In the image of God he created them …

Albani Psalter (12th century), Mary Magdalene announces the resurrection of Christ to the disciples.

In the context of the annual celebration of Easter, we encounter some women who can be called “witnesses from the beginning”: Mary of Magdala – as in the Albani Psalter (12th century) pictured here – is the first to recognize the Risen Christ and deliver his message to the disciples (who, admittedly, do not believe her); the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well proclaims the Messiah in her village (some villagers believe her, others only after they have convinced themselves). And Martha – not unlike Peter (Mt 16:16) – confesses her friend Jesus “the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (Jn 11:27). The historical impact of these women is short or non-existent, even today.

Not to diminish our Easter joy, but woman’s life in the church does not feel “redeemed” in every respect. There is too much hierarchical male dominance in the name of “divine right” and too little faithfulness to the biblical image of man, starting with the creation narratives up to Galatians 3:28.

The adoption of the respective current anthropologies has led to different ecclesiastical images of women that have one thing in common: What “being a woman” is has always been and still is decided by men in the Catholic Church – to the disadvantage of women.

From fluid transitions …

The ancient concept of gender thought of woman (including her sexual organs) as an unfinished “imperfect man.” Masculine and feminine did not denote biological differences, but rather characteristics and attitudes on a continuum between the poles of masculine-intellectual-strong and feminine-material/physical-weak. Women could find recognition by “masculinization,” while men could be “shamefully feminized.” Christian theologians from Origen to Thomas Aquinas have received and reflected on this image of women for over a millennium — perhaps one reason why, from ancient times, it was not necessary to argue specifically for the exclusion of women from the priesthood? The fact that women nevertheless served at the altars for centuries is shown by the repeatedly inculcated restrictions and prohibitions imposed by church authorities, which were often not enforced until much later.[1]

…to Cult purity

The Pauline “insignificance” of the sexes in Christ (Gal 3:28) turned into disdain, even contempt, especially for female sexuality. The late antique ideal of spiritualization in connection with cultic ideas of purity and sexual taboos was detrimental to women. As a periodically defiled and libidinous temptress, woman was incapable of liturgy. Only the “pure hands” of the supposedly asexual priest were allowed to touch the holy of holies.[2] Other effects of the menstrual taboo included: baptisms being postponed, church attendance being restricted, and the reception of communion being forbidden – even for women who had recently given birth. Even nuns were denied a view of the sanctuary during their menses.

The “essentially” different woman

The discovery of the “natural” biological otherness of women in the early modern period did not improve their situation. The new binary image of man merely transformed her previous deficits – feeling instead of understanding, devotion instead of leadership, etc. – into virtues and established them as female “essential characteristics.” The ecclesiastical ideal of the humble, pure, servant-obedient handmaiden of the Lord (or: of the lords?) was born from a male perspective: Mary-likeness instead of Christ-likeness is a topos that is still popular today.[3] How practical that such a strictly conceived complementarity also provides the (theologically untenable) “argument” that women cannot embody Christ in the ordained ministry for lack of “natural likeness” (!).

… and their “special” dignity

The social emancipation of women in the 20th century did not remain without effect on ecclesiastical thinking: John XXIII recognized that women “are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.“[4]

John Paul II, however, in his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Mulieres dignitatem – which he characteristically understands as a “Marian Year meditation” – conferred special dignities on women. The pope attaches importance to their otherness: “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different” (MD 10). By defining “virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality” he declares that “these two paths in the vocation of women as persons, explain and complete each other” (MD 17).  With the help of the Holy Spirit, women could realize that and “thus be disposed to making a ‘sincere gift of self’ to others thereby finding themselves” (MD 31). Male fantasies; once again, women’s rights are not general rights, but special rights! Most recently, Pope Francis, in his post-synodal letter Querida Amazonia (2020), hit the same narrow notch, dashing the hopes of Amazonian women. “Profoundly moved” by the testimony “of strong and generous women” he sums up: “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.”[5] The request for ordination of women deacons in a distressing pastoral situation went unheard.

