Prophetic Dialogue With Cultures and Religions in Fiji: A Pastoral Imperative

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 1 »Prophetic Dialogue With Cultures And Religions In Fiji A Pastoral Imperative

By Timoci Kolodisi

Timoci Kolodisi is a diocesan priest from the archdiocese of Suva, Fiji Islands. He earned a BD in Theology at the Pacific Regional Seminary, Suva, and an MA in Pastoral Ministry from the Ateneo de Manila University, QC, Philippines.  From 1994-2006 he served as a trainer of catechists in the Catechists’ Training Center, Suva. His trainees included Fijians, Rotumans, and other Pacific Islanders. In his pastoral ministry he serves a community of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.




Fiji, strategically positioned in the Western Pacific, is made up of 323 islands, 100 of which are inhabited. It has a total land area of 18,333 sq km. There are two major islands: Viti Levu (10,429 sq km) and Vanua Levu (5,556 sq km). The other main islands are Taveuni (470 sq km), Kadavu (411 sq km), Gau (140 sq km), and Koro (104 sq km). The Eastern parts of the main islands are wet and predominantly covered with lush rainforest, while the Western parts are generally dry (Khan and Barr 2003:9).

The demographic makeup is mixed, with a total population of 775,077 according to the 1996 estimate. The ethnic groupings of the 1996 census stand as follows: Fijians1 (393,575), Indo-Fijians (338,818), Part-Europeans (11,685), Europeans (3,103), Rotumans (9,727), Chinese (4,939), other Pacific Islanders (10,463), and others (2,767). Population density of this same year was estimated to be 42.2 per sq km (Khan and Barr, 9).

Socio-Cultural and Political Landscape

The beginning of the 20th century marked the arrival in Fiji of traders, missionaries, and colonizers putting it through many transitional phases in its socio-cultural and political sphere. As Khan and Barr stated in their study: "A rich, complex, vigorous, and highly organized traditional society was transformed into a colonial, Christianized, and educated state" (ibid.). Fiji was a British colony until independence was gained on the 10th of October 1970. Post- independent Fiji saw a nation struggling to find its identity in a fast changing world of market oriented economies. From 1970 to 1987 the Alliance party "whose members were predominantly the chiefs and the elite from ethnic groups" (Rao et al. 2000:7) ruled Fiji. The party was politically affronted with ambiguous ideologies of holding on to the traditional way of Fijians, and at the same time preaching about multiculturalism. Their vision for Fiji was "Peace, Progress, and Prosperity." However, the fact was that without the correspondence between the empirical reality of our ecological experiences and challenges, the vision could be simply a futile exercise in idealism.

The events of the military coup in 1987, and the attempted civilian coup of 2000 brought to the fore unresolved issues that were suppressed under the guise of multi-cultural and multiracial idealism of the Alliance era. According to an analysis by Rao, Barr, and Casimira of the Ecumenical Center for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA),2 the most obvious was the tensions that existed as contradictions between protection of distinct ethnic identities, and the desire to create a unified national identity. Each ethnic identity became a contentious issue, especially in relation to the question of how far an ethnic boundary must extend and the legitimacy of claims over territories, resources, and cultural symbols, as perceived in the imagination of the people (Rao et al., 7). Furthermore, the "multi-cultural and multi-religious differences between Fijians (51%) and Indo Fijians (43%)" was tested in their opposing polarities during the times of the crisis (Ratuva 2002:18). The Indo Fijians advocated developments in the areas of education, commerce, and industries, while the Fijians held on to communal rule to consolidate their stance of "protecting indigenous rights" (Durutalo 1986:2).

Towards the end of the 20th century the events at the local scene, the effects of world events, and the effects of globalization brought about a down-spiraling trend in the psycho-social and moral consciousness of the people in Fiji. There is a marked increase in violence, especially domestic violence, and social violence in the form of robbery, rape, incest, and murder. There is an increase in teenage pregnancies and a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. The Police Crime statistics of 1996-2000 showed that:

50-53 % of the offenders are between the age 17-24
Most of the offenders are male 82-89%
Fijians represent most of the offenders
A large percentage of the crimes were committed under the influence of liquor—about 33%.
Almost 2/3 of the offenders are unemployed
Offenses are against the person (including assault, intent to cause bodily harm, manslaughter, murder)
Between 1999 and 2000 about 42-43% of drug offenses were committed by youth between 17-24 years3

The undercurrents shown through the instability of people in their situations are realities that should become the concerns of mission. This means that the Church must dialogue with the situations that are part and parcel of the people’s daily lives. The Church mission must not just seek to identify the subtleties at the psychological level and at the social level, but also focus on the basis of religious beliefs and values.

The psychological level focuses on the mind-set of the masses in their individual interpretations of the changes that are being experienced. An obvious result is the realization of being bereft of the goods of development, that in reality is seen to be enjoyed by a few powerful people. The post 1987 coup period saw the "tenure of power, policies of affirmative action for Fijians put in place, which by and large resulted in rich and elite Fijians (and their Indo Fijian counterparts) getting richer, and the others remain the same."4 The questions asked are: Why are there no jobs? Why can’t I have a good house? Why is there no clean water? Why no electricity in our village, or why can’t I obtain a scholarship? Why are we so poor? The consciousness of being marginalized, of being overlooked, and worst of all being abused sets in. The inequality and inequity far surmounts all. The consequences are seen through the increase in societal ills, such as crimes, robbery, and lawlessness because of the straggling noose of impoverishment caused by a complex system of control over the people.

Herein lies the challenge for the Church carrying out its prophetic role in society, "to seek justice, stand up against poverty, corruption and inequality, and to speak for the poor" (Khan and Barr, 39).

