Federation Meeting of the Catholics Bishops Conference of Oceania - August 2006
Statement Released: Monday, August 28, 2006
Fifty years ago as a reserve for the Nudgee First 15 I departed the Brisbane Exhibition Oval as the Fijian Rugby Union Team prepared to play Queensland. As our two teams stood beside each other on the sidelines for the National Anthem I was amazed by the size of the Fijians, but even more amazed later by their exciting style of Rugby, especially the sheer brilliance of one of their wingers, Joe Levula. Destined later to become the Australian Men’s Sprint Champion, his speed and size made him almost unstoppable when in full flight. Only recently when I ventured for the first time to Fiji for the Meeting of the Federation Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania did I realise that the Fijians are not only big in size but big also in heart and spirit. The meeting of the Bishops proved an eye opener for all of us, not so much for the discussions that took place on the floor of the meeting, important as they were, nor for the great sense of fellowship that developed among the gathered Bishops, but rather for the impact of Fijian hospitality and friendliness upon all who were there, and by the sheer quality of the Fijian Liturgy enhanced by its remarkable sense of communion, its profound devotion, and the quality of its singing and liturgical dance. Even the Offertory Processions were works of art accompanied by the most beautiful music and the most graceful liturgical movement. Filled with the very deepest devotion people brought the bread and wine forward to the celebrant, always accompanied by singing and often with dancing. The dignity and beauty of this liturgy melds easily with the dignity and beauty of the official welcoming ceremonies attended by government officers and local ambassadors. But Fijians do not merely celebrate communion in liturgy but live it out in their daily lives. Almost every person whom you pass on the street acknowledges you with a greeting, a practice followed also by the male and female staff at the motel where we stayed. It is one thing to discuss “communion” theologically, it another thing to live it out in one’s daily life, and in this regard the Fijians could teach us a great deal, as I imagine could many other people of Oceania. The slightest temptation of religious superiority evaporates quickly after contact with the simplicity and goodness of Fijian culture, whether it is expressed by people waiting quietly in a long line to individually farewell Bishops after Mass, whether by their waving farewell to the tune of their beautifully harmonised singing, or whether by spending weeks beforehand preparing for their visitors, producing leis, shell necklaces, and plaited bags, it all speaks of goodness and communion. Our host, Archbishop Pietero Mataca, is very proud of his people and rightly so. Most Bishops would probably agree that it was the people of Fiji who had the greatest impact on all of us during the week of the conference. The other Bishops of Oceania also impressed the Australians, as we heard how they grappled with problems of isolation, global warming, secularisation, globalisation, and sometimes violence, at the same time ministering to their flocks often dispersed across huge areas of empty ocean. They were an inspiration to us as were the missionaries who had gone before them planting the faith, sometimes even sacrificing their lives in the process.
Discussions at the meeting ranged broadly across a variety of issues as we compared our different responses to “Ecclesia in Oceania”, the post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. The Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islander Conference impressed and inspired us all when we heard of their general assembly where they shaped a national pastoral plan with its attractive theme of “Live as a Church Alive in Christ.” Evangelisation was the major focus of our discussion and all acknowledged the enormous potential of the World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008 as a vehicle for deepening the faith of our region. The World Youth Day has aroused enormous interest in Oceania and it is hoped that Australians can financially assist many young people of this area to come to Australia in 2008. I hope that the Archdiocese of Brisbane will be generous in assisting young people to experience the grace and excitement of a World Youth Day as many lucky young Australians have done before them. Oceania is a unique region of the church that we too often take for granted. Our meeting at Fiji convinced us that it has much to offer the world. In this its 400th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in Oceania, we of the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit should feel compelled to ask the Holy Spirit to fill the richly diverse people of this beautiful area of God’s creation, including Australia, with the very deepest love of Jesus Christ and his mission.
The meeting was superbly organised and chaired by Bishop Dennis Browne of Hamilton New Zealand and his place will now be taken by Bishop Peter Ingham of Wollongong, Australia. Our Australian Church can learn much from the Catholic Christians of Oceania and I hope our contact with them will be maintained and deepened into the future for our mutual benefit and the greater glory of God.
Archbishop John Bathersby
Released by Catholic Communications Office