One last Witness from the “Silent Church”

But there are Catholic ordained women priests. Following his motto, “Leadership is the granting of freedom” Bishop Felix M. Davidek ordained married men as bishops and women as priests in the Czech underground church during Communist rule, including his vicar general Ludmila Javorova. Attempts to positively involve the Vatican in advance had previously failed. Even before the fall of Communist states beginning in 1989, Davidek was defamed as mentally ill, then in 1996 ordained women were forbidden to exercise their ministry and were imposed the strictest silence. When the pressure from Rome on her sisters in priestly ministry became too great, Ludmila Javorova broke her silence and told her story.[6]

The conclusion? Whether “unworthy,” “equal in dignity,” “with special dignity,” or idealized into a devoted lover and bearer of a mission “of capital importance” … for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church,”[7] women remain “unequal” in the Catholic Church to this day. Could it be that this very injustice distorts the “true face” of the Church?

O Lord—how long?

[1] In fact, the sources are largely silent about the ordination of women to priestly ministry in the greater church; as things stand today, it seems unlikely.

[2] Comprehensive studies on this subject are fundamental works by Arnold Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, Darmstadt 22000; and most recently Ders. Ehe, Liebe und Sexualität im Christentum. Von den Anfängen bis heute, Munich 2015; Church historian Hubertus Lutterbach sums up: “Ab dem vierten Jahrhundert setzte sich das Ideal der kultischen Reinheit massiv durch und umfasste alle Bereiche des Alltags.” From this, he says, a “leistungsorientierte Verzichtsspiritualität” developed among clerics: ” Je höher der Verzicht, umso höher das Maß an kultischen Reinheit.” See: (accessed Nov. 08, 2017); in Ders, Fatale Sakralität, in: HK 4/2020, 43-47 (here 43), he argues for “diese Entwicklung zurückzudrehen.“

[3] In an interview with AMERICA magazine (Nov. 28, 2022), Pope Francis has reaffirmed the traditional patrine principle (of ministry and therefore male) and the Marian (female) principle.

[4] John XXIII, Enzyklika Pacem in Terris (1963) 41.

[5] Francis, Postsynodales Schreiben Querida Amazonia (2020) 101.

[6] She received the Herbert Haag Award for Freedom and Humanity in the Church in 2011.

[7] John Paul II, Apostolisches Schreiben Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) zitiert in Nr. 3 aus der Erklärung der Kongregation für die Glaubenslehre Inter Insigniores (1976) 6.

From the Wires: U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal

In December 2022, the Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline U.S. Catholic Priests Are Increasingly Conservative as Faithful Grow More Liberal: Almost half of young clergy in a survey disapprove of the liberalizing Pope Francis.” Citing ongoing research by the Austin Institute via the Survey of American Catholic Priests, the Journal reports:

younger Catholic priests and priests ordained in more recent years tend to be noticeably more conservative than older priests on a host of issues, including politics, theology and moral teaching.

In contrast to this, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found in 2021 that, among other figures,

thirty-five percent of millennial Catholics have considered leaving the church because of its teaching on LGBT issues.

Journal commentators attribute this divergence to a postmodern generation of priests “disillusioned with the ideas of progress and religious pluralism that found favor at Vatican II…more likely to stress the reinforcement of Catholic identity and the winning of converts.”

Most acutely to ecclesiastical life, the priestly generation gap extends to views on the current bishop of Rome:

Almost 80% of priests ordained before 1980 “approve strongly” of the current pontiff, compared with 20% of those ordained in 2010 or later, according to the 2021 survey. Nearly half of the younger priests disapprove of the pope, either “strongly” or “somewhat.”

Older priests may find this inconsistent with ordained life, seeing a generation of clergy “indoctrinated into total loyalty to the pope” who then “so easily dropped this loyalty when a new pope was elected…now they are only loyal to the pope if he agrees with them,” in the words of Rev. Thomas Reese, who was ordained in 1974.

In contrast, younger priests like Rev. Benjamin Petty (ordained 2019) maintain, “I didn’t become a priest because I wanted to be a culture warrior…I didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get up in the pulpit and convince all these ’70s libs.’”

