The Fijian Catholic community

by Guest Contributor

Fr. Pat Colgan was ordained in 1994 in Belfast, Ireland. He is the parish priest of Christ the King in Ba, Fiji. He explains about the Fijian Catholic community here in Britain and introduces us to three Fijian men who have strong ties to the Columbans.

As Fijian soldiers continued to join the British Military, an idea was born to form a ‘Fiji Catholics’ group in the UK. With the blessing of visiting Vincentian priest, Fr Tuimavule, the community was formed in 2010 to encourage, deepen, and care for each other’s spiritual needs, and to provide support for our families back home in Fiji.

The community was divided into different sectors mainly where the Military camps are geographically located, but also dependent on movement of families as well as progression of soldiers throughout their careers. The current President is Mr Isaac Fong, and a committee who oversee the organisation and  planning of any Masses, meetings, gatherings or financial matters. Before Covid 19, the group were meeting quarterly; three times for the celebration of Mass, and once for a children’s’ sports day/fundraising event usually during the school summer holidays.

The community have been generously involved in ongoing projects in Fiji; helping Parishes, schools and villages as well as requests from charity organisations. They participate in the Armed Forces Christian Union (AFCU) prayer meetings, as well as inter faith dialogue and charity.

Military Pilgrimages, and deployments overseas introduce them to the local parishes, and a small number who emerged from Columban Parishes in Fiji have sought to be more involved with the Columbans in Britain, like Jone Caniogo.

Fr Pat says of Jone: “I have known Jone since he was a young boy. He served Mass at my first Fijian parish of Labasa. His father, Ratu (‘Sir’) Emosi Caniogo was both Lord Mayor of Labasa and Chair of our Parish Council. Jone’s third name is Patrick, after Fr Pat McCaffrey (buried in Pakistan, from Co.  Fermanagh) who both received Ratu into the Church and baptised Jone.

“Our paths diverged until I met him again in England, where he is serving, along with about 1300 Fijians in the British Army.  I asked him, and the Fijian UK Catholic community, to help me with mission appeals in some of the English dioceses. I am not familiar with the roads – so they drove- and I felt British congregations might appreciate the gusto of a Fijian choir – which they did!”

Jone and others have been regular visitors to the Columbans’ British headquarters at Solihull, where he picks up magazines to sell among his colleagues, and had COVID not intervened, were planning to build tents for a  summer  jamboree on the grounds.

On his visits back to Fiji, Jone never fails to visit the Columban houses and parishes. He says of the Columbans, “I feel the Columbans have always been a part of me. Their missionary work has impacted greatly our daily lives. Through this, I reach out and invite others to become part of this journey.” He adds, “I am a proud member of the Fijian Catholic community here in Britain. Since the national lockdown we have mainly been organising talks, prayer meetings, and discussions online but these have also been sporadic due to the nature of our Military work. We are a young community which continues to grow and learn. Our members come and go since military dynamics shift and families move away from military life. Our challenges can sometimes be slightly unfamiliar or obscure, again due to the very nature of the work we do. We are hopeful, and trust that the Lord will strengthen us to propel us forward in 2021.”

Another strong UK-Fiji link is that of John Lee, whose brother Fr. William, is the Columban Vocation Director in Fiji, having served 8 years in Peru. John, previously in the British Army, is now a licenced psychologist, dealing particularly with veterans, Fijians and others, dealing with the PTSD of war duties. John says of his Columban family connection: “I knew about the Columbans through my parents and was surrounded by them in school and in Labasa Parish. I found it very interesting how they operate, crossing boundaries of country, language and culture. This empowered me in my new life in England to remain faithful and build maturity in myself.”

John Lee (front left) and Jone Caniogo (front right) with other Fijian Catholic soldiers at an intercultural Mass in Britain.

A ‘reverse’ situation is that of Saimone Ratu. Saimone is from Ba, came to know the Columbans through his father (a police officer) while they were stationed near the Columban House in Suva,  joined the British Army from 2001-2015, and is presently a Close Protection Officer, normally in the Middle East, but presently back in Ba because of COVID restrictions. Having been stationed in Worminster Barracks, very close to Fr Paul Tierney’s home town of Bath, it was appropriate that Paul, as Parish Priest, of Ba, celebrate Saimone’s wedding. While waiting to return to England, Sai volunteers at the parish, in our cane farm and other heavy work. When asked what he likes about the Columbans, he says, ‘I’ve known them since I was a boy.” They are very down to earth and helpful’.

The UK-Fiji-Columban link does indeed seem alive and growing!