I, and the Columbans, are in our last month of ministry in Ba, Fiji, before we hand over the parish to the Archdiocese of Suva. As the ‘last standing’ Columban here for the past 2 ½ years, it has been a rich experience indeed of ministry to predominantly itaukei (indigenous Fijian) Catholics in their homes and villages. The parish stretches a couple of hours in each direction on pot-holed roads, and in the wet season, transport and ministry often come to a stop as parishioners deal with flooding. Strangely though, some of my most relaxing, and stimulating, moments in those years have occurred, not during my ministry or sacraments to Catholics, but in friendships and informal interfaith encounters I have with the Hindu community which surround us.
If I am free on Tuesday evenings, I have a standing invite to the local Ramayan Mandali (Hindu prayer group) which meets in a small shed or members’ houses, all of which are in walking distance from the Church. I sit through the pundit’s recitation of the Ramayan and/or Bhagavad Gita, interspersed with lively singing, and also gestures such as aarti (waving of a flame) or anointing of statues with sindur.
When the formal prayers have finished and we have all shared prasad (Indian delicacies), then the men get down in earnest to singing devotional songs while drinking kava. This is the part I enjoy most; the music is lively, I am given a small cymbal or drum to clang, there is banter in between the songs, and I am invariably invited to sing one or two Christian bhajans, which are appreciated greatly by the Hindu members. They tell me that Catholic bhajans are unlike most other Christian Indian music – ours have an authentic Indian ‘sound’ and raag (rythym).
Friendships made in this mandali were very useful to me in my time in Ba, particularly in the time of COVID lockdowns.
- Having a direct line to the Ba Police Station Chief (a member) came in useful when we had a number of break-ins;
- The Principal of Ba Sangam College (another member) often asked my help to try to get students’ worksheets onto buses that were going to far-flung villages (I admired his beyond-pay dedication to our rural young people). We also shared flood evacuees on our premises a number of times.
- The Principal of Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) College, on 3 separate occasions, asked me to “exorcise” what he feared to be evil spirits in a number of Catholic students. He figured, I being their priest, would be the best equipped for that.
- In one case, the girl, having calmed down on seeing me in a stole, had had no breakfast and was simply nervous about her exams;
- another young lady, quietening on being blessed with holy water, shared privately that she was being badly bullied by an uncle;
- a third was very distressed, and I do remember feeling something ‘sinister’ around. We all waited until relatives came to collect her and I recommended a lot of prayer and counselling.
I was honoured that Master Singh in each case reached out to me to help. I found it important to remove the writhing and crying young ladies from public sight, to a more private sick bay or classroom situation, where we could “talk”.
I brought my parish Mandali group to visit their Hindu counterparts and take part in prayers during the Ram Naumi feast, and also invited them to our 2022 Dharm Samellan (National Hindi-speaking Catholic Gathering), where they sang some Hindu songs – the first time such an interfaith invitation had been offered in the 25 years or so of Samellans in Fiji.
I will miss these men. Unlike my parishioners, they never asked me endless questions about why-this-and-why-that in the parish or the Archdiocese, and accepted me for who I was – “Pat”, not “Father Pat” (though they used my title).
I have witnessed that God uses friendships and gestures of help and cooperation to help grow the mustard seed of the Kingdom. With this aspect of life in Ba, my ministry and conversations could have become confined to Catholics only, and I – and the parishioners too – would have been the poorer for it.