Pray Tell readers may wonder: what does such divergence mean for the celebration of the Liturgy in the coming years, not to mention the life and health of the Church?

Time and the Holy Spirit will tell.

From the Wires: The Church’s Authority to Revise and Suppress Preconciliar Rites

Author David Gordon has blogged on church and liturgy at OnePeterFive and Church Militant. This piece is reprinted with the kind permission of Where Peter Is, where it was originally titled “Is It Time for the TLM to Go Away?”

Looking Through the Wrong End of the Telescope: Desiderio Desideravi and Pope Francis’ Ecclesial Vision

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin


Advances in astrophysics over the past decades have resulted in previously unimaginable developments in the design of telescopes.  Land-based telescopes not only have spaced-based partners but are increasingly rendered to be of secondary import by developments such as the Hubble telescope and its big brother the James Webb array.  Leading up to these advances, traditional optical telescopes had been enhanced with lasers, coupled with spectroscopes, and redesigned with complex mirror segmentations.  Then there are the radio telescopes and even cosmic ray telescopes that look nothing like what most amateurs point toward the stars; they are surprisingly devoid of any image-forming optical system that have traditionally defined the very nature of a telescope!

Despite all of these advances, it yet seems appropriate to employ the most common and original form of the telescope as a metaphor for the process of interpreting a document such as Pope Francis’ Desiderio desideravi: On the Liturgical Formation of the People of God.  In particular, it is important to discern which lenses provide the richest harvest from this quite modest Apostolic Letter.  The lens you employ will determine, to a great extent, what conclusions one might draw from such a document.  Just as looking through the wrong end of a telescope can provide serious distortions and even polar opposite images, so too can a poorly refracted interpretation of Desiderio desideravi do the same.

In this venture, I am inspired by the paradigm-shifting work of Massimo Faggioli and his rereading of Sacrosanctum Concilium in True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (2012).  What Faggioli makes clear is that if we only read the liturgy constitution as a “liturgical document” in the strict sense, then we miss much of its import.  As Faggioli has demonstrated, this first document of Vatican II actually served as a kind of roadmap for the ensuing documents, highlighting key spiritual and ecclesial themes such as holiness and participation.  Furthermore, as John O’Malley has acutely understood, this document introduced an entirely new conciliar lexicon, no longer deploying juridical and condemnatory church-speak, but instead embracing a pastoral vernacular of care and beauty, contextualized in rich biblical imagery (see his What Happened at Vatican II, 2008).

Similarly, it strikes me as fruitful not only to read Desiderio desideravi as an instruction on the Church’s liturgy but to consider it more broadly as a liturgical refraction of Francis’ larger ecclesial agenda.  When considered, for example, through the lenses of some of the Pope’s more expansive teachings and emphases a richer theological vision emerges.  Thus, we will consider three themes of Francis as lenses for revisiting Desiderio desideravi: the theological anthropology that premiered in Evangelii gaudium, the integral ecology of Laudato si’, and the vision of synodality emerging in preparation for the 2023 Synod on that theme.

Theological anthropology and Evangelii Gaudium:

The theological anthropology embedded in Desiderio desideravi has much resonance with that which Pope Francis first sounded in Evangelii gaudium.  In his inaugural 2013 apostolic exhortation, Francis consistently emphasized the nature, significance and even primacy of humanity (no 55) for evangelization.  Evangelizers must be in dialogue with human experience (no. 133), and interreligious dialogue itself is first and foremost “a conversation about human existence” (no. 250).  Few places in Evangelii gaudium display this respectful approach to dialogue as much as no. 257 in which he considers those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition “precious allies” in upholding human dignity and the pursuit of justice.  This is a theological anthropology that is both positive and ethical.

One of the drumbeats that underscore Desiderio desideravi is the centrality of encounter.  The liturgy itself is a preeminent place of encounter with Christ and each other (nos. 10ff).  This encounter is an event that enables believers to become fully human and, in turn, “conceive of the human being as a person, open to a full relationship with God, with creation, and with one’s brothers and sisters” (no. 35).  The concreteness of this encounter-vision is affirmed in the parallel way this document underscores the incarnational nature of our faith and worship (e.g., no. 48).  The liturgy has an irrefutable concreteness about it, grounded in the incarnation, in which Christ “satisfies his own thirst for us” (no. 11) and, in turn, calls us to live in continuity with the Incarnation (no. 12) and live completely the liturgical action (no. 29).

