Amen Corner: The Pandemic Push for Inculturation

The Pandemic Push for Inculturation
By Carmel Pilcher, RSJ

I recently completed a three-year term teaching liturgy at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji. The seminary provides formation for the ministerial priesthood for students from many Pacific Island nations. Almost all the students are First Peoples whose strong cultural identities have long been nurtured by rituals marking life events. While the current COVID pandemic has challenged the ritual practices in many of our communities, it has particularly affected Indigenous peoples; it has also offered new opportunities, especially in the area of liturgical inculturation.

As a teacher of liturgy, I was delighted and privileged to encounter students for whom the language of ritual and symbol was part of the fabric of their lives.
I am indebted to all the students who taught me about their cultural ceremonies, particularly Eusenio Uatahousi, Saia Faingaa, SSCC, and Savea Ulavala, who directly contributed to this work. I am also grateful for the invaluable scholarly encouragement from Tongan academic, colleague, and friend,

Dr. Winston Halapua, Anglican archbishop emeritus, and Dr. Nathan Chase from St. Louis University, whom I introduced to one of my classes and who continues to fire their imaginations with ongoing conversation—talanoa—to find ways to inculturate the liturgy.

Although each culture celebrates life’s moments uniquely, the core of ceremony is always community—but not community as those of us who are not First Peoples understand it. Many Indigenous peoples, including Australian Aboriginals and Maoris live not only in relationship with each other but are deeply connected to their environment. Aboriginal Australians speak in English of “on country.” Fijians call it vanua. Fijian colleague, Dr. Donato Kivi, SM, explains:

Vanua is a concept held in high esteem among Fijians. Vanua literally means “land,” but it also means residents, natives or people of that particular land. It is often used in traditional functions to address groups of people from the same province, tribe, clan or family. For the ancient Fijians, addressing a particular vanua means the people, the land and everything that belongs, is related, grows and is tied in whatever way to that land. All come under the umbrella of the vanua—the trees, animals, rocks, grass, fish and birds. They are part and parcel of the vanua. For the ancient Fijians, the vanua is the people and the cosmos. (1)

Vanua, fanua, fonua, moana—each nation has its own term to describe this connection that includes shared beliefs and values, shelter, nourishment, and protection. Traditional ceremonies that celebrate vanua continue to be celebrated, at least in villages. Exploring this concept provided me with an obvious starting point for Pacificans to understand Christian sacramentality. So, we began our introductory sacraments course by exploring traditional ceremonies that celebrate vanua, marking each moment of the life journey, whether initiation, reconciliation, marriage, or burial rites. The students were happy to describe for all of us their different elaborate cultural ceremonies that lasted many days and were full of rich symbols and rituals, stories, song, and dance. But they wondered what their own ceremonies had to do with learning about the Catholic Church’s sacraments.

We then explored the Church’s rites—the Rites of Christian Initiation, Pastoral Care of the Sick and, although it is not an official church sacrament, the Order of Christian Funerals—all with their rich symbols and rites. These students come from cultures where their ceremonies were passed on from generation to generation by oral traditions. Students first experienced the meaning, which their parents and grandparents then explained.

In contrast the celebrations of the Church’s sacraments depend on the written word found in the official rites of the Church. The revised rites still have not been fully translated into the local languages of the Pacific due to a lack of trained liturgists. Nor have they been carefully studied. While there have been attempts at inculturation over the years, and some of these continue— for example, traditional dancing, and in Samoa, the reconciliation ritual of ifongu—these are usually celebrated only on special occasions. As the students became more familiar with the Church’s rites they started to make connections between the ceremonies of the village and those celebrated in church. They tentatively began to discuss ways their own traditional ceremonies could be linked with the sacraments, in other words, inculturated, rather than be celebrated in isolation from each other.

During my time at the seminary a young Tongan Marist student, Sosaia Vaka, died after a short illness. Sosaia was twenty-three years old. At the time of his death, Fiji had controlled the initial spread of COVID. International borders between Fiji and Tonga were closed. When Sosaia died in a strange land and in the absence of his family and community—his fonua—the Tongan students stepped into the breach. Instead of their usual role as seminarians—lotu (church)—they took on the role of the extended family—the fonua. This included deciding the length of time culturally appropriate to both honor the dead and support the mourners. The students had to be both lotu and fonua.

Traditional Tonga funeral rites are extremely complex. In Eusenio’s words: “The funeral is a time of gathering as well as a time of mourning. The mourning reflects the lost. This ‘lost’ causes the whole extended family of the deceased to gather but it also builds up the community (the fonua). The people come together because of the ‘lost’ one and their love for the family.” (2) Tonga, like Fiji, treats death as a communal event. It is more than mourning and loss. It is about building, sustaining, and strengthening relationships and ensuring that the dead person is provided with all the funeral rites to assure them a place with their ancestors.

