Mystery Worshipper: AMB
Church: St Francis Xavier
Location: Ra Province, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 March 2012, 10:30am
A very imposing mission church built by local people and French missionaries, completed in 1917. The missionaries had settled in the Ra Province in the late 1880s. The church has a Greek cross plan with lancet and roundel windows in each facade. It is constructed of locally quarried grey stone and sits atop a hill with a commanding view to the north overlooking Bligh Water. Rather haunting, one would imagine, on a dark day in the rain. The church is known locally as the church of the Black Christ due to the depiction of a Fijian-looking Christ figure in the mural above the altar. The motto of the church incised above the principal entrance is Venite ad me omnes (Come to me, all of you).
The church community is drawn from all over this part of Ra Province. I was told that people come down from the hills above the church to attend mass. There is a primary school and medical clinic nearby and so one has a sense of a complete community. Everyone was wearing Sunday best: the men in shirts, ties and dark sulus, and the women in sulus and jumbas (long skirts and tops) in vibrant floral patterns and colours.
The drive up to the church from the main road can at best be described as a goat track and is impassable when wet. Fortunately, the rain had stopped earlier in the morning. The northern coastal region of Viti Levu island is very pretty, with steep hills running down to the water’s edge and cane fields dotted all over the place.
The Revd Petero Mataca (nephew of the current Archbishop of Suva, the Most Revd Petero Mataca).
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. When I parked the car near the church, a number of locals, young and old, came up to me and welcomed me. They were very friendly and asked me if I was attending the service and where I lived.
Was your pew comfortable?
There is one pew in the church against the inner wall of the south transept. There was a rather large nun stationed at one end and she gestured to me to sit next to her. I did the local thing and sat on the floor (covered in hand woven pandanus mats) until my knees could take it no longer and I took up the nun's offer of the pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a quite a bit of singing before the service commenced, and then ten minutes before it started there was reverential silence. Surprising really, given the number of children in the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (in Fijian).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books used during the service. Everyone said the mass responses and sang by heart.
What musical instruments were played?
There were an electric keyboard and a guitar supporting the singing – not that it needed supporting; it was beautiful just by itself.
Did anything distract you?
There were several distractions: the hideous chasuble Father Petero was wearing – a sort of mean satin in purple (colour of the season); the bad condition of the building (in much need of refurbishment); and a young mother breastfeeding her baby son in front of me on and off throughout the mass.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I would describe it as modern Catholic (i.e. Post Vatican II) with a dash of Pacific inculturation. For example, at the end of the offertory procession the bearers of the gifts sat down in front of the priest and made a cobo (pronounced thombo), a traditional "thank you" associated with kava ceremonies.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I gave the priest a score of 8 as he sounded quite convincing even though I couldn't understand a word.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Unfortunately my Fijian is almost non existent and therefore I sat listening without following what was said. It was engaging all the same.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Looking at the murals on the north and south transept and around the sanctuary. This is one of the most beautiful religious artworks I have seen anywhere in the world. It was painted in 1961-63 by French artist Jean Charlot. Throughout the mural Charlot used local plants, flowers and symbols. The Christ figure dressed in a traditional masi cloth is dark-skinned, and making homage to him are a Fijian male figure on one side and an Indian woman on the other, representing the two cultures of Fiji. The image of St Peter Chanel, a French missionary martyred in the Pacific in the 19th century, reminds the worshippers of the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in the Pacific, while the image of Archbishop Petero Mataca attended by a young Fijian altar server symbolises the Church today – rooted in Fijian custom and culture. I have seen this mural several times and I still find something new each time I look at it. Remarkably, given the climatic conditions, the mural is still in good condition.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The amount of bird poo sitting on the rafters was off-putting and seemed a rather ominous threat hanging over my head. Mind you, the roof structure is an impressive piece of timber architecture in its own right – pity about the birds.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
More locals came up and introduced themselves with a handshake. Everyone showed a rather endearing inquisitiveness.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after-service coffee, or kava for that matter.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It was an interesting mix of European ritual and indigenous colour, sound and imagery.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes indeed. The service, Lent notwithstanding, was joyous and lively and was an example of the universality of the Catholic faith.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The image of the Hindu woman in the mural presenting the Christ figure with a garland. I hadn't noticed that in detail last time I looked at the mural.