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By Rowena Dato Cuanico
Rowena ‘Weng’ Cuanico, from Northern Samar, has completed six years as a Columban lay missionary in Fiji and is renewing her commitment for another three years. She tells how a prayer group there comes back to life, thanks to moments of inspiration and a lot of hard work.
As a Columban lay missionary in Fiji, I worked for some time with the Indo-Fijian community in St Pius X Parish in Raiwaqa. I had spent two wonderful years in Holy Family Parish in Labasa working mostly with Hindi-speaking communities, so I was excited once again to accompany Hindi-speaking Catholics in Raiwaqa.
I came to the parish with a list of about twenty Hindi-speaking families in the parish. With such a group, it would seem that starting a mandali (prayer group) should come easily – even if the group had been inactive for six years – but it wasn’t to be.
We had two meetings that gave people the opportunity to get to know each other. Although they expressed the need for a mandali as a support group, it seemed to me they were reluctant to start one. I was getting impatient. Maybe I was looking for some results, and these weren’t happening. But I didn’t feel discouraged, thanks be to God. I just kept on visiting and visiting them.
Finally, a breakthrough came. Some members shared with me that they didn’t have any experience with a mandali. As much as they would like to start one, most didn’t know how to go about it. There was no prayer group in the parish when some of them were baptized. I admired their courage and honesty in sharing this with me. We had to start from the beginning and the task seemed daunting.
I shared the situation with Columban Father Gerry McNicholas, our parish priest. His words were clear: ‘Maybe we won’t be able to start a mandali, but hopefully we will be able to provide a link to the future.’ And so began the task of introducing the families to prayers and hymns in the Hindi language.
It must have been providential that in January 2005 Columban Father Pat McCaffrey assumed his responsibilities as coordinator of the apostolate for Hindi-speaking Catholics in Suva. With his mastery of both the Hindi and Fijian languages and his work in Labasa as a young priest, Father Pat has been creating a stir by giving life and support to the community. The initial activity was a gathering of all Hindi-speaking Catholics from seven parishes, including ours, at St Joseph’s Secondary School.
Some lay leaders, Father Pat and I spent about three days visiting fifteen families. It was tough work. In February, eight families from the parish came to the meeting, some seeing each other for the first time. For me, it was a sign of life and hope.
During our discussions, the families again expressed the need for a mandali in the parish to help them grow in their faith. They decided to meet each Sunday after 7am Mass to organize the mandali until it was up and running.
The occasion of blessing the home of Daniel and Kalawati Kumarsami proved to be the perfect occasion for the first mandali. It rained heavily on the days preceding and I knew the place would be very wet. Kalawati was certain the mandali would go on and that their place would be dry. It wasn’t dry at all, but Kalawati wouldn’t take no for an answer. The weather couldn’t stop us from having the mandali. Kalawati must have looked forward very eagerly and prayed hard for this moment.
On that Saturday night, the mandali of St Pius X Parish came to life again. It was a moment of great rejoicing and thanksgiving as parish families, with Hindu friends and neighbors belonging to other Christian denominations, gathered for a prayer group for the first time in six years.
The baptism of a catechumen, Doreen Lal, also proved to be a rallying point for the community. She was undergoing the ten-month Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) when I came to know her and her husband, Ravin. To be part of the preparations for her baptism proved meaningful for me.
When God leads
On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, we had the mandali at Doreen and Ravin’s house. Doreen shared that she had never imagined that she would become a Catholic. But, she said, this is where God had led her. She was thankful for the openness of her family and the support of her husband.
She made a very special request: she wanted us to sit next to her during the Easter Vigil. She said it would give her courage and strength to see us when she turned around.
Before we finished the mandali, we gathered around Doreen. Father Pat led us into a prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to continue to guide Doreen and to give her faith, courage and strength.
During the Easter Vigil, when she stood up at the beginning of the rite of baptism, Doreen was given an aarti, an Indian way of expressing our welcome for her. She would later share with me how that seemingly simple ritual stirred a lot of feelings within her. She felt welcomed because the aarti was a ritual close to her heart as an Indo-Fijian.
The parish organized a welcome reception for her in the hall. Both Doreen and Ravin spoke eloquently of their love story – a young Catholic man, himself a convert, marrying a Hindu. It was almost too good to be true, almost a fairy tale of romance, love and religion. It was a proud moment for the parish, particularly for the Hindi-speaking community.
Our community is still very young. We still have to reach out to other Hindi-speaking families. We need to bond, pray and work more with each other. Sadly, Doreen and Ravin have moved to another parish.
But if we look back at how we started we have every reason to be happy and grateful to each other, the parish leadership, the different sectors and to God. The mandali members are becoming more confident, and it seems they have started to feel proud of being Indo-Fijian Catholics. This was very evident in the excitement and pride the members felt when we were given the task of doing the aarti during the welcoming ceremony for an international gathering of Columbans held in Fiji in April 2005.
There is again excitement in the community. We are again accompanying families on their journey of faith. We planned to start the RCIA in our parish, with some members of the community who’d gone through the program as facilitators, sharing what they’d received. This pushed through successfully in my last year, but that’s a story for another day.
Our work is not yet finished. We have just begun.
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