Eusenio continues, appealing to his heritage:

We Tongans believe in the supernatural, that there was something or somebody beyond our reality but the understanding of the human mind cannot explain this, only the heart can. Our ancestors prayed to many known gods such as the god of the sky, the god of the land, the god of the dead and many others. But there were three major gods that were always the focus of their prayer. The first is Tangaloa who is the god of the sky. Tangaloa had a son (’Aho’eitu) with an earthly woman, Va’epopua. Second is Maui who is god of the earth, the one who pulled with all his might with a fishing hook a large piece of the land that was called Tongatapu. Last is Hikule’o who is the god of Pulotu. He is the god of death. Our ancestors prayed to these gods. So, Tongans already had the sense of religious experience that extended to an afterlife. In this way their ideas were very close to the Christian way of making meaning of life. (3)

In Tonga, many people prepare for and participate in a funeral. Clans, and the extended family—the fonua—take on particular roles the culture predetermines. Savea explained that every Tongan knows and respects the protocol that must be followed. Relatives of the deceased have certain roles. For example, the spokesman at the rites, who comes from one of the clans from the father’s line, knows he is permitted to speak at the funeral. Those related to the woman’s side or from the mother’s side of the deceased, take on a particular role and are regarded as superior and highly significant and so the funeral rites afford them the highest respect. When they came to bury Sosaia, the Tongan students filled these roles in the absence of designated people.

The morning after the burial of the deceased person ‘Oto’ota is performed.
The grieving family cleans the house of their fahu—the house of the father’s sister. The family all leave early in the morning while the fahu’s family is still asleep. They first clean outside the house, then they sprinkle local oil around the house, reflecting that in their culture they are of a lower position than their fahu. If the family is Christian, they will also sprinkle holy water outside the house to signify the presence of the God of Jesus, and to ward away evil spirits from the fahu’s family. Analyzing all this further is a task for another project.

Protocol dictates what is to be worn. A woven mat—a ta’ovala—that is part of their dress apparel distinguishes Tongans from other Islanders at official ceremonies including the church’s liturgical celebrations. Tongans wear the ta’ovala to show both respect and appreciation. The ta’ovala reveals the wearer’s status. The traditional ta’ovala for a funeral is a huge mat, but much coarser and undecorated, woven from the rougher side of the pandanus leaf. If the wearer is of an inferior rank to the deceased, they don an old, well-worn mat tied in such a way as to wrap around the upper body and veil the head. In Tonga, all these special mats are kept as precious heirlooms. Those who wear the old, torn, and long mat that covers their feet and head are the patetele, the lowest in status to the deceased. This symbolizes their humility to serve everyone who attends the funeral. At Sosaia’s funeral the Tongan seminarians dressed in the distinctively torn mats of the patetele, taking the role of service.

On each of the next six nights after Sosaia’s death the patetele gathered us and the wider Tongan community together to pray and to remember. Most nights they celebrated Eucharist for the dead in the Tongan language. The liturgies were livestreamed so that Sosaia’s parents, siblings, and extended family who, because of COVID travel restrictions, were unable to travel from Tonga or other countries to Fiji could participate, at least virtually. Special hymns were sung, and many stories told, but always in the context of a funeral Mass.

I wondered if Tongans had access to a Tongan translation of the whole Order of Christian Funerals or if only the funeral Mass and prayers of commendation are translated.

The seminarians prepared as many details as possible. They erected purple and black banners throughout the grounds and onto the road so that fellow Tongans who might be passing could easily identify the seminary as a place of mourning.

In all Pacific countries, the people who visit the bereaved and attend the funeral never come emptyhanded but take responsibility for each other as fonua. It is a time of strengthening bonds, as well as an opportunity for healing divisions in the community. Visitors bring an abundance of food, including live animals such as pigs, to prepare for the many participants at the daily meals. Depending on the duration of the period of mourning, as many as one hundred pigs as well as comparable amounts of other food are shared. Each evening in the immediate mourning period before Sosaia’s funeral liturgy and burial, the extended Tongan community in Suva prepared a meal that they shared with those who gathered. I wondered if the vigil elements of sharing words of remembrance and symbols could have been associated with these meals.

The night before the funeral Mass a final Eucharist for the dead was held.
The arrival of Sosaia’s body was accompanied by the lali, a hollowed-out tree trunk beaten with sticks in a slow rhythm, traditionally used to call the village together. Special mats—tapa (hand-decorated paper cloth)—shrouded the coffin, and the patetele guarded the casket throughout, from the funeral Mass until the final burial in Suva. In Fiji the tradition is for those present at the burial to stay until the burial is completed. During this time devotional prayers and hymns continue. Following the burial, the Tongan students and staff visited and prayed at Sosaia’s grave daily for thirty days, until the official mourning period was over.