Religious Affiliations in Fiji

The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural aspect of the Fiji populace naturally indicates that it is also multi-religious. To give a picture of its religious character would mean stating the varied forms of affiliations that are part of its history. The relationship between cultures and religions has helped in shaping the perceptions and norms of the different groups, thus making it a complex socio-cultural milieu. The following table shows how religion is a major component in the construction of identity of the Fiji scene. 

Table 1. Religious Affiliation by Ethnicity, Fiji Population, 1996
















Other Christians

























Source: Bureau of Statistics (Unpublished 1996 National Census Figures)

Christianity and Hinduism are the two major religions, and they have a strong influence over the people. The dominant Christian denomination is the Methodist Church with a membership of about 33% of the population. The Catholic Church represents around 9%. Hinduism accounts for about 34% and Islam for about 7% (Khan and Barr, 23). Only 4% of the Indo-Fijian population embraced Christianity. Most Fijians are Christians while most Indo Fijians are either Hindus or Muslims (Ratuva 2001:23). Realities of ethnicity and religious differences challenge the Church to such responses as inculturation and inter-religious dialogue. For some, these are still "new" concepts in terms of the evangelizing task of the Church because of the overbearing marks of missionary-day’s sentiments about the meaning of Christianity: Faith is about believing in God and following the rules and regulations as stipulated by the Church. Anything more is not about my religion or my church. The self-centeredness of the practice of that faith limits one’s vision about the role of the Church in his/her society and community. Church as a place of the experience of the faith it teaches is, thus, limited in its character and nature.

In the past, the reality of ethnicity and religious differences have been utilized to further divisions rather than accept the differences to build understanding. In politicizing the differences, they have often been used to further the racial divide rather than cultivate a culture of understanding and help bridge the gap between the communities. Understanding and sharing each other’s views and values would help clear away prejudices and misunderstanding of each other. The tensions and polarities of the Indo-Fijians who are mostly Hindus and Fijians who are predominantly Christians are realities of the two groups that are different culturally; the cultural and religious symbols (their values) of Indo-Fijians and Fijians are worlds apart in some aspects. For example, culturally the Indo-Fijian’s way of honoring a guest is through the performing of the aarti (the waving of the camphor light over the forehead of the guest). This is done without words and usually performed by women. The Fijians on the other hand would perform an elaborate yagona5 ceremony which is usually done by men, with the community behind the performers of the ceremony. It is full of speeches, by the performers on behalf of the community, and the spokesperson of the guest or guests on their behalf.

The religious symbols such as the cow for the Indo-Fijians must be understood as such by the Fijians. For the Fijians, cows are merely a source of food; therefore, this differentiation in its values must be understood and respected from both sides. After the political upheavals in Fiji in 1987 and 2000, there were instances of temple desecration, mostly of Hindus. This showed starkly the ignorance of the people to the religious symbols of others, and lack of understanding about the meaning of religion.

Historical Overview

The Land

The land is of central issue in any country, especially if it has an agricultural-based economy. Fiji is a small island state that relies very much on its agricultural economy. However, in the past, land was mostly regarded in its cultural and traditional purposes. Sitiveni Halapua, a Pacific economist has this to say about the land:

In Fiji, as in many other Pacific island communities, ‘land’ has two main rules of meaning and significance; a ‘soil’ or ‘resource’ from which our basic means of survival can derive; and ancestral common identity vanua which is embedded in the land and sustained by culture. The former allows us to talk about the rules of efficiency and productivity of "what we do" with the ‘land’ to grow and distribute wealth, whereas, the latter speaks about the rules of "what we are" and "how we have become" that we share in the ‘land’ to minimize conflict and maintain social cohesion (Halapua 2005).

Traditionally ‘land’ was regarded as a symbol that united Fijians to their identification with place or origin. But the arrival of Europeans spelt the beginning of the use of the resources in Fiji for commercial purposes, especially the land. Its meaning and significance began to evolve around its commercial purposes, and it brought with it tensions between the major players, that is the planters, traders, and government, with the chiefs and the people as well. Before Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874, 10% of the most valuable land was negotiated for by the settler immigrants, mostly Europeans (Tuwere 2002:19). Of the total land that remains 83% is owned on a communal basis by over 5,280 Fijian landowning units calledmataqali.6 Most of the land however, is remote, mountainous, infertile, and of low value (Tuwere, 19). In 1940, the Native Land Trust Board was set up to help administer native land which was now being leased out to Indians who were brought in by the British to work in the sugar cane fields.

The People

The demography of Fiji is mixed with a total of 13 different ethnic groups. They are classified as Fijians in a political sense for national identity but culturally, and some religiously are distinct as individual groups. Fijians, the first dwellers of the islands make up 51%, Indians, a transplanted race 43%, Rotumans, Samoans, Tuvaluans, Tongans, Walllisan and Futunas, other Pacific islanders, Europeans, Chinese, Gujarats, Shiks, Part-Europeans and Part-Chinese.7 All these other groups make up 10% of the population (O’Mahoney 2002:20).

The Fijians

Fijians are the first dwellers of the Fiji islands. Traditionally, Fijians were not a homogenous group. According to Dr. Pickering of the United States Exploring Expedition (USEE), "The peculiar harshness of skin, said to be characteristics of the Papuan race, is more observable among the inland tribes of Fiji" (Williams 1982:105). To the east of the group, are found features of Asiatic origin. Hence, the distinguishing peculiarities that characterizes the Oceania people in color, physical formation, and language—identifiable in East and West Polynesia—seems to meet, and to blend in Fiji, thus indicating a mixture of two races. The complexion of the people varies, but the pure Fijian seems to stand between the black and copper-colored races.