This more positive theological anthropology, sounding throughout the documents of Vatican II – especially  Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes – echoes through the Liturgy of Paul VI.  In contrast to a Tridentine Rite that consistently defined both the assembly and presider as sinners – ”Nobis quoque peccatoribus” – the reformed liturgy deems the faithful worthy to stand in God’s presence and serve: “nos dignos habuisti astare coram te et tibi ministrare.”  This stance in the liturgy of the church is, not surprisingly, also meant to be our missionary stance in the liturgy of the world: one of mercy and welcome rather than judgment and exclusion, where all are made in the image of God and worthy to stand on holy ground.

Laudato si’ and Integral ecology:

A second useful lens for considering Desiderio desideravi is that of Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for our common home, Laudato si’.  This magisterial encyclical enlightens many strands of Desiderio desideravi.  The incarnational and concrete emphases in this liturgical instruction find a much broader theological framework in the previous magisterial encyclical.  Consider, for example, how the language of beauty permeates both documents.  Most often, Desiderio desideravi employs the language of beauty in reference to the liturgical celebration itself (e.g., nos. 1, 10, 16, 22, 23).  Yet, it also echoes the broader themes of beauty on display throughout Laudato si’ in reference to creation, which reflects the infinite beauty of God (e.g., no. 243).

Francis’ emphasis that the beauty of the liturgy is not some search for a ritual aesthetic concerned with exteriors (no. 23) is well interpreted by Laudato si’ noting that care for creation is an “ethical and spiritual” journey.  Recognizing beauty in all of its cultural-contextual diversity and safeguarding such beauty requires the kind of generous theological anthropology previously highlighted in Pope Francis’ other teachings.  Only such will allow us not only to be observers but emissaries of beauty, deeply concerned with how authentic beauty concretely and incarnationally plays out in “people’s quality of life” (Laudato si’, no. 150).

Maybe most instructive from the lens of Laudato si’ is Pope Francis’ insight that ecology is not simply about halting global warming and insuring that all people have access to fresh drinking water.  Rather it requires an integrity based upon the notion of the common good.  An “integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics” (no. 156).  Considering the beauty of the liturgy and the need for a style of celebration that is truly “art” (i.e., ars celebrandi, Desiderio desideravi, nos. 50ff.) similarly requires a kind of liturgical ecology that is inseparable from the common good of the church and the world.  If the liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life (Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 10), then it is the preeminent articulation of our shared life and mission.  Thus, liturgical formation, at its core, is not simply about enacting a more robust or satisfying worship event, but rather nourishing the baptized to live their liturgical spirituality as missionary disciples (Evangelii gaudium, no. 24) in a world that yet thirsts for life-giving water in untold ways.


A third possible lens for reading Desiderio desideravi – the one I personally find the most compelling – is Francis’ emerging agenda regarding synodality.  While he has spoken about this in a variety of speeches, homilies, and writings, his vision of synodality finds its fullest official expression to date in the International Theological Commission’s “Synodality in the life and Mission of the Church” and the Preparatory document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, entitled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”

These documents, which draw heavily upon Pope Francis’ teachings, emphasize that this expanding vision of synodality is not about governance but about a way of being together.  Synodality in the broadest sense is a spirituality, intent upon supplying every “institutional reality with a soul,” intent upon reshaping hearts for acquiring the affectus synodalis (“Synodality,” no. 109).  The constant theme of this spirituality is “journeying together.”  This journey is marked by three key characteristics – ones that are fundamentally linked in language, theology, and practice to the reformed liturgy: communion, participation, and mission.