Had Sosaia’s family been able to bring his body home to Tonga or travel to Suva, they would have observed full cultural burial rites. Instead, the Tongan seminary community stepped into the role of fonua and did what they could. They drew on their own experiences of both fonua and lotu. They admirably fulfilled a cultural obligation in the absence of immediate family members. They understood their cultural role—but what of their church role? The Order of Christian Funerals offers prayers and ritual from the time the person crosses the threshold between life and death until burial of the loved one—and offers prayers for anniversaries of death, for example the Fijian custom of gathering after one hundred nights to mark the end of the official mourning period.

I saw great opportunities over the extended period of mourning to include prayers for the dead from the Rites, and on occasion to pray the Office for the Dead. In a seminary setting it would have been a great opportunity to further establish dialogue between rich cultural and equally rich church rites, so that they could express more fully and bring together the gifts of both traditions.

The pandemic has changed not only the way we live but also the way we celebrate significant life events, whether births, anniversaries, sickness, or death. When the second wave of the pandemic struck Fiji the numbers of people seriously affected quickly grew and neither the health system nor funeral services could cope. So many Fijians and other Islanders died alone in make- shift hospitals. Mortuaries could not accommodate the increasing numbers of the dead. Strict curfews were put in place and movement was restricted except in exceptional circumstances. Gatherings that would normally have taken place were out of the question because all were confined to their homes and all places of worship were closed. For six months Fijians were forced to experience isolation—the very opposite of the strong and deep connections that characterize vanua.

During that time people could perform neither cultural nor religious ceremonies, except in their own homes. They would fulfill cultural traditions at a later time, perhaps after one hundred nights, which is the official mourning time in Fiji. Christians in the Pacific rely on priests, deacons, or catechists to lead the Church’s official liturgies; COVID restrictions prevented church leaders from bringing the oil of the sick or praying with the dying in their homes. Families did anoint their loved ones with traditional healing oils, but family members could have accompanied these anointings with suitable prayers from the Church’s rites for the sick. However, this was not possible because the faithful do not have access to, nor are they familiar enough with, the church’s rituals. Neither are they even aware of their ability as priestly people to lead and celebrate liturgy. In Fiji only some essential prayers from the sacramental rites were translated into Fijian language after the Second Vatican Council. Devotional prayers are often the only way for the faithful to nurture their faith when ordained ministers are unavailable. Qualified liturgists are needed to offer formation in this area.

This pandemic is inviting all of us to chart new waters. The Tongan students ensured that their brother Sosaia would be buried in a traditional Tongan way far from his homeland. Other Islanders have ensured local traditions continued when possible. While this provides its own challenges to Pacificans, what about the Church’s rituals?

The lack of trained liturgists is clearly an issue in the Pacific. Liturgical formation is needed. Catholics can only engage in full conscious and active participation in the liturgy if they first realize they share in Christ’s priestly work through their baptism. This means first understanding their baptismal priesthood and then realizing that they participate in the Church’s liturgy with the ordained. They need to be introduced to and formed in an understanding of the Church’s rites both by study and practice.

Each of the revised sacraments offers ways to engage the faithful in a journey of faith. Yes, we need to translate the rites into local languages. But beyond simply translating the rites, the pandemic offers Islanders an opportunity for dialogue between the rites and their already rich ceremonial local traditions. The Order of Baptism of Children could be celebrated at the time of the initiation rites that certain villages continue to practice. In cultures that have powerful ceremonies of reconciliation there are great opportunities to include parts of the church’s Rite of Reconciliation. The small Pacific nations, more than anywhere else on the planet, are experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. For liturgy to remain relevant in fragile Pacific Islands it will surely need to be embedded in the traditional ceremonies of the fanua/vanua/fonua. This raises another challenge that Fijian John Pickering offers: “The dynamic nature of culture also invites deeper reflection into how we as a people are open to cultural adaptation and change. While keeping the essence of cultural ritual practices, the form may have to change. The pandemic has taught us to adapt—a resilient factor for any culture that is assured of a place in a changing world.”(4)

  1. Martha Moore-Keish and James Farwell, eds., Handbook of Sacraments and Sacra- mentality (T & T Clark, forthcoming 2023).
  2. Eusenio Uatahousi, “The Tongan Values Engage with the Liturgy of the Eucharist,” unpublished paper submitted to the Pacific Regional Seminary July 4, 2021.
  3. Uatahousi, “Tongan Values.”
  4. Written comment from doctoral candidate John Pickering, February 4, 2022.

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