My weekly tonic

Columban priest Pat Colgan shares how his ministry in Ba, Fiji, is all the richer for the interfaith connections he has made with members of the Hindu community.

Ramayan Mandali group in Ba. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan.

Ramayan Mandali group in Ba. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan.

The Columbans and I 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 two-and-a-half years, it has been a rich experience 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. In the wet season, transport and ministry often come to a stop as parishioners deal with flooding. Strangely, some of my most relaxing and stimulating moments in those years have occurred not during my ministry or sacraments to Catholics but in my friendships and informal interfaith encounters with the Hindu community surrounding 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 within walking distance from the church. I sit through the pundit’s recitation of the Ramayan and Bhagavad Gita, interspersed with lively singing and gestures such as aarti (waving of a flame) or anointing of statues with sindur.  

Fr Pat singing Catholic bhajans at Ramayan Mandali group. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan.

Fr Pat singing Catholic bhajans at Ramayan Mandali group. Photo: Fr Pat Colgan.

When the formal prayers have finished, and we have all shared prasad (Indian delicacies), 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 between the songs, and I am invariably invited to sing one or two Christian bhajans, which the Hindu members significantly appreciate. They tell me that Catholic bhajans are unlike most other Christian Indian music – ours have an authentic Indian ‘sound’ and rhythm (raag).  

Friendships made in this mandali were very useful to me during my time in Ba, particularly during the COVID lockdowns. Having a direct line to the Ba Police Station Chief (a member) came in useful when we had several break-ins; the Principal of Ba Sangam College (another member) often asked my help get students’ worksheets onto buses headed for far-flung villages (I admired his dedication to our rural young people). We also housed flood evacuees on our premises several times. 

On three separate occasions, the principal of Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College asked me to “exorcise” what he feared to be evil spirits in a number of the Catholic students. The principal figured I would be best equipped for that as their priest. In one case, the girl, having calmed down on seeing me in a stole, had not eaten breakfast and was simply nervous about her exams; another young lady, quietening on being blessed with holy water, shared privately that an uncle was badly bullying her; a third was very distressed, and I do remember feeling something ‘sinister’ about it. We all waited until relatives came to collect her, and I recommended a lot of prayer and counselling. I was honoured that Master Singh 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, 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. I 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. They 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.

Columban Fr Pat Colgan lives and works in Fiji.

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