The Indians

Indians are entirely different in many ways. Descendents of indentured laborers brought in by the British, also differ in many respects within their own communities. They are very competitive and individualistic. The traditional caste system of their forefathers is no longer practiced by the Indians of contemporary Fiji. Their solidarity is, "no longer based on caste or family loyalties but rather on economic interests, ethnic identity, and perhaps even on the perception of a common foe" (Ratuva 2001:17). This is somehow ingrained as a way of life, hence, the competitive character of the Indians and the will to succeed in any circumstances. Their demands are largely based on their need to be given more political rights, through equal representation (ibid.).

Traditional Social Structures

Patriarchal and Patrilineal Society

Fiji is a patriarchal and patrilineal society structured along the Melanesian group of people. However, to the eastern parts, in the Lau group and parts of Vanua Levu, traces of the Polynesian social structure are evident. Men are principal actors in the ceremonies and rituals of Fijian traditions. And women are said to be the liga ni magiti (preparer of food). In a Fijian world view, this means that the prosperity of the land is in their hands. This is supported by a myth in the story of Ratumaibula.8 In Fijian tradition, therefore, men and women perform two distinct roles in one single act. There is a complementary nature of men and women in the traditional Fijian framework (Ratuva 2002:19).

Chiefs or traditional leaders are regarded as the main symbol of unity in the traditional social setup. The communal framework of Fijians is structured around the chief. The varied functions in the society are performed by the following: crafts-master (mataisau), warriors (bati), dance-master (daunivucu), fish-master (tunidau), spokesperson (matanivanua), advisors (qase ni Turaga), and healers (liganiwai). All these functions are specifically performed by different clans, which make up the chiefdom, and they are passed on to the next generation. Today some of these functions are no longer performed; they have phased out of existence in the communal context due to the changing value system of the community. 

Family and Marriage

Family is the basic unit in any institution. In Fijian context the family consists of the father, mother, and children. This is the biological family. But in the traditional meaning it goes beyond this boundary to include the relatives who are termed "blood relations."9 The nuclear family and the extended family in Fijian meaning are regarded as one whole. Hence, in Fijian mindset to be family means that the "other" who is part of your clan, or the macro sub clan is "blood" related to you. The term that describes this in Fijian is veiwekani–vakadra. There are other types of relations that generally describe the term family in Fijian context, like allies of the same original place, called veiwekani vaka-vanua, or of the same ancestral origin tau’ vu, but not our concern here.

Marriage customs have undergone a lot of changes since the arrival of Christianity. In pre-Christian Fiji, marriage was arranged. The girl was usually betrothed at a very young age, by the symbolic presentation of a liku10 to the future husband. This practice was abolished by Christian influence, because as Williams observed, "although old enough to think for themselves, women often expressed their dislike of this practice" (Williams 1982:167). However, in those times, "it certainly gave them one advantage, that of a more careful guardianship" (ibid.).

Today marriage is undergoing stress due to the socio-economic circumstances of the people. Even though more freedom is given to the choice of individuals, other elements have provided strain due to the following of traditions and Church rules regarding marriage. In Fijian context, marriage—from betrothal to the sealing of the contract—is a social affair. The involvement of the whole community is important to the future stability of the marriage. Therefore, so much is asked for from both sides of the spouses’ party in money or in kind, like food, how many cattles, how many pigs, how many mats, and the most prized of all how manytabuas (whale’s tooth) [Nayacakalou 1986:38]. To add to the list is the demands of the Church leaders in terms of the sacramental preparations of the couple, and the actual wedding day. In short, marriage today is becoming an expensive exercise. For some young people of today, the cost involved in marriage ceremonies has forced them to take the easy way out. They are opting for a government-licensed marriage, and later in marriage life they seek out the blessings of the parents, the Church, and the vanua.

Some of the common features that are the consequences because of the stress experienced in this institution are elopement, live-in-couples, and the increase of civil marriages.11 In turn, the divorce rate has increased because the safety-net traditionally offered by the family, the Church, and vanua are avoided intentionally because of financial constraints, rules, and the regulations met by the intended spouses in their preparatory stage.

Organization of Kinship

The kinship structure of Fijians through male links establishes a connection between the members of each social unit in a given context, like a village (ibid.). Traditionally, the family group that was accepted as the basic unit of Fijian social organization was the itokatoka, the first unit in the social structure which is a combining together of a group of blood-related individual families, occupying normally a definite piece of land (Scarr 1980:246). After cession these groups were organized for government purposes into units called mataqali (of same stock), two or more forming a unit based on blood relationship, propinquity, and convenience (ibid.). Hence, a new structure was legitimized as a traditional setup. The formal kinship based on identification of traditional Fijians now came to be homogenized as a collective identity on the national scale, with ambiguous intentions, unclear to the common people.

Cultural System

Traditional World View

A Fijian does not think of himeslf/herself as belonging within certain frontiers identified by marked boundaries, but as originating from the place where the founder ancestors landed, and after which the land was named (Tuwere 2002:49). His/her identity is therefore linked intrinsically to the place of origin of his/her ancestors. According to Tuwere, the term icavuti describes Fijian world view in terms of the place to which one belongs. In Fijian world view, one does not own the land; the land owns him/her. Man and land are onem (ibid.). For Fijians thevanua (land) sums up the basic constitution of his being which is inclusive of his relationship, his natural world and also the spiritual. In western term, title reverses this, which means the land belongs to the man. If one has title over a piece of land he/she has the right to use the land anyway he/she likes (ibid.).

Traditional Values

Perhaps the greatest symbol of Fijians is the vanua (land); from the pre-Christian era what holds them together is their identification with the vanua, because of its meaning and significance. In the meaning of vanua is comprised his identity, one’s relationship, his sustenance, and sustainability.

