Last week Father Lawrence (Larry) Hannan SM, the oldest Catholic priest in Fiji, passed away at the age of 92, sixty seven years since first arriving in Fiji as a Marist Father.
I was introduced to Fr. Hannan in the mid-nineteen-nineties by my mother, who was a board member of Fiji Media Watch, a civil society organisation founded by Fr. Hannan. He was a warm-hearted man with a quick wit and a good sense of humour. He was also passionate about the media.
Our first conversation was about movies, as I was a member of the Christian Family Video Society, consisting of three ecumenical video libraries, run by the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches, and the Salvation Army established in 1985 to supply family videos. By the time we had met, Fr. Hannan had founded the Fiji Media Watch Group and was actively involved in organising media awareness education programmes for community groups, something that he had done while Rector at the Pacific Regional Seminary.
Fiji Media Watch was established as a result of the introduction of broadcast television in Fiji in 1991. The video culture had changed and while audiences were aware of what choices were available in terms of television programming through watching videotaped “TV series, they were not prepared for the impact of having the medium available to them twenty-four hours a day, at the touch of a button.
Fr. Hannan noticed that while there was a concerted effort to train local television production practitioners and broadcast technicians, there was, however, no serious thought given to how this new medium would affect them, nor any attempt to educate the potential users to develop the ability to reflect critically on what they saw on television:
“Old men from the village who experienced television for the first time would sit in front of the TV all day…there was no differentiation between real life and fiction for them. It was a semi heaven, offering a substitute and escape to their mundane life,” he said to me in a conversation some ten years after the establishment of Fiji Media Watch.
Fr. Hannan could see how television was dominating our culture:
“In some households, it (television) is left on all day and become part of the home. It has become a little temple, a corner of devotion, not worship as such, but a controlling influence on the household.”
The basic aim of Fiji Media Watch was to empower users of the media to be critical viewers, readers and listeners rather than merely passive consumers.
Humble, loving and always polite in his conversation, underlying his pastoral role, Fr. Hannan was not afraid to call it like he saw it. In 2003 he went on the record to say that journalism in the South Pacific could not improve unless working conditions - including pay - were improved highlighting that the media industry in the region, “had developed to the point where it had become more commercialised and less concerned about the community.”
In 2000, as the political crisis drew to a close, Fr. Hannan, while commending Fijian media for its
"stalwart service" in keeping the public informed during the crisis also censured the media for some
He cited the secular media industry as a major influence on the thinking and perceptions of people in regards to conflict situations. “The media,” he once said, “can either polarize communities to take sides and heighten tensions or help to educate people on the causes and consequences of conflicts and the need for dialogue.”
In 2006 at a vigil to commemorate the International Day of Peace, Fr. Hannan said, “Every little effort made towards peace is like an infusion into the blood stream of humanity. Really Peace is
what you would call mainly an inside job. It starts with each human hearts of each person. That’s where it begins and as it is nurtured, it comes obvious in the peaceful presence of the person. In other words the peacemaker becomes peace personify, and that is the call to all of us. That we become peace makers and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the words of Jesus keep coming back to us.
“Blessed are the peace makers, for theirs is the kingdom of God”.
Fr. Hannan was an advocate for the Freedom of Information.
"People nowadays cannot do without information that is full, consistent, accurate and true," he said in 2007, when the High Court rule that the media the right to publish a confidential FNPF audit report. "Only if fully informed can a person assume a responsible and active role in society and be part of its economic, political and cultural life."
Fr. Hannan had also called for the tabling of the Freedom of Information bill in Parliament once parliamentary democracy was restored in Fiji.
"Freedom of information legislation when fully enacted will enable public bodies to put out all information voluntarily or upon request so as to keep people informed on what they are doing and why they are doing it," he said. "This is a fundamental to people’s and taxpayers’ right to take an informed position and participate effectively on the functioning of public bodies."
In 2009 SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication honoured Fr. Hannan with a World Life Achievement Award, “in recognition of his vision, of his dedication as well the impact of his work in the field of media education in Fiji and all over the world.”
As the fellow Fiji Media “Watchers” reflected on Fr. Hannan’s contribution to Fiji and them personally, a common trend began to appear:
Current Fiji Media Watch President, Netani Rika said, “Fr. Hannan was a man who spoke through his actions rather than his words. A keen wit, love for all, a superior work ethic and a passion for communications and the media is how we will remember him. Fr. Hannan came to Fiji 67 years ago as a missionary and remained until the end. He gave his life for this country. We would do well to follow him.”
Long-time FMW board member and former president and vice-president, Bessie Kingdon summed up how many who knew Fr. Hannan felt about him:
“A prayerful. dedicated 'man of God'. Steady, sturdy, sportsman-like, a strong character - to the last.
A 'father' - full of spiritual guidance, always ready to lend a listening ear - to all (even though one ear was stone deaf!). He was a teacher, a counselor, trusting, loving, forgiving; a man of vision and full of wisdom and wit. He was a friend.”
The oldest photographs I remember of Fr. Hannan were of him at the multi-faith service in Albert Park during Independence Day in 1970 and posing with my wife’s grandparents after celebrating their marriage. He was to participate in our wedding also.
Fellow Fiji Media Watch board member, Aisake Casimira shared his tribute:
“Fr. Larry Hannan lived by a simple spirituality, that of humility, obedience and gentleness in the way of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Yet, he had a presence about him that commands respect, one that is hard to describe but perhaps something like holiness. In his own works and life, Fr. Hannan gave effective witness to God's love and compassion. He was a very ecumenical person, able to mingle, converse and share faith experiences with Christians of other denominations and also of other religions.”
Fr. Hannan held the media industry up to some quite high standards. That was only because he saw the media as “custodians of the common good.”
That is just one of the legacies he leaves behind.
Rest in Peace, good and faithful servant.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”