Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Fiji’s capital, Suva, last month to farewell the late head of the Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Emeritus Petero Mataca. In a ceremony full of the pomp and ritual of the world’s largest Christian church, the first local Catholic bishop was laid to rest after succumbing to cancer, The liturgy of the Resurrection Mass showcased the ethnic and cultural diversity of Fijian Catholicism with prayers or readings in six languages. Mataca, 81, during close to four decades as Archbishop of Suva, successfully integrated aspects of local culture and language into worship. He also encouraged unity across the ethnic divide which has for so long torn at the fabric of the nation’s existence.
In 2006 Mataca joined the National Council for Building a Better Fiji, an organisation formed by military strongman (then) Commodore Frank Bainimarama to create a framework for a unified country. The move caused friction within the Catholic community but Mataca defended his actions as a genuine attempt to bring about reconciliation in a fragmented society. His sacrifice was recognised by an award from the State and the attendance at his funeral by the President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, and Fiji’s interim Prime Minister Rear-Admiral (retired) Bainimarama. When former President the late Ratu Josefa Iloilo abrogated the constitution in 2009 after Bainimarama’s regime was declared illegal by the High Court, Mataca was shattered.
By then, however, censorship prevented the nation from hearing of the concerns of its most senior cleric. Mataca continued to preach tolerance, inclusivity and love for neighbour until his retirement in 2014. Shortly before he stepped down as head of Fiji’s Catholic faithful, Mataca expressed his deep desire to return to his village of Vuaki in Fiji’s west. “I want to go back to my village and spend time reading and fishing,” he said, showing off a brand new rod and reel. That dream was never to be fulfilled. Most of his last 12 months – after installing Archbishop Peter Loy Chong – were spent in hospitals in New Zealand and Fiji. Despite his grave illness, Mataca remained devoted to his faith and the church. In a poignant reflection, Archbishop Chong reflected on his predecessor’s continued support and guidance.
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