This is one of the reasons Fijians are not homogenous, because each tribe had its own history, according to their own origin. However, the same entity came to be the basis for building a homogenous society because of their common attachment and identification with the land. Land is a shared core-value for Fijians. As a traditional saying points out, "one can take a Fijian out of the land, but can never take the land out of a Fijian."

Traditional Beliefs

According to Williams it is difficult to find a common form of belief system for Fijians because each tribe had its own god and each locality had its own superstitions, and some individuals had even the modifications of both (Williams 1982:105). However, the idea of a deity is familiar to Fijians’ belief; and the existence of a super power controlling and influencing all earthly things is recognized by Fijians (ibid, 216). The god most commonly known as superior wasDegei12 and below him each district contended the superiority of its own divinity.

The hierarchical structure of Fijian society took the form of its patrilineal linkages:Degei at the top, and his two sons Tokairabe and Tui Lakeba Radinadina; they acted as mediators for the prayers to their father. After them came the grand-children of Degei, and after which came distant relations and then the legions (ibid.). However, for each chief of each locality Degei was hardly the objective of worship and cultic practices. Lesser gods of the clans would be sought. The traditional beliefs were that the gods of the clans were closer to them because they were the spirits of the dead members of their own clan. If one was a great warrior in his lifetime he would be sought for his blessing in the event of war. If he/she was a singer or dancer he/she would be sought for help in the same function. The ancestral spirits or gods were symbolized by totems that are part of the clan’s ethos. Trees, animals, insects, fish, and birds are usually the representations of gods. They are regarded with respect and the concept of tabu is applied to their identification with the clans because of its connectedness to the clan’s place of origin or vanua, hence, the peoples’ origin as well. In Fijian belief there is no such thing as a god or spirit without a place or vanua.

Today’s contemporary Fijians have turned to Christianity. But it is surprising that even after their strong faith in Christianity there are still remnants of the old form of beliefs that are difficult to discard (Javier 1997:4). For example, in the event of a child who has fallen seriously sick, some parents would still easily turn to a seer to ward off the evil. Question arises such as why do substratums of traditional beliefs continue to persist? These forms of beliefs are fertile grounds for "popular religions" and a great challenge for inculturation.

The Catholic Church

Main Stages of Evangelization

The mission in Fiji initially started in Lau in 1844 with the arrival of Bishop Bataillon, who traveled from Wallis and Futuna with Frs. Roulleaux and Breheret, brother Annet, and two catechists from Wallis, Pako and Apolonia; the group included four Fijians, whom they met on the way in Tonga. The mission was a tale of trials and hardships and there were hardly any converts, but the priests were zealous in their witness of the faith. From 1850–1861 the same tale of hardships, trials, and opposition—especially from the Methodist—were experienced in mission stations of Levuka with Fr. Mathieu, and Rotuma, with Frs. Favier and Villier. Both mission stations were eventually abandoned, Rotuma in 1853, and Levuka in 1855. Significant to note was the signing of the Treaty of Religious Freedom in 1858, which eventually brought some relief to Catholic missionaries. The year 1861 was the year of conversions, and in 1862, Fr. Breheret was appointed Prefect Apostolic, as Fiji became a Prefecture. Great leaps followed in the next 100 years; 700 baptisms were reported in 1865; by 1879, there were 7,600 baptized Catholics. In the 1880s, Fr. Breheret’s last year in office saw the development of schools throughout the country in 1887 and the appointment of Monsignor Vidal to be the Bishop. Fiji became the Vicariate Apostolic of Fiji, with his title as Titular bishop of Abydos. Bishop Vidal’s legacy was the number of schools and large stone churches he built in all the established mission stations. It became the envy of others as the Catholic Church finally became part of the Fiji landscape, an established institution deemed to be forever part of Fiji’s history. Bishop Vidal died in 1922 and had prepared well for the Church because his successor, Bishop Nicholas’s main focus was education. The Marist missionaries’ whole goal was the formation of Christians and education was the heart of their missionary work. By 1941 almost all the Catholic schools were registered with the government, thereby eligible for government subsidy. The 50s and 60s saw the arrival of Columban missionaries, and recently the Salesians whose main work was initially in the parishes. Later they moved out into other ministries. Fiji finally became a diocese in 1966, named the Archdiocese of Suva, and its first local bishop, Archbishop Petero Mataca, was installed in 1976 (Knox 1997:1).

Characteristic of Fiji Christianity

The characteristic of Christianity in Fiji is that it is split between Methodists who follow after the language, music, and architecture of the British and Catholics who follow the French (ibid.). These differences had historical connotations for the histories of both mission originating countries. The result is the dichotomous nature of the praxis of the Christian faith by the Methodists and Catholics. These differences were reinforced by their different sets of theologies and patterns of living and witnessing. It is also important to note the influence of culture and politics and their implications for Christianity. When Christianity was introduced into Fiji, it had become an inseparable component of indigenous ethos at all levels. Christianity was assured of its acceptance through the chiefs who were the first targets of the missionaries’ efforts, after which they declared their chiefdoms as Christianized (lotu-vaKarisito)—the lotu (religion) of the vanua (land). Hence, Christianity was absorbed into the cultural realm of the vanua and became a permanent feature of the indigenous community.