The liturgical spirituality that Desiderio desideravi cultivates is reinforced, properly interpreted, and enhanced by Francis’ vision of this fresh way of being Church.  While synods of bishops were reestablished by Pope Paul VI in 1965, they were fundamentally hierarchical gatherings serving as consultative to the Pope.  For Francis, however, synodality embraces the entire people of God in spirit and in truth.  It is a way of being with each other in mutual respect in service of the Church and its mission to the world that the liturgy must reflect and rehearse.  This optic explodes collegiality beyond episcopal and clerical boundaries and respects the baptized and their unique sensus fidelium.

More explicitly than Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’, Francis unequivocally considers this newly invigorated vision of synodality as deeply rooted in Vatican II.  This “walking together,” as it is often characterized in the relevant documents, is a fresh blossoming of the communion ecclesiology that emerged from that Council.  It is a radical embrace of the call to dialogue so brilliantly articulated in Paul VI’s too often forgotten encyclical Ecclesiam suam, released in the midst of that Council

When one reads Desiderio desideravi through a synodal lens, it emerges as an ecclesial document in liturgical mode.  Its emphasis on embodiment, dialogue, relationality, encounter, incarnation, and beauty is a broader commentary on the nature of the church itself.  The refutation of clericalism – a common theme from Pope Francis – is undeniable here.  In that vein, the implicit and explicit rejection of Summorum Pontificum (2007) of Pope Benedict XVI and the parallel reaffirmations of Traditionis custodes (2021) found in this document are at their heart an enhanced vision of communion ecclesiology and a reaffirmation of the teachings of Vatican II.  Thus, Francis writes:

“It would be trivial to read the tensions, unfortunately present around the celebration, as a simple divergence between different tastes concerning a particular ritual form.  The problem is primarily ecclesiological.  I do not see how it is possible to say that one recognizes the validity of the Council – though it amazes me that a Catholic might presume not to do so – and at the same time not accept the liturgical reform born out of Sacrosanctum Concilium” (Desiderio desideravi, no. 33)


The reformed liturgy does not simply supply official texts and rubrics, but an ecclesial pathway for becoming the people of God faithfully and authentically.  The liturgy, in this sense, at its heart is a spiritual technology: rehearsing and nourishing the path to and through God’s reign marked by communion, participation, and mission.  In studying and implementing this document, therefore, it is essential that we do not corral it in some liturgical silo or refract it only through a worship lens, thus muting its reforming and ecclesial message.  While Desiderio desideravi can be useful in liturgical formation, its positive theological anthropology and strong creational/incarnational voice need to be joined with the synodal journey to enhance and encourage the yet unrealized vision of Vatican II in service of the missio Dei.  And to those who rightly critique the document for its paucity of pastoral directives about how to proceed with this intended formation, I would suggest that the plethora of such directives in Evangelii gaudium, Laudato si’ and the documents on synodality provide a cornucopia of ideas and pedagogies for enacting an authentic and integrative liturgical formation.

This post is based on a talk given to the Catholic Academy of Liturgy on January 5, 2023.

Amen Corner: The Fijian Meal Tradition

Previously published in Worship 96 (October 2022).

The Fijian Meal Tradition:
An Invitation to Liturgical Inculturation
By Iosefo Lui and Carmel Pilcher

The Fijian Islands are world renowned for their friendliness and generous hospitality to visitors. The locals are extremely gracious to any newcomer, most especially when it comes to sharing food. If one is walking by a family sharing a picnic in a park inevitably someone in the group will call out with the greeting, “Come and eat.” Commensality is characteristic of many societies but is a special characteristic of Fiji and the neighboring Pacific Islands.

A formal meeting or a catch-up with a friend will always include food.
No Fijian ever comes empty-handed to a gathering, and their offerings will be bountiful. The customary “bring a plate” in Western society could more accurately be described as “bring many plates” in Fiji—soqo. When the host provides an overabundance of food the guest is expected to come back for “seconds.” The host will typically urge everyone to “have some more.”

Whether a family gathering or a ceremonial meal commemorating a special event, meal sharing always includes a formal element, spoken or unspoken. Food is shared and so is time. Fijians joke that they live in their own “Pacific time.” Spending hours preparing a meal is only eclipsed by the time that participants will take to enjoy both the food and each other. Thomas O’Loughlin tells us that “societies express and define themselves by their meal practices.”(1) If this is so then Fijian society can be described as exceptionally hospitable, generous, and respectful of all persons, friend or stranger alike.

