From Jan 8 to 14, 2023, I had the privilege of leading the diocesan priest’s retreat in Tarawa, the chief island of Kiribati. It was a joyous occasion for me as nearly all of the priests in attendance were my former students, some going back thirty years. I seem to be invited to do this in Kiribati every 10 years.
The last time I was invited was in 2013. At that time, Columban Fr. Taaremon Mataueia of Rabi, with family links to Kiribati, had just been ordained and was waiting in Fiji to take up his mission appointment in Taiwan. I invited him to come with me to Kiribati and while I lead the retreat, he caught up with members of the family he had never met before.
We went by speed boat to North Tarawa, a rough journey, to the Sychar Retreat Center, named after the well of Jacob. This was where Jesus met the woman of Samaria. This had been a deserted island, a reputed place of suicide and was believed to be haunted. The Diocese owned the land and the late Bishop Elect Dr. Koru Tito had a dream of building a retreat center here. He asked the Charismatic Community of Kiribati of which he was the Chaplain to take on the project. They transformed it into a tiny city of prayer. Alas, Dr. Tito did not live either to be consecrated or to see his dream come true.
This was the first major retreat at the center. Three large halls, actually traditional Kiribati Maneabas, dominate the center. These are used for Mass, lectures and meals. Sleeping quarters are individual Kiakia or traditional sleeping houses. Each retreatant has his own. They are small, for sitting and sleeping in but each, thanks to solar power has its own source of light. The entire center is eco-friendly. It faces the beach, and the roar of the ocean provides a wonderful background. There are concrete blocks of toilets and showers.
The nearby villages showered us with food for every meal. A group of Charismatic people took care of the logistics and accompanied the retreat with their prayer. They were led by Mrs. Margarita Baara, the retired Kiribati Ambassador to the United States who had also overseen the building of Sychar.
We prayed about the priesthood of Jesus as the Epistle to the Hebrews presents it. Sacrificing Himself, Jesus, our true High Priest established the new Covenant, the Marriage of the Lamb. We then looked at how we all share Christ’s priesthood through our baptism. As part of the New Covenant and the wife and bride of Christ, we all share in Jesus’ priesthood. He has given us His Holy Spirit, removed our sins and given us the knowledge and love of God. Thus, we too, in Him, can sacrifice ourselves to the Father and live lives of love.
We then prayed about the sharing in Christ’s priesthood that we priests receive through our sacrament of Holy Orders, being united through our sacramental character with Jesus the eternally loving bridegroom for the service of His bride. As St. John Vianney says, priests are the love of the Heart of Jesus for His people.
Following Jesus’ example, our task is to wash the feet of His disciples. We ended by spending some time on the issue of Synodality. With the spirit of encounter, listening and discerning before acting that we learn from this, the relationship between priests and people can be enriched.
The Diocese of Kiribati has been through a rough patch with the successive deaths both of the Bishop, the Most Rev. Paul Mea, MSC and of his successor, Bishop-Elect Dr. Koru Tito. Presently the Diocese has an Apostolic Administrator, Fr. Iona Tatau, a canon lawyer and head of the tribunal.
It was Fr. Iona who invited me to lead the retreat. We had nineteen retreatants in all, most of the diocesan priests including two deacons. It was great joy for me to take on this retreat as almost all of them, including Fr. Iona were my former students. It was a wonderful experience for me to meet them all again and catch up where we left off. They didn’t mind being “back in class” with me, and we prayed well together, I think. Currently the Columbans have two seminarians from Kiribati.
The visit had an unexpected ending. On the following Monday night, I was invited — with all the priests— to a banquet in my honor by the President of Kiribati, the Honorable Taneti Mamau and the first Lady, Madame Teiraeng Mamau. In his welcoming speech the President thanked me for my service to the Kiribati priests. This whole event was unexpected and surprising. In my words of thanks, I mentioned the Irish sisters who had worked here and remembered people like Sr. Mella McCaughey of Monaghan, Ireland, who are buried here.
Please pray for Kiribati and its priests and people.
Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith lives and works in Fiji.