Missionaries’ Effort at Inculturation

The missionaries were dedicated to the work of teaching the faith (catechizing), formation, and pastoral work; all the means of dissemination of the message of the Gospel to the people. In the early beginning there were isolated attempts to be conscious of the recipient’s culture. Fr. Rougier set up a press in the Rewa mission station, and was able to print a Fijian – English dictionary and a book of Fijian myths and legends. Unfortunately, because of the view of the time, it was regarded as unsuitable for such a book to be published by a Catholic press (ibid.). In the 70s Fr. John O’Mahoney, a Columban missionary who worked in Fiji for 25 years, asked the question "If Fijian art could be used in the accompanying rituals and entertainment why could it not be brought into the Church." Fijians had composed beautiful mekes (dances), rich in symbolism and art forms that could enhance the understanding of the liturgy from the Fijian’s world view of mana andtabu.13 It was this questioning by some of the pastors of the time that encouraged confidence in the incorporation of some cultural symbolisms in the liturgies.

Inculturation was a challenge at the beginning, because in Fiji, before the theologizing process, the greatest hurdle was to overcome the mentality of Fijians, who were convinced that in the Church, art, symbols, and languages of western form were what constituted Christian art (O’Mahoney 1994:16). However, the Council fathers thought otherwise: "In their own way, literature and art are very important in the life of the Church. They seek to give expression to man’s nature, his problems and his experience in an effort to discover and perfect man himself and the world in which he lives" (GS, 62). Hence, the endeavors that were first attempted by some missionaries started the awareness amongst the indigenous people of the significance of their own cultures in their faith.

Evangelization of Cultures and Inculturation in the Life of the Church in Fiji

Evangelization of Cultures

For the evangelization of cultures the Christian message must touch the essentials of cultures and change them from within. In this process the gospel renews, corrects, purifies, and nourishes the culture (GS, 58).

God is present in the heart of every human culture because He is present in every man. His Spirit is at work in all people and nations; the gospel of Christ is not alien to any nation or culture..., the Christian message is not the exclusive property of any group or race. The gospel is for all; while no one culture has the monopoly of the Gospel, nonetheless, it has to be stressed that the gospel must be concretized in the way people live in their traditions and values in their history and songs; the gospel has to be a leaven in the culture, purifying it from within, strengthening its weak spots and enriching it; the evangelization of cultures is a very crucial task for all sectors of the Church (Gabriel 1999:156).

Inculturation in Fiji

Inculturation refers to the efforts of Christianity to be truly Catholic by adapting its message to new cultures. It is an inseparable aspect of evangelization, which is the establishment of God’s reign on earth, the realization of His mission for humanity (Shorter 1998:24). The attempt to contextualize the mission of the Church wherever it evangelizes and brings about the encounter between the missionaries and the recipients, between the gospel and cultures, is an exciting task according to Stephen Bevans (Bevans and Schroeder 2005:388). John Paul II points out that inculturation is a "lengthy and a difficult and delicate task" (RM, 52). Therefore, inculturation happens when a deep and mutual enrichment occurs between the Gospel and the people of a particular culture and tradition. It is a pastoral necessity. When it engages in its evangelizing role it uses inculturation as a means to be in dialogue with the world.

In Fiji, some traditional cultural values are compatible to the recipient’s transition to the gospel’s way of seeing and thinking for individuals and communities. Communal living and sharing are seen as primordial to the social structure that makes up the identity of Fijians. They are the most significant values in its tradition that are esteemed today. The community is also seen as fundamental to one of the many images of Church. It gives new depth to the mystery of communion offered in Christ. The Church in Fiji needs to continue along this path of developing and understanding the truth of Christ drawing on the traditions and cultures of the peoples (Williams 2004:10).

Sometimes words such as "accommodation," "indigenization," or "contextualization" are used to convey a two-fold movement of the faith. These terms are used for incarnating the values of faith in the new cultures and baptizing or Christianizing the cultures’ own values into Christian world views; relating faith with cultures and the world around them which is an ongoing process of interaction usually to the advantage of both (Glazier and Hellwig 1994:424). In Fiji the first phase in the process was the way that transmission had initially been adapted. What actually took place was a faithful transmission of a western form of Christianity, of western culture and customs into the languages, symbols, and religious practices of the people being evangelized (Scherer and Bevans 1999:2-3). The result often was tension between the practice of faith and the lived interpreted experience from such western cultural standpoints.

The emphasis on evangelization in Fiji after ten years of being recognized as a local church in 1966 was for the church to be "self-supporting," "self-ministering" and "self-propagating."14 This vision did well to prepare the Church for its people in the background of the socio-economic and political changes that were now taking place in Fiji. In 1987 the Church shifted its vision and mission statements to being a "family of God, united in faith on pilgrimage, committed to building the Kingdom of God in society" (ibid.). Through the use of these images, as stressed by the Vatican II Council, the Church has to be seen as a growing community involved in history affected by the life of its members (inculturation) [Fuellenbach 2001:69-70].

After the first synod of the Church in Fiji in 1990, words and phrases that began to surface in the vocabulary of the peoples were ekelesia ni vanua (ecclesia of the land), itokatoka (basic Christian community), daurairai (ministry of lector), andliganiwai (ministry of service and communion) [Javier 2000:3]. However, are these mere attempts "to rub on" the understanding of inculturation in an already "western inculturated" people?

Indigenizing the Christian Message

Matanivanua is a Fijian cultural symbol used here for the Church as being "prophetic." Literally, the term matanivanua means the eye of the land. In the traditional setting it is also a herald, the orator, and the spokesperson (ibid.). This social unit matanivanua is traditionally identified with the institution of the chiefs because they were the main link between the chief and the people. Both units were able to survive the test of time because of this significance in the communal setting of Fijian structure. In fulfilling his role, he sometimes has to suffer through absorbing the strains and pains of relationship between the chief and his people. But he will go to great length to go through all, for the sake of maintaining social cohesion and order. His main concern is that the vanua will not be disintegrated, because of the breakdown in the relationship between the people and their chief. The relationship between the people with their chiefs is very significant for the cohesion of the whole community. Chiefs were considered gods in the traditional Fijian belief. The role of matanivanua thus becomes paramount for the good of the whole community. His function plays a dialogical role between the chiefs and his people. He stands to co-relate all the interactions that are required of the people by their chief and vice versa. His function is to bring cohesion in the community and the consequence then would be the vanua is sautu (well-being) and kalougata(blessed and prosperous).

