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Fr. Vincent's First Mass

Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith with newly Ordained Fr. Vincent Tawake
A Columban Missionary Debt of Gratitude

By Fr. Donal McIlraith

On Saturday, August 19, 2023, Deacon Vincent Tawake CM was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Suva, Dr. Peter Loi Chong. Some 30 priests attended the ordination. I had accompanied Fr. Vincent on and off during his eight years of formation at the pacific Regional seminary in Suva, Fiji. The next day his first Mass was help in his home village of Navatuyaba in the Rewa Delta about twenty miles outside Suva. I was asked to preach at the first Mass and was glad to do so for Vincent’s sake but also because I felt a double debt of gratitude that needed to be paid. I felt that as a Columban I could in a tiny way repay some of the Columban debt of gratitude to the Vincentians.

Columban Fr. Donal with Fr. Vincent and his dad Labert
Columban Fr. Donal (center) with Fr. Vincent (right) and his dad Labert

The Gospel was the challenging one of the story of the Caananite woman who asks Jesus to heal her possessed daughter in Matthew 15. I announced that we had two special guests with us this Sunday, St. Vincent and the Caananite woman. St. Vincent’s priorities, as I understood them, were threefold, the poor, the education of the clergy and the missions. And, strange as it may seem, Jesus is dealing with all three of St. Vincent’s priorities in this Gospel.

Firstly, we are in a missionary situation. Jesus is probably in gentile territory. He is approached by a gentile. Mathew emphasized a lot that Jesus’ focus was on His own people, the Jews. The disciples just want Jesus to send the woman away as a nuisance. They get a good education today. This woman can be called poor, maybe not materially, we just don’t know, but anyone whose daughter is possessed qualifies for poverty of some sort.

Three times she addresses Jesus as Lord. She even uses a messianic title for Him, Son of David. The first time, Jesus does not even answer her. The second time He explains He has come for the Jews and cannot give the bread of the children (the Eucharist?) to puppies. She is not to be outdone. Even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from the table. Jesus’ strategy now becomes clear. He has been testing her faith and she has come through with flying colors. “Woman, great is your faith.”

This gentile with magnificent faith no doubt prepares the way for Jesus’ great commission at the end of Matthew, “Going therefor make disciples of all nations.” I then reminded Fr. Vincent of the final question the Archbishop put to him before ordaining him. This is one to which we must all pay attention. “Are you resolved to unite yourself each day more closely to Jesus”?


He now must live two sharings in Christ’s priesthood, his baptismal one and the new sharing he just received from the Holy Spirit, this new identification with Jesus whereby Jesus, the bridegroom, will use him to bring the presence and love of Jesus to his beloved wife and bride, the Church.

Fr. Vincent will begin his ministry in the Vincentian parish of Natovi here in Fiji where 90-year-old Fr. Alan Finn, CM, of Australia is part of the team.

In the course of my homily, I briefly mentioned the missionary debt that we Columbans owe the Vincentians. In 1912, Canadian Fr. Fraser brought Fr. Edward Galvin, the Missionary Society of St. Columban co-founder, to China from Holy Rosary Parish in Brooklyn where he was on loan from Cork Diocese. Fr. Fraser took Fr. Galvin to the Vincentian vicariate of Western Chekiang (Zhechiang) in China. Here he was introduced to China. The Vincentian bishop, Paul Albert Faveau, welcomed Fr. Galvin into his diocese and immediately got him studying Chinese. Some time later, when Bishop Faveau saw that Fr. Galvin has a talent for the language, he sent him down to Shanghai to the Vincentian procure in order to study under a famous Vincentian Chinese scholar, Fr. Luke. Here Fr. Galvin improved his grasp of Chinese and also got very valuable experience on how a procure worked. This proved invaluable to him later as Bishop of Hanyang and to the Columbans.

Back to the village of Navatuyaba. The Tui Tonga, the Chief of the Region, had invited everyone of every faith to attend the Mass of the first priest from their district. A huge crowd was present and the Mass and subsequent celebrations was truly impressive. I also had a personal debt to pay that day. From 2016 to 2010, I lived in a house in this village for half of every week to improve my Fijian. The first half of the week I taught at the seminary in Suva. The second half, I ministered in Navatuyaba. And Fr. Vincent’s father, then a headmaster and now the village catechist, Labert Tawake, was my Fijian teacher —with the rest of the village. Thank you in Fijian is Vinaka Vaka Levu.

Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith lives and works in Fiji.