Fijian commensality extends to their religious faith. Catholics come to celebrate Eucharist, not only on Sundays, but often on weekdays. Baptisms, funerals and anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, all are celebrated in the context of Eucharist and continue with a shared meal. Conscious of Pope Francis’s call to Indigenous peoples to inculturate the liturgy, (2) we ask the question: could aspects of Fijian cultural meals be incorporated into the church’s eucharistic tradition? (3)

Indigenous Fijians have a long and rich cultural tradition surrounding meals. In the villages locals gather to eat twice a day—in the morning before working in the fields, and for the more important meal in the evening, when every person in the household is present, including the head of the family and the elders. (4) Seniority and gender determine the sitting arrangements around the ibe ni kana—eating mat. Elders and heads of households sit at the head or upper end of the circle facing the main entrance of the house, then the sons, in order of seniority. The women and girls sit at the other end so that they can serve the meal, which is placed in the center of the circle. While the women eat last, it is expected that those served first ensure enough food is left for all to eat.

When a family sits around the eating mat for an evening meal on any given day the participation of the whole family and the sense of presence to each other symbolizes unity, respect, and care for each other. Traditional meal sharing ex- tends beyond the family. The women always prepare more food than is needed to accommodate extra guests. It is customary that the head of the household invites anyone who passes by during mealtime to join the meal. Moreover, leftovers symbolise sautu—prosperity. Each family belongs to a clan or village. Whatever an individual or individual household does, for good or for ill, affects the whole village. If the family is divided or there is insufficient food to feed guests, not only is the family found wanting, but the reputation of the village is also at stake.

Ceremonial meals such as a wedding feast, a birthday, or a funeral, follow the pattern of a family meal, but with additional elements. When all the participants are gathered on the mat, magiti—a ritual presentation of food that might also include mats, kerosene, or even the most highly prized gift of all, the tabua, whale’s tooth—are ritually presented. Accompanying the magiti is vosa—a formal speech given by the matanivanua—a special clan of orators who act as spokespersons for the chief of the village. It is their role to acknowledge the occasion in the context of vanua (5)—the deep interconnectedness that indigenous Fijians experience not only with the land, the sea, and each other but, by extension, with all of creation.

In Fijian society the matanivanua, the orator, whose craft is passed from generation to generation through instruction and imitation, gives vosa, voice, to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua. The vosa always follows the same pattern, a threefold structure. It begins with au vura saka—an acknowledgement of the chief and people— before the central message is communicated, and always concludes with the words:

“Au tekivuna tiko mai vuna, vagauna taka tiko, me yaco yani sovuna, me savurogo I lomani vale.”

“I end the message, beginning from the roots to the stem, to the shoots, may the message find a hearing in the house.”

The participants then proclaim with one voice: “Io”—“yes,” followed by cobo—three hollow claps. Then follows another speech, ulivi ni vosa, that acknowledges reception of the message. To that speech the gathering responds, “Mana eiii dina”—“Amen—let it be.” (6)

In ancient Fijian tradition, customary rituals always culminated in the sharing of a meal, whether the occasion called for gratitude, reconciliation, or healing. With every first harvest of the land or catch from the sea, a meal was prepared and ceremonially given to the chief or to the priest with gratitude to persons, the land, and the gods who continued to provide them with bounty from generation to generation. Today vosa is offered to soldiers and people before they leave their home shores for duties across the seas, depart for boarding school, or visit another island—vanua. It belongs to a father when he addresses a member of the household to redress a wrong done, or for appreciation for a task fulfilled, and to a village when vanua is broken by deliberate acts of harm toward persons or a group or the land itself. Fijians continue to ritualize their belief and hope through commensality, in the past to the creator gods and, with the advent of Christianity, to the God of Jesus, confident that the creator God would continue to nourish the land and sea for the livelihood of the people. (7)