Matanivanua is analogous to the anthropological model for the Church. To be effective in its mission for the society of Fiji the Church must touch on the basic tenets that form the basis of belief in an individual or community. It must recognize the riches that are imbued in the cultures. Through those riches positively utilized she is able to touch the resources, which means she can touch the people to change them from within.

The matanivanua’s role is parallel to that of the Church which tries to be the go-between in matters concerning the human and divine encounter. Such issues as reconciliation, work for peace and justice, and proclaiming the truth through evangelization are the concrete ways of fulfilling its role as matanivanua. The Church is the matanivanua between God and the people, and the people and God. It is also a symbol of unity in society. It proclaims the truth of the gospel to be inculturated in the culture, effecting harmony and understanding according to the demands of the gospel. The Church is also the matanivanua between the ethnic groups of Fiji and between the Indians and Fijians. It must continue to seek ways of improving their acceptance of one another in justice, fairness, and respect.

The Church finds meaning in this cultural symbol for the people because it speaks directly to their structure of living and correlating and about respect in the line of communications between the people and the chiefs. It proclaims Christ the Highest of all "chiefs" and holds the people together as the Body of Christ in mystical communion.

Limitations of the Cultural Symbol

The Church cannot be limited to a particular cultural symbol because it supersedes all, being in itself a mystery of Christ. Therefore, the cultural symbol ofmatanivanua cannot fully describe the mystery of the Church clearly as the Church can describe itself. In the Fijian context, the role of matanivanua symbol is to bring the people closer to the Church and its mission. The matanivanua is a delegated function but the Church’s role is a vocation which is intrinsic to its very nature. As sacrament it embodies in itself the mystery of what it proclaims; the Trinitarian community. However, the emphasis here is on the role it plays in the world, bringing about the experience of that mystery in the lives of the people. Therefore, it plays a representative role, as that of matanivanua in the Fijian context.

A Relevant Model for the Church in Contemporary Fiji

Prophetic Dialogue as Transformation

The call to be relevant brought us to this path of prophetic dialogue. Analogously the Church today takes up the witness challenge. It aims at breaking down existing beliefs and structures that are not compatible with the gospel. This is what prophetic dialogue means for the Church; it must never be bound by its traditions and structures, but must reach out to the outside world to proclaim the truths it professes through dialogue; to tell the truth of Christ in new situations.

Dialogue aims at dispelling prejudices; promoting mutual understanding; sharing spiritual experiences; and focusing always on the common search for truth, for experience of God, and for theological understanding.15 Dialogue is based on hope and love, and will bear fruit in the Spirit. Other religions constitute a positive challenge for the Church. They stimulate it, both to discover and acknowledge the signs of Christ’s presence and of the working of the Spirit. They allow the Church to examine more deeply its own identity and to bear witness to the fullness of revelation which it has received for the good of all (Sherwin and Kasimow 1999:542). Therefore, through dialogue the Church seeks to uncover the "seed of the Word" (AG, 11, 15) and a "ray of truth which enlightens all men" (NA, 2); these are found in the religious traditions of humankind.

Examples of the Church in Prophetic Dialogue

The recent response of the Church in Fiji gives light to the direction the Church is taking. It was engaged in prophetic dialogue on the 2nd of May 2005 when it was a prominent voice at the meeting of Christian leaders with the Prime Minister, whose aim was to inform the leaders about the intention of the government on the Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill.16 In one of his responses Archbishop Petero Mataca stated, 

Reconciliation and unity cannot be achieved through a politically motivated bill…. The overthrow of a democra-tically elected government is a very serious crime and those involved—great or small—must face the consequence.17

Paul Knitter says that for any genuine exchange between different persons to take place they need to have a full and free access to the table of dialogue; all must be heard and taken seriously (1995:85). The Church in prophetic dialogue in the Fiji contexts must give more attention to inculturation, interreligious dialogue, works for justice and peace and reconciliation. It needs to focus on the presence of other ethnic groups with different religious beliefs. In prophetic dialogue it seeks to be open for "conversation" with the "other." The Church seeks to speak the truth in boldness and courage. It cannot draw back from the task of condemning selfishness and combating all forms of political, economic, and cultural exploitation. At times this must bring the Church eye to eye with the powers that be (McBride 1969:215).

Challenges and Opportunities

Christianity has become one of the most powerful aspects of Fijian identity. It has become instrumental in shaping Fijian cultural and religious perceptions and norms. However, Christians in Fiji are accustomed to western theology and its faith expressions in the songs, rituals, signs, and symbols, because of the inherited tradition of Judaeo-Christian roots. Faith expressions at times become stagnant because of its ritualistic character. The Church in Fiji has been blessed with many gifts characterized by its diversity of peoples, languages, cultures, social structures, religious beliefs, and ideologies. A great influence on the socio-political and economic life of Fiji is its ethnic relationship, between Fijians and the Indo-Fijians. Negative attitudes and stereotypes from both sides are reproduced in the society through various models of perceptions. These are often not taken seriously but perceived and accepted in a humorous way (Ratuva 2002:30). But they do show in a subtle way the embedded biases that are present amongst the people of different ethnic groups. Furthermore, the effects of past condemnations by missionaries like describing the cultures of Oceania as barbaric, and its people as savages remain in the minds of the people. This negativity is still evident today, and results in people’s lack of esteem for their own cultures and other traditional heritages, which could be inculturated as part of the assimilation process of the gospel values in their lives. Some people today still divide their history into two parts: the era of darkness (butobuto) associated with savagery and barbarism, and the era of light and civilization (rarama) ushered in by Christianity (Daimoi 2000:285).

