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)
THE FIJIAN MEAL TRADITION
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)
THE MEAL TRADITION OF JESUS
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.
A COVID INTERRUPTION
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?
A WAY FORWARD
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, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost _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, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en /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.