So many elements of Fijian meal sharing are comparable to Jesus’ own meal sharing recorded in the Scriptures. The lavish nature of a Fijian meal recalls
the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus provided an abundance of wine for
the guests when the wine supply ran low, thus avoiding shame for the hosts. Fijian women who serve with love and care identify with the Christ who washed the disciples’ feet at the final supper before his death. Those friendships forged by Jesus at meals, particularly with the outcast and those needing forgiveness, reflect Fijian hospitality that welcomes the stranger without questioning status or background. The Fijian gathering around an eating mat arranged hierarchically but structurally a circle where those served first are mindful of all concurs with Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:17-33) that at the Lord’s Supper all are welcome and are to behave as one body in Christ. Scholars re- mind us that the banquet stories, often put onto the lips of Jesus, anticipate the Parousia. This could also be said of the long Fijian tradition of meal sharing.

Christians gather with each other on Sunday to commemorate the Lord’s Supper. With the same care taken to prepare their own meals, Fijian Catholics take time to prepare for Sunday Eucharist. They decorate the sanctuary space with beautiful flowers and special cloths, usually the color of the liturgical season. They also reflect on the Word of God each week with their own family and local parish sector. Fijians ensure that the music to be sung is the best it can be by regular practice. For a special celebration the choir might gather for weeks to practice the hymns for several hours each evening. The glorious Pacifican singing not only binds the liturgy together but lifts it to a higher plane, so that it brings about a sense of the divine in the present.

But when it comes to the prayers of the Eucharist, it is simply assumed that these belong to the ordained priest who will make his own choices and prepare his homily, generally without any connection to the peoples’ insights from their own Bible study, or even to the intentions of the universal prayer. There seems a clear demarcation in the minds of those who participate in the Lord’s Supper between what the priest prepares and does, and what “belongs” to the assembly. This is such a contrast with the Fijian meal tradition where, although people take on different tasks, there is a sense that everyone works together, and when the celebration takes place, it is one meal where each relates to the other, bonded in friendship through the common food that is shared.

The gap between Fijian and church traditional meal sharing became clearer
in 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic. Fiji was in lockdown for seven continuous months to overcome the quick spread of the delta virus.
This had a serious effect on the society’s meal-sharing tradition. Not only was any form of gathering forbidden by the government, but domestic meals were limited to the food that was available. Rather than food in abundance, Fijian families who were struck by sickness and unemployment found they did not even have sufficient food each day. Many started growing crops, while others had to rely on the generosity of others. Food packages were delivered to the poor in villages. Sadly, despite restrictions in movement many caught the virus, and too many people died. Because people were unable to physically gather, all meal sharing ceased and no traditional rites could be performed.

Faith leaders responded to the closure of places of worship by providing alternatives. Catholics were able to access televised and livestreamed Masses led by priests from their homes. The livestreaming and recordings of the Eucharist served a pastoral need, as is evident by the many Catholics who tuned in daily for the celebration of the Eucharist. The eucharistic celebration followed the usual format, but with only the ordained and whoever else might be physically resident in his home celebrating. Meanwhile families gathered in their homes, around their technological device that was often surrounded by religious images. They sang the hymns and prayed the responses, albeit remotely. At the time of the usual Communion procession to the table, a prayer desiring spiritual communion was recited while the presider ate and drank alone.

Issues about virtual Mass have been addressed by many liturgical scholars. Here we wish only to comment on the eucharistic meal tradition as under- stood by Fijian Catholics. With the restrictions brought about by the government’s response to the pandemic, Fijians were quick to realize that without physical presence it was not possible to share a ceremonial meal. By contrast, those same people did not question virtually celebrating the Eucharist—also a meal—only expressing disappointment that they could not partake in Communion.

The church teaches that each Sunday an assembly of priestly people gathers
to be fed and nourished, both at the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. Fijian worshipers did not seem to understand this clearly. Could including aspects of the rich heritage of Fijian meal sharing in eucharistic celebrations strengthen the Fijian consciousness to realize that the memorial meal is central to the celebration of the Eucharist?