For the Church to carry on its prophetic mission, these contexts should not be seen as problems but as opportunities for growth. Wrong perceptions of each other—culturally and religiously—are to be shared and confronted with positive elements of culture and religions from both sides. These must be confronted with great vigor. On the side of the Church, pathways should be discovered anew so that the Church can continue to be a sign for all in society. Points of convergence such as education and interaction amongst the young of today from various ethnic communities are starting points for the advocacy of interreligious cooperation and dialogue to promote peace and harmony among the people of Fiji.

Jesus, the historical person, crossed all social, cultural, and religious boundaries. People from all walks of life flocked to Him. His God-image was enwrapped in the depth of His shared intimacy with the Father whom He called Abba. His vision entailed a paradigm shift in the world view of the people. Hence, the call "to repent and believe" (Mark 1:15) for all. The person of Jesus, His message of the kingdom, and His mission still hold today. The challenge for us believers is to make him more appropriate and attractive in our time.

Jesus the Mana of God

In the gospel Jesus addresses Himself to concrete issues affecting the people by employing images and symbols that were closer to the people’s everyday experience. His language was appealing and impregnated with insights into deeper realities (Wilfred 1995:206). He was easily recognized by the people in turn and given titles that touched on their religious senses.

Mana is a concept in the Fijian mentality that according to Tuwere, "involves a semantic domain that includes a number of other terms such as tabu, presence, blessing, success, creative force, special gift, fertility, and more" (Tuwere 2002:142). Here, the emphasis on mana is on a special gift endowed upon someone or something because power and authority can be realized through them. As Tuwere pointed out, "Power and authority are dominant forces in the concept ofmana, not only in the symbolic terms but also in political terms."18 Here, we will deal with its symbolic application. For instance, if someone made a pronouncement about something in advance of some circumstance, and it is proven true, it is said that his words are mana. If some herbal medicine is applied, or given to someone in the case of sickness or wounds, and it is effective, it is said, nomu wainimate e mana (your medicine is mana).

The attributes of mana are transcendental in this sense, because its source is not known or cannot be specified. It is intrinsic in those who are able to show power and authority in terms of their words or deeds for the good of others, and for the community at large. In pre-Christian Fiji, chiefs were considered gods because of the belief that their person was tabu; hence, their words and deeds could affectmanaTabu and mana share a common sphere of sacredness. But mana is more a life principle that is realized when blessings or goodness is received. It is a vital energy (blessings) that is affirmed, in all aspects of life, that brings harmony, goodness, and abundance. One does not say mana if someone falls sick or has a bad omen because that would mean that the intent is said to be evil or from the evil one.

In the gospel, Jesus Christ is known after an encounter and the reflected experiences of that encounter by His contemporaries. They identified with Him as the Lord and Savior because His words and His presence are powerful and full of authority. This is analogous to identifying Him with mana in the Fijian sense. Hence, Jesus Christ is the mana of God and the mana for the people. To understand Him in this symbolism would draw the people to a closer experience of who He is. The innermost essence of mana is like that of God, it cannot be reached; it remains hidden to human beings. It is through their faith in the invisible, that mana becomes experienced in the real. Likewise with God, through faith alone the invisible is seen, the unheard is heard, and the untouched is touched. In the experience of Christ, faith and works are needed (James 2:14-18). Likewise, for mana to be experienced, faith and works are essential. As Beato Senivatalala, whose traditional function is mataisau (traditional craftsman) said, "I did not study about carpentry. It has been handed down to our family from generation to generation. It is inside me, and all I have to do, is to trust that I can do it, and to work. The mana is within, and it will only show, when one believes and works."19

Jesus the Reconciler

The elements that hold the communities together in Fiji are legacies of traditions that should traverse time. This is so because of the overwhelming importance of community living. Terms such as veivakaliuci (regarding the other as higher in rank than oneself) and veivakarokorokotaki (mutual respect), and veirogorogoci(willingness and commitment to hear the other) are alive today (Tuwere 2002:31). They are relational in their meaning because they deal directly with how a person relates to another, especially to the elders of the community. These traits are taught to individuals by their parents and elders of the community. A person who is without such trait in his/her character is said to be sega ni vakaitovo (un-cultured). Inherent in this is the belief of Fijians that deals with their social structure in terms of status. Those who are turagas (of chiefly rank) are deemed to be most revered because in Fijian world view, they are the representatives of the gods (pre-Christian times) but today, are regarded as chosen representatives of God. And one of their most important tasks is to bring peace and prosperity to their respective communities. Hence, one of their functions is to be reconcilers.

This was evident after the coups of 1987 when the Great Council of Chiefs requested to steer back the country from the brink of anarchy to normalcy. While some had reservations about a non-Fijian leader for the country, and others feared that their land was being taken over, individual chiefs showed tremendous character in bringing about reconciliation (Nolan 1977:138). The task of reconciliation is a lifelong process in places as pluralistic as Fiji, yet one should not shy away from it.

