My dear brethren,
I have just returned from spending a month at our Mission in Fiji and I felt that you would like to be informed of my experiences there. . . .
Saturday 25 August began what was undoubtedly the highlight of my visit to the Fiji Islands. . .a trip to Rotuma.
This island is situated about 450 km to the north of Fiji, completely isolated and far from any other inhabited island. Ships seldom visit and only light aircraft can land there. One of our priests, Father Trauner from New Zealand, made a visit just a few months ago and celebrated the first Traditional Mass in Rotuma since 1970. . . . There are no hotels, only makeshift shops and tourists rarely go there. The place is just about as remote as anywhere can be nowadays and so it was surprising to learn that there is a group of Catholics there who wish to have the Traditional Mass. The day after our arrival was Sunday, and I celebrated Mass for about fifty people, many of them children, and made a couple of sick calls.
Rotuma, of course, has no written history until the nineteenth century, but it would seem that -- quite amazingly for such a small island -- the people in the different localities spent much of their time having wars with each other! The last of these was a religious war which took place in 1878. The Methodists were the first to evangelise the island and the Catholic Missionaries arrived at a later date. The former then attacked the latter and several people were killed.
After this, in an attempt to help themselves solve all of their disputes, the Rotuman chiefs offered the island to Queen Victoria. However, as it was considered to be too small to be administered as a separate colony, it was attached to Fiji. So it has remained to this day although the Rotumans are a different race with a separate language and social customs from the Fijians.
For a long time our hosts have been disaffected with the way the Church has been going and the last straw came ten years ago when it was decided to adopt the Protestant terminology of Atua for God and Jesu for Jesus instead of the Catholic terms of Aitu and Jisu.
Although apparently a trivial change in itself, this symbolised a betrayal
of their great-grandfathers who had died for the Faith, and the group
of about fifty people resolved never to attend the New Mass again. [Note: Fr Black is incorrect here; the Catholics have traditionally used 'Atua and Jesu, the Methodists 'Aitu and Jisu.]
Consequently, in lieu thereof, they would meet in the village church and recite the Rosary and other prayers. This situation was tolerated until Father Trauner arrived and then the Parish Priest called one of the three policemen on the island to the church in order to forbid them entrance.
There are a few Catholic churches in Rotuma, but only one priest. The church from which our group has been excluded is the principal place of worship where the priest resides. I was surprised to find such a lovely building in this remote place. The Mission was founded by French priests who had the church built in the late nineteenth century. It was, of course, constructed with native labour but completely resembles a French village church of the period, including a tower with a clock and bells, stained glass windows and marble altars all imported from France at what must have been tremendous trouble and expense. The church stands overlooking a beautiful bay, surrounded by palm trees. The picture is charming but the church and school buildings are sadly neglected and it would seem that no repairs of any sort have been done to the buildings since the European priests left about fifty years ago.
Our few days in Rotuma passed quickly; spent in much talk about the state of the church and what could practically be done to help these souls literally stranded in the middle of the ocean! Every day they assisted at Mass with great devotion. Three of the children made their First Holy Communion. We were honoured by the Mamasa ceremony whereby, seated on apei of mats and garlanded with trefui, [sic] we
had our heads anointed with coconut oil. This is meant to signify
that the new arrival is cleansed from bad foreign influences and
can then be allowed to travel over the island freely. A banquet
is then held with meal cooked in a koue i.e. the meal is placed on heated stones, covered in with leaves and buried in the ground for a couple of hours. The result is delicious!
However, in spite of the Mamasa ceremony, and in spite of the fact that the island is so isolated, with the people living simple lives of subsistence with few material comforts, no television or newspapers, a plane a week from Fiji with a handful of passengers and a weekly boat which may or not arrive with a few simple supplies of special delicacies such as cans of corned beef (considered a treat from the exquisitely delicious natural fruits, fish and meat which is their staple died), evil foreign influences are entering into Rotuma. The electric generator does make it possible for the youth to listen to pop music and the others to watch videos with the inevitable consequences. Although the population is only two thousand, many people, of course, leave Rotuma in search of a 'better' life elsewhere so that most of the people born in the island now live outside of it. They, of course, remain in close contact with their families who are left behind, so this remote island community is more in touch with the outside world and its evils than appears at first sight, and a generation gap is beginning to emerge.
All that we can hope to do at present is to send a priest to visit Rotuma two or three times a year. Obviously the people there, living in a subsistence economy, have no money to pay for these trips which are inevitably very expensive. If any generous soul would like to help defray the cost of ministering to these worthy people, he may send a donation to me. In the meantime, they will continue to say the Rosary and read the Mass prayers each Sunday. . . .
With every good wish and blessing.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
- Father Edward Black, Superior
- Sydney, 22nd September 2001