A Jesuit Journey to Fiji

By Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ

Three Jesuits from the USA Northeast Province—Fr. Arthur Leger, SJ, Fr. Don Maldari, SJ, and Br. Juan Ngiraibuuch, SJ—are now serving in Fiji, assigned as part of the first new international ministry of the Jesuits on the East Coast. Broadening the tradition of helping to educate and form Church leaders, Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, is professor of theology at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji. He writes about a recent visit from Fr. John Cecero, SJ, USA Northeast Province provincial, and an important journey they took part in to visit the remote village of Komave to remember a Jesuit who devoted decades of his life to creating sustainable economic opportunities for the people of that region.

Since arriving in Fiji, I have been fascinated by the way people in Oceania—the collection of Pacific islands stretching from New Zealand to Hawaii—conceive of personhood. Persons in Oceania are individuals who are essentially connected to everything: to other people, ancestors, the land, all creatures, and to God. Oceanic culture has always seen, and continues to see, God in all things. It recognizes that God charges creation with life and that God brings all creation together, ultimately in a communion of love. The Fijian word vanua expresses this communion. It means “land,” but land as a symbol that connects all life, including ancestors, people, all creation, and God.

On September 1, the three Jesuits working in Fiji, Fr. Arthur Leger, SJ, Br. Juan Ngiraibuuch, SJ, and I, together with the USA Northeast Province Provincial Fr. John Cecero, SJ, and the regional Jesuit superior in Micronesia, Fr. Thomas Benz, SJ, experienced Oceanic personhood first hand. We made a pilgrimage to the village of Komave on the southern coast of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, where we visited the tomb of American Jesuit Father Marion Ganey, who arrived in Fiji in 1953. He worked for 30 years, until his death in 1984, to establish credit unions, first in Fiji and then in neighboring Samoa and Tonga, separated from Fiji by 700 and 460 miles of ocean respectively. Even today, the mere mention of Fr. Ganey’s name brightens people’s faces here and elicits stories of how his credit unions opened the doors to improving the quality of life. Fr. Ganey’s credit unions were inspired by his faith that God calls all people together to live and work in holy communion. His faith in Christ, whose death and resurrection eliminates all barriers to communion, had lasting connections with Oceanic culture.

Pictured (L-R) is the Jesuit delegation that toured Fiji: Fr. Thomas Benz, SJ, Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, Fr. Arthur Leger, SJ, Fr. John Cecero, SJ, provincial of the USA Northeast Province, and Br. Juan Ngiraibuuch, SJ.

Holy communion is what we experienced the moment we drove into Komave. Even before we got out of our vehicle, the village elders met us for formal exchange of the most precious gifts in Fiji: the tabua (pronounced tambua)—a whale’s tooth. The exchange of the tabua was an expression of the high esteem that we had for the villagers and they had for us. They gave us official permission to enter the village. We were then led into a hall for the ceremony known as a sevusevu. This is a formal welcome ritual that consists of drinking yaqona (pronounced yangona), also known as kava, together. Yaqona is a mildly narcotic drink made from the root of the Piper methysticum plant. Drinking it is a communal ritual that connects the participants with the vanua: the land, each other, the ancestors, and God. The Mass that followed with the entire village celebrated the Christian character of our holy communion. After Mass, we gathered and prayed around the tomb of Fr. Ganey, the person who brought us together. We Jesuits then formally presented the village with gifts in a ceremony known as a boka to thank them for their care of Father Ganey. We gave them reams of fabric, bundles of vegetables and of yaqona, and last, but not least, a live pig. The village presented us with highly-valued floor mats and a tapa: hand-painted cloth made from tree bark. We joined leaders of the village for a sumptuous banquet at tables laden with the best delicacies Fiji has to offer. Finally, we all sat together to drink yaqona and to exchange stories: ours, theirs, and memories of Fr. Ganey—to bind us together even more. The day ended with a song of farewell and an assurance that we were always welcome back.

Our visit to Komave was a kind of sacrament of personhood. It brought us closer together with all members of the vanua, and I am privileged to participate in God’s work of promoting God’s kingdom through my work with seminarians from all over Oceania.

Jesuit Father Donald Maldari’s first book, The Creed: The Faith That Moves Evolution, was published in 2015 by Lectio Publishing. His second work, Christian Ministry in the Divine Milieu, will be published in December 2018 by Orbis Press in the Catholicity in an Evolving Universe series.

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