Sr. Maura Hennessy, SM
In 1962, I responded to a call to go on mission to Fiji, a small group of islands in the Pacific. This entailed a four-week journey by boat, and some years in New Zealand and Australia, before I finally reached my desired destination – Fiji. In hindsight these years were good for breaking ground in transition from the Irish monoculture to the multicultural society I encountered in Fiji. In my anticipation to finally set foot on Fijian soil I remember how full of youthful zeal I was to bring my catholic heritage to the people.
However, after the initial culture shock I became acutely aware that I lacked basic preparation for this mission. So much was new to me – the climate, food, transport or lack of it, language and traditional customs and dress peculiar to each of the different races. The indigenous race, Fijian, live in villages where family and community bonds are very strong and deeply rooted in a chiefly system. At that time less than half the population was Indian – initially indentured labourers brought in from India to work in the sugar cane industry.
My initial challenge was to try to grasp the nature of these two very different cultures, each with its particular faith, culture and language. The Fijians were predominantly Christian (the majority being Methodist) while the Indians were mostly Hindus and Muslims with a very small number of Christians.
As a teacher in a Catholic school I was involved with the teachers and pupils of the various cultures and faiths. After Vatican II we missionaries became more aware of the truth, richness and beauty of other faiths and were re-educated in intercultural and interfaith dialogue pioneered by the missionary priests who lived there. With the introduction and the use of the vernacular and the appropriate native customs that were introduced into the liturgy, the Eucharistic celebration became more meaningful and graceful. It also enabled each culture to participate more fully by expressing their faith in their own native song and dance.
Communal celebrations, song and dance are very much part of the social life of the people of Fiji. Rituals are also very important to each culture as is evident on occasions such as births, marriages and deaths, as well as the welcoming of a newcomer into the community. Farewells including gratitude and reconciliation are also expressed in a meaningful way through ritual. Over the years I grew in appreciation of the richness and beauty, the goodness and values embedded in each culture. This in turn highlighted for me the wealth I had inherited from my own culture.
Despite the fact that I made mistakes and at times I lacked appreciation of their culture, I always felt welcomed, accepted and one of themselves. I am grateful for thirty three years among the beautiful people of Fiji. This experience has broadened my vision of the world and its peoples. It has opened me to different ways of seeing and appreciating the truth and the beauty inherent in each culture as well as recognizing its weaknesses and need of redemption. I feel connected to something much bigger and wider than if I had never left my native land. My experience is helping me to connect with those who have come to find a home in our land, Ireland. In this way I feel I am more aware of belonging to the universal church.