Jesus in the gospel spent most of his time with the people in His three and a half years of ministry. One of the more significant marks of his work is that he treated all peoples with dignity. He came to be in conflict with the religious and political authorities of his time because of the evident new consciousness of what his mission meant. Therefore for him, status meant something only if it promoted the recognition of people as of the same, and of equal stature. His treatment of the sick, his touching of the dead body, his touching of the woman (with hemorrhage), and his healing of the lame and the blind, his emphasis on the Sabbath as made for people, and his meals with the publicans and the sinners are instances that concretized his vision. Jesus is seen as one who inaugurates a new manner of relationships between God and human beings (Schreiter 1991:129). He is the reconciler between the poor and the rich, between the officials of religions and the people. Most especially, He stands for those that are the most neglected in society. Only by doing this can true reconciliation happen. To be a reconciler demands of one to be knowledgeable of his own traditions and beliefs and to be guided by "principles" that are universal. We cannot hope to achieve reconciliation if we are still guided by biases and prejudicial views of others and the world.


A relevant Church for contemporary Fiji should be inclusive and pluralistic as well. Its image should express a changing scenario of its mission experience. For if it is going to be an effective sign and a path to peace, it needs to change from being self-oriented, to being a community-oriented Church that is aimed at enhancing a communion of relationships, and communion of mission. The different communities and religions in Fiji obviously wish for good relations and open communications between each other. Other communities of believers—Christian and non–Christians alike—seek the same objectives namely that of peace and harmony between each other. Whether the Church becomes an obstacle or a pathway to peace is determined by its own spiritual meaning and vision of which it hopes to offer Fijian society.


1. In this paper the term Fijians specifies the indigenous ethnic group, and the term Indo Fijians specifies the different ethnic groups of Indian descent, either Hindus or Muslims.

2. It is a Christian non-governmental organization that specializes in research and study of the Fiji situation, in terms of advocating the rights and dignity of peoples as individuals and as community.

3. Fiji Police Statistics: ECREA, "A Nationwide Survey to Gauge the Fears, Hopes, & Dreams of Youths in Fiji" (Suva, Fiji: ECREA 2002), 30.

4. ECREA. "An NGO Report on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination," January 2002.

5. Yagona is the root of a local plant, botanically known as piper methsticum.It is used as ceremonial drink by the cultures of the Pacific, which include the Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians.

6. Mataqali is a division of a village, which consists of a number of clans oritokatoka together. There can be two to four mataqali’s in a village.

7. Those with a Fijian maternal link are part Chinese part European.

8. Ratumaibula (Chief from life) is the great ancestral-god of Fijians; he is known also as Ratumaibulu (Chief from below earth). From him descended a man and a woman known collectively in the myth as Tomaniivi. They had twins, called druadadakulaci in Fijian, specifying a boy and a girl twin. They were put in a garden full of plantains by the god advising them, the garden marked the place where the umbilical chords of the twins were buried. It is significant custom of Fijians that umbilical chords are buried in the earth after birth. The god also warned that when the vudi (plantain) was ripe, the first fruit called the isevu (the first offering) must be taken to him and offered. They were not to touch the vudi until the isevu was offered. The mother of the twins one day took the twins to the garden, and they saw that one fruit of the plantain bunch was partly ripe. The twins, attracted to the fruit implored the mother to let them have it. She took the fruit and split it into two parts—thekubuna (part attached to the stalk) she gave to the boy, and the matana(outside part) she gave to the girl. Tomaniivi, the father, heard of this and went to the god to inform him. When the god heard of this he was enraged and gave orders to Tomaniivi to send the mother and the twins away immediately because he did not want to see them anymore on earth. The three heard of this and fled into the mountain. They hid themselves inside the trees of their choice where they were transformed. When Tomaiivi (male) came to the place, he cried out aloud, "isa na nodratou igadigadi na veitinani"(oh the resting place of the twins and their mother). They had disappeared at the foot of the vugayali tree, and these roots of the vugayali tree became for the early Fijians the entry back to Bulu (abode of the spirits).

9. Blood relations include the wider kinship relationship that would include all those that are related to the family (close relatives), traditionally (alliances), and even socially (those who come into the "family," or clan), through one of the members. All are regarded as family, after they are identified with one’s clan.

10. Liku refers to the grass-skirts especially made for women during pre–Christian Fiji.

11. Civil marriage or "licensed marriage" is not encouraged by the Church to its members, because it defeats the whole meaning and purpose of marriage being a sacrament.

12. Degei (pronounced Dngei, the half snake, half stone god of Fijians) was regarded as supreme among the tribal gods. It seems to be the impersonation of the abstract idea of eternal existence.

13. Mana and Tabu constitute the basic element of the beliefs of Fijians and their world view of the sacred and things beyond them. The former constitutes an energy/power and blessing evoked in a person, or things, or events. The latter is the respect and reverence attributed to things, events or persons, because they are representations of some realities beyond the mundane.

14. Archbishop Petero Mataca, Letter dated Wednesday, (1 December 2004).

15. Journal: Indian Theological Studies, Vol. XLII (March 2005): 23.

16. The Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill is a new Bill being proposed by the present government of Fiji, led by the party (Soqosoqo ni Duavata ni Lewenivanua or SDL) which aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation. However, clauses in the new bill included amnesty, which some speculate would be given to those involved in the 2000 political crisis. This is where the Church, the army, police, and other non-governmental organizations reacted, and did not support the bill.

17. The Fiji Times, Friday, 24 June 2005.

18. Fiji Times, 19 August 2005: The Catholic teachers were denied their right to practice their profession because of government policy which tried to consolidate all teacher training institutions under the Ministry of Education, for Fiji. That would imply closing down the Catholic Teacher Training Institute.

19. Personal Interview on 17 October 2005, Quezon City, Philippines. Beato Senivatalala is a Vincentian lay Brother from Fiji was doing mission work amongst the poor of Payatas community for the last three years. His traditional function, through his clan of mataisau (craftsmen) came in handy during his time on mission. He helped in repair work and building houses for some of the most destitute in the area.


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