Earlier we established that there are enough common elements between the two meal traditions to enter into a meaningful dialogue between the ancient cultural wisdom of Fijian commensality and the memorial meal of the Eucharist. So what might this look like?

Sitting on the floor is the Fijian gesture for respect. In village churches where most sit on mats during the celebration, the ritual meal of Eucharist would be visually strengthened if the presider and lector also sat on those same mats at low tables. Cloths that embellish the space, and vestments, could be tapa— traditionally made cloths with local earth-colored patterns—rather than the typical seasonally imported colored cloths of the Roman tradition.

The presentation of magiti is comparable to the bringing of gifts to the eucharistic table. While usually bread and wine and soli—monetary gifts—are presented, in addition, first fruits and other contributions including those ritually offered at a traditional ceremonial meal could be presented. They could be presented using the traditional gesture of outstretched hands and received in the usual Fijian manner—with the recipient clapping—cobo. It would help make the connection between the gifts brought to the table and the meal to be shared. Just as no Fijian considers eating alone, or from food prepared from another meal, so all share in communion with the body and blood of Christ’s sacrifice in communion at the table.

The presider, deacon, and lectors pray in God’s name and speak God’s Word. They are the matanivanua, the orators, at a celebration of the Eucharist in Fiji. (8) They too speak the vosa, giving voice to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua that connects all of creation in Christ, continuing the memory of the ancestors. Mindful of Pope Francis’s instruction that the homily is a dialogue (9) it would be possible to craft the homily with the threefold structure of the vosa of the matanivanua, the ulivi ni vosa, and the congregational responses, which would both make a direct connection with a Fijian ceremonial meal and also enhance conscious and active participation for the assembly. (10)

The traditional meal sharing reflects how indigenous Fijians (11) view their society, and what it should be. A critical reflection of traditional societal meal sharing, including the way ancient ceremony has been moderated and adjusted over time to suit current situations seems opportune. This study would make it possible to identify Fijian values that are also Christian and that continue to be affirmed both ritually and symbolically at meals. The eucharistic meal celebrates the paschal mystery, a memorial meal of Christ’s selfless love. A catechesis of the eucharistic celebration based on the gospel meal tradition could assist Catholics to realize what it is that they do when they gather around the table of Eucharist as Christ’s priestly people on the Lord’s Day.

Inculturating the liturgy is a challenge to us all, but when embraced fully it can bring about genuine participation that flows into right living. A re-evaluation of traditional meal sharing can serve to restore cultural values, just as a deliberate attempt to bring into the Christian liturgy elements of Fijian meal sharing might provide a conscious eucharistic celebration that ensures the community that what is celebrated as a memorial of Christ’s meal tradition flows into everyday life.


1) Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings (London: T & T Clark, 2015), 86.

2) Pope Francis reminded the Amazonian church that “[t]he Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy amongst indigenous peoples.” Francis, Querida Amazonia 82, _exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20200202_querida -amazonia.html.

3) We are grateful for the valuable insights of Dr. Peter Loy Chong, the current archbishop of Suva, who both affirmed our conclusions and has already begun the process of implementing them.

4) Details concerning traditional Fijian meals are sourced from Asesela Ravuvu, The Fijian Way of Life: The Many Functions of Food (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 1993).

5) For a Fijian understanding of vanua see Dr. Donato Kivi’s explanation in the previous essay in Worship: “The Pandemic Push for Inculturation,” Worship 96 (July 2022): 197.

6) We acknowledge Dr. Peter Loy Chong for this explanation and translation.

7) Ilaitia Tuwere, Vanua: Towards a Fijian Theology of Place (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 2002), 173.

8) At a recent ordination in Suva, Archbishop Peter Loy Chong used the matanivanua as an analogy for the role of the deacon and a homilist.

9) Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 137, /apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii -gaudium.html.

10) Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is in the process of instructing his catechists to preach in the pattern of the matanivanua at a traditional meal when they lead services of Word and Communion in remote villages. Communicated by email: May 5, 2022.

11) While our discussion only focused on indigenous Fijians, Indo and Chinese Fijians (and others who call Fiji home) could bring their own traditional cultural values to enhance the liturgy.