our Indo-Fijian community who live there. Today, however, we were joined by the itaukei villagers of Koroqaqa, Sarava and Navau, filling the Church inside and out. It was appropriate to have a large congregation, due to both the solemnity of the day, but also because Ba Parish was about to celebrate its one adult initiation of this year. The young man is called Sunil Kumar Soman. He is from Kerala, India, and has been working in a local engineering company for the past five years. He tried many times in India to become Catholic (he comes from a Hindu family) but the present political climate there is not conducive to conversions. He tried again in Qatar, where he went on a work contract. He then accepted a contract in Fiji, and for some time joined the Pentecostal Church, where his workmates and friends worshiped. He shared, though, that his heart was never fully at peace there. He has a deep love for both the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and could not find that among the Pentecostals. A chance meeting with me in Ba, where, after trying many other Catholic churches, he eventually was able to purchase a new rosary to replace the broken one he had hung around his neck in India, Qatar, the UAE and now Fiji, led to a larger conversation in which it became clear to me that Sunil was unmistakably ready for baptism, showing me all his prayer books (in Malayalam, which I cannot read) and his own daily example of fasting and works of mercy. He did not know that only one kilometer from where he lodged was the Church of St. Antony, Raviravi, where services were held in Hindi — his third language, but one which he reads and understands. So, the community took him to their heart and prepared him for baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion, which we celebrated today. A Fijian kava ceremony of welcome was performed, as well as the Indian customs of garlanding, touching the feet of his godparents, and feeding everyone with sweets and ice cream.
Finally, it was on to Votua, a large itaukei village on the banks of the Ba Estuary (and site of a big mining operation, about which Columbans, along with Caritas and Jubilee Australia have been advocating against, as recently as last Friday). The mood there was both exuberant and solemn, with the youth dramatizing the Passion with various shouts of derision against Jesus, as well His confession as an “upright man” by the Roman centurion who crucified Him.
St. Luke’s version of the Passion emphasizes both Jesus’ tireless work of reconciling people, even under His own extreme circumstances (e.g. the reconciliation of Pilate and Herod that day, His prayer from the cross for those “who do not know what they are doing” and His comfort of the sorrowing women) as well as the place of outsiders confessing and believing Jesus, before those within the community (the plea of the condemned thief “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” the co-opting of Simon – a foreigner from Cyrene, to help Jesus carry the cross and Pilate’s three times declaring Jesus’ innocence, as did the centurion).
It is my hope that in our own small way — in conducting liturgies that are multilingual, receiving a “foreigner” from India into our hearts, and the youth taking full charge in Votua – that we are trying to follow a Jesus who reached out, in good times and bad, and saw the potential in every person, no matter what society thought or judged to be the case. May we all have a Holy Week full of other surprises and learnings!
Columban Fr. Patrick Colgan lives and works in Fiji.