This week the people of Fiji bid farewell to Archbishop Emeritus Petero Mataca. Fijians of all walks of life, denominations and religious beliefs will pay their respects during the i-reguregu ceremonies at the Lami Parish Hall. Many will attend the Vigil Mass and night vigil on Thursday, and watch the Requiem Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on TV.
I first formally met the late Archbishop Emeritus, over a decade ago at the Fiji Council of Churches office under the Holy Trinity Cathedral when I went to meet my father, who was at the time the FCC’s general secretary. The then Archbishop had a tremendous influence in my father’s ecumenical formation as they became good friends through their work in the FCC. Perhaps in some way Archbishop Mataca was sharing what he had experienced in his close friendship with the late Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, Jabez Bryce.
It was Archbishop Bryce who had introduced him to the formal ecumenical movement, and was later instrumental in having him elected to the executive of the Pacific Council of Churches. They had first met in 1966 when they were both Vicars General. They got together regularly after that – both at religious ceremonies, and on the golf course.
Speaking at Archbishop Bryce’s funeral in 2010, Archbishop Mataca said “We became friends.” Reminiscing on their golfing chats he said, “After we’d both became bishops we’d tell one another: ‘Fiji does not need two bishops – so let us play. The winner stays – and the loser goes’.”
Archbishop Mataca said that Archbishop Bryce taught him "that three things were essential for the life of the ecumenical movement. Prayer is a must; co-operation in works of mercy is a must – and dialogue is the way forward.”
When I got married, my wife, who is Roman Catholic had requested we be married in the Catholic Church. My usually staunchly-Methodist father, was now ecumenically minded and agreed on condition that his friend Archbishop Mataca agree to be the celebrant. Not only did he agree to be the main celebrant, he also, in the spirit of ecumenism, agreed that a Methodist minister, Rev. Dr. Christopher Dass could participate in the liturgy, blessing the rings and delivering the homily (sermon).
His sense of humour had a touch of steel about it as well, such was his wit. On our wedding day, when my bride was running late, he said to me, “James, if Maelin is not here soon, you and I might be taking the lead up to the Fiji Club and start the reception.” After my blushing bride and I had exchanged vows, we went up to the altar to sign the marriage register. As I began to sign he leaned in and whispered to me, “James, remember Maelin is a Catholic. So when you sign this is HMS No Come-back.” A year later he became perhaps the first Catholic priest in Fiji to preach a sermon in a Methodist Church, when preached at my father’s funeral.
Archbishop Emeritus was a regular contributor of opinion articles to the newspapers on social and religious issues. He strongly believed that the Church, reading the signs of the times, must say what needs to be said, stating that as Christians, we all need to see ourselves as responsible to society as each of our contributions makes up what kind of society we live in.
In my conversations with him in 2005 and 2006 as part of my research for my Bachelor of Divinity thesis, he shared with me his view of the prophetic nature of the News Media from the perspective of a searcher and communicator of truth in society without fear or favour:
“The truth gives joy and it can also hurt. But the truth must be told. Hence the truth is prophetic. So when the News Media reveal the truth it has a prophetic voice in society. The News Media need reporters and journalists who are committed to finding and reporting the truth.”
He agreed that the Church must be communicative, and found informal talanoa as a space for even the least in society to dialogue, discuss and even debate with others. He found the talanoa to be an integral part of the Communicative Church’s pastoral approach to be informed by the lives of the people that make up the Church and is a tool in raising the Church’s prophetic voice:
“I sit with our people around the bowl of yaqona and ask for questions and when I find out from one of them where they are by the questions they ask then I know that I must move them and I spend some time to say, “Okay thank you very much for what you have said, but that is not right. You as a Christian, you as a Catholic, you cannot stay there in that mindset, you have to move. Our teaching says this…and this is where you should be.”
These experiences and other chats at ecumenical gatherings came to mind as I read, John Wesley’s “Letter to a Roman Catholic.”
Wesley ends his letter by urging his correspondent to join with him and, “endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, us always rejoice to strengthen each other's hands in God. Above all, let us each take heed to himself (since each must give an account of himself to God) that he fall not short of the religion of love, that he be not condemned in that he himself approveth.”
“O let you and I (whatever others do) press on to the prize of our high calling: that, being justified by faith, we may have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; that we may rejoice in God through Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the atonement; that the love of God may be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Let us count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord; being ready for him to suffer the loss of all things, and counting them but dung, that we may win Christ.”
In his condolence letter to Archbishop Chong, Acting General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev. Dr. Epineri Vakadewavosa wrote that, “The late Archbishop Emeritus, was a humble servant of God and led his community of faith with wisdom. He was committed to the ecumenical movement and understood that the journey of searching for visible unity of the Body of Christ was a long road that required a patient and loving heart.”
May we all embrace the late Archbishop’s legacy of humility, compassion, sincerity, and speaking the truth in love, regardless of whoever and wherever we may be.
Rest in peace, you beloved servant of God.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”