Fr Pat McCaffrey had pop star status in Labasa parish, not just among the Catholics whom he served for over 10 years but also among Hindus and Muslims. Many knew and loved him because of his friendly greetings, his constant visiting, and his untiring practical help. He was well known as a fine speaker of Hindi and was often invited to speak at functions and festivals. His commitment to interfaith dialogue as a means of promoting understanding and unity among all the people in Fiji was unwavering.
Fr Pat died of a heart attack in June 2010 – far away from Labasa and from Fiji, in Pakistan to which he had returned from Fiji 18 months previously. The people of Labasa were shocked. Many tears were shed. A large congregation attended a memorial Mass in his honor, and remembered and prayed for him.
We decided later to organize an interfaith event in his memory so that his spirit and work could continue in his first place of mission. I contacted the leaders of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in Labasa. They welcomed our proposal to bring a group of Catholics to each place of worship in turn on a Saturday to enquire about their beliefs and practices.
Walking in Prayer
So on Saturday August 8th 2010, after morning Mass a group of about 70 Catholics, young and old, set out from their church praying and singing hymns through the town. Losana with the arthritic hip needed a stick to help her along and Mrs. Nair had her grand-daughter to lean on. Some young boys vied to lead with the banner announcing the pilgrimage. A young man, Tevita, had prepared a booklet on the life and death of Fr Pat to distribute to the religious leaders we met and to the adults who walked in the pilgrimage.
Our first stop was the South Indian Sangam temple. We left our footwear at the entrance. The temple committee president and priest welcomed us. I assured them that we had all abstained from meat and fish that day, an important condition for visiting a Hindu temple.
They first explained the need for self-purification before entering this temple dedicated to Vishnu and Lakshmi. They explained the statues of the guardian gods at the door of the temple and the statues and pictures of gods and goddesses inside. The main images of Vishnu and Lakshmi dominated the central sanctuary. We listened to a small group of Hindus singing a devotional hymn with accompanying instruments.
Our hosts asked us not to sit along the main axis from the door to the sanctuary as this is believed to be a pathway for spiritual energy. Some devotees brought offerings of fruit and sweetmeats. The temple priest offered these while waving a lamp in front of the statues and chanting prescribed sacred verses. Devotees often come to the temple to ask for God’s blessing before beginning a new project.
Our group asked many questions – the significance of the cow to Hindus; why images of gods and goddesses are depicted with four arms; the financial maintenance of the temple, the main festivals celebrated in the temple, and spiritual experience of Hindus.
Before we left, our hosts invited us to enjoy the tea and sweatmeats they had prepared for us in their refectory. They explained that many poor people are fed there free each day.
A Sunni Muslim group
We then proceeded to the headquarters of the Vanua Levu Sunni Muslims, a complex of buildings valued at $3.6 million. I had heard that this was a breakaway group from the main Sunni Muslim mosque in town. The complex included rented shop and office space, a mosque and a very large hall upstairs to which we were taken.
The President of the organization and the maulana (priest), who came from India, spoke to us. They stressed that their organization is connected to organizations in India and that they refuse to have any relationship with Muslims who practice violence. They hinted that the main mosque in town is tainted by links with overseas aggressive groups. We could sense some intra-religious disagreements under the surface here.
Our group was interested in asking questions especially about the status of women in Islam but after a few queries we had to leave to continue our journey.
The Sikh hostess
We retraced our steps through the main street of the town praying and singing hymns to some bemused looks from passersby. We reached the Sikh Gurudwara (temple) at 1.00 p.m., about one hour behind schedule. The Sikh priest’s wife, deputizing for her husband who had been called away, received us warmly. She was a little nervous and had a mobile phone handy in case we needed to phone her husband with a difficult question.
Leaving our footwear outside we put on cloth headgear entering the temple as a sign of respect for the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, which sits on a central raised platform covered with cloths.
Our hostess gave a brief history of the Sikh community mentioning that there were 10 gurus (teachers). The scriptures consist mainly of teachings of the first five gurus. The tenth guru – Govind Singh, told the community that from then on the Guru Granth Sahab would be their only teacher. Thus the Sikh worship consists of prayers, devotional hymn singing and readings from the scripture with explanation of its meaning and application.
Sikhs emphasize honesty, hard work and hospitality. The men do not cut their hair but wear it in a turban. All wear an iron bracelet symbolizing their dedication to their faith and a ritual dagger to show that they are prepared to defend their truth with their lives.
After reading from the Guru Granth Sahab, our hostess treated us all to some sweetmeats which she had prepared before our coming. She assured us that she would be welcome to their weekly Sunday worship.
We then repaired to our own church compound nearby to eat a vegetarian lunch and we discussed what we had experienced that morning. After lunch we assembled in the church to remember Fr Pat McCaffrey in prayer. We reiterated the purpose of our pilgrimage – to understand and respect other religions and to learn from their devotion so as to practice our Catholic Christianity more zealously.
The Guru led temple
We then set out for another South Indian Hindu temple. Unlike the committee-run Sangam temple, this temple is governed by Rajesh, a guru, aided by his priests and disciples much as a Catholic parish is led by a Parish priest and a parish council. As we arrived we met some poor people coming out of the temple with rations of rice and food.
The guru explained that this temple is dedicated to the mother goddess, worshipped under various names and forms – Durga, Kali, Shakti etc. Images of the planets are also propitiated by devotees so as to reduce the evil influences they might have on their lives.
The guru explained that Hindus believe that the sound of bells ringing and of drums being beaten, together with the smell of incense, the waving of lights and the chanting of mantras all combine to produce divine energy.
He said that Hindus should visit a temple once a week to pray and ask for God’s blessing but are free to fast and abstain from meat, on whichever day suits them to attend. He explained that the red mark on his forehead was to help focus his mind on prayer. He illustrated the cosmic holism of Hinduism by explaining how every thing that contributes to human life is worshipped and held sacred – water, soil, trees, plants and animals.
I asked how he became a priest and guru. He was a young teacher of Tamil language when a visiting guru asked if he would like to be a priest. He said yes enthusiastically. He was then sent to south India for training and was accepted by the guru as a disciple. On his return to Fiji, Rajesh served as a priest for 12 years in the Labasa Sangam temple. His wife often complained bitterly to him because his stipend was hardly enough to live on. But Rajesh urged her to believe in God.
Because of differences among the Sangam committee members Rajesh thought of returning to his city of Lautoka. His guru told him not to desert his disciples but to set up a temple of his own. Rajesh consulted his disciples, got the support of some Hindu business people in Labasa and built the temple 6 years ago.
After more sweetmeats, we Catholics then dispersed to find our various ways home. The pilgrims were happy and inspired by the devotion of our non-Christian believers. Some said that they would recount their experiences to others in their prayer meetings. We felt that we had continued the work of Fr Pat McCaffrey in a way he would have approved.
We now hope to follow up by inviting leaders from these religions, on the occasion of their major festivals, to speak to our congregations after Sunday mass. We will also liaise with them on how together we can serve the poor, something we clearly have in common.