Vodafone Arena, Suva, Fiji(Exterior)

Ordination of Archbishop Peter Loy Chong, Vodafone Arena, Suva, Fiji


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Ordination of Archbishop Peter Loy Chong
Location: Vodafone Arena, Suva, Fiji
Date of visit: Saturday, 8 June 2013, 9:00am

The building

The Vodafone Arena is a large indoor sports stadium, built originally for the South Pacific Games in 2003, and now used not only for sports but for all sorts of large gatherings, including musical concerts, university examinations, and even the occasional church service. Since the Sacred Heart Cathedral holds not many more than 1000 people, and about 10,000 were expected to attend the episcopal ordination, this venue was chosen and specially adapted to purpose: a large stage was erected at one end of the arena, with an altar and a 20 meter high painted backdrop, specially painted for the occasion, showing a representation of Jesus and the emblem of the new archbishop. Unfortunately for the university students who sat an examination in the arena two days later, the backdrop was not left in place as an inspiration to them!

The church

The Archdiocese of Suva covers the whole of Fiji. There are about 80,000 Catholics in Fiji, i.e. about 10 per cent of the population, most of them active churchgoers.

The neighborhood

Suva is the national capital of Fiji; about one-third of the population now live in the greater Suva area. The Vodafone Arena is part of the national sports complex at Laucala Bay, a suburb of Suva. Across the road is the national outdoor stadium, and behind is the national aquatic centre. Nearby is the main campus of the University of the South Pacific.

The cast

The Most Revd Petero Mataca, retiring Archbishop of Suva, was the principal consecrating bishop. He was assisted by the Most Revd John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, and the Most Revd Soane Mafi, Bishop of Tonga. In the procession there were six other mitred bishops from the Pacific region; the Rt Revd Winston Halapua, Anglican Bishop of Polynesia (unmitred on this occasion); and the 150 priests of the diocese plus a few priests from other countries. All of these (except Bishop Halapua) assisted in the distribution of the eucharist. Invited guests included leaders of other churches, the president, prime minister and all the government ministers of Fiji (most of whom are not Catholics, but who rightly saw this an important milestone for the nation), the diplomatic corps, the extended family of Archbishop Chong, and members of his former congregation in California.

What was the name of the service?

The Episcopal Ordination of Archbishop Peter Loy Chong as Archbishop of Suva.

How full was the building?

With seats in what is normally the playing area plus the tiered seating on the sides, the Vodafone Arena can hold about 7000 people. The service had been billed as a "once in lifetime event" justifiably, since the previous installation was in 1974 and all 35 parishes were urged to send representatives. One parish sent 13 busloads! Faced with such enthusiasm, the new archbishop himself had decided that the bulk of the seating would be unticketed, with overflow provided with a big screen outside, and the whole service broadcast live on radio, television and the internet.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Like everyone else who reached the entrance gates, I was given a copy of the souvenir service booklet by one of the numerous volunteer attendants. I chatted briefly with others in the queue at the gate, one of whom asked if I was a Columban father - an understandable mistake, as like most of those fathers, I am an older white male, of which there are not many in Fiji.

Was your pew comfortable?

But alas, the gates had just been closed to all except invited ticketholders; it was already full inside. There were tents (marquees) outside also already mostly full and plenty of (muddy) standing room from which to view the service on a specially erected big screen. However, I opted to go back home and watch it on television!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The 300-strong choir were in full voice with "gathering hymns" beginning more than an hour before the posted start time. Large amplifiers carried their harmonious strains to the people immediately outside, and indeed to the wider neighbourhood.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I cannot say for sure, as the archbishop's microphone was not properly connected to the television hook-up at the start of the service (although it was fixed soon afterward).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A souvenir booklet printed in full glossy colour, with a photo of Archbishop Chong on the cover. It contained not only the order of service (with full words of the ordination rite but not of the mass), but also several articles of relevance to the occasion, including a potted history of the diocese, short biographies of both the new and the retiring archbishop, and an outline of the procedure and criteria for selecting a bishop.

What musical instruments were played?

A Chinese drummer led the procession into the arena. (This had been requested by the new archbishop to honour the Chinese part of his ancestry.) The choir sang on their own before the service but were well backed by the congregation and occasional trumpet blasts during the mass itself. In the Pacific, even Catholic congregations sing well and with gusto, though usually in unison (as on this occasion) rather than in the four-part harmony common in other denominations.

Did anything distract you?

The sound track of the telecast was a major distraction. Sound levels fluctuated badly, with no sound at all for some parts of the service. During the procession, but fortunately not so much during the mass itself, there was a trilingual commentary (in English, Fijian and Hindi, the main languages of Fiji) explaining the significance of what was happening and was about to happen. While useful, especially to the majority of viewers, who would not have a copy of the service booklet, for me it added to the volume control issues, and sometimes drowned out what was being said or sung at the service. And of course it was fun to identify not only the notable guests but also some of my friends and acquaintances as the camera occasionally panned around the congregation.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The main part of the service was of course suitably formal, befitting the occasion. Most of the it was in English (the shared formal language of Fiji) but some hymns and one of the Bible readings were in Fijian (the first language of most Catholics in Fiji). The service comprised the liturgy of the Word (Bible readings) followed by the ordination rite and then the liturgy of the eucharist. The apostolic letter appointing the new archbishop was read in both English and Fijian. During the prayers just before the laying on of hands by the three consecrating bishops, the candidate prostrated himself before the altar and the assembled bishops and priests, which emphasised the solemnity of the occasion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Archbishop Mataca spoke in English. He moved and spoke slowly and deliberately as befits a man of 80 years. Even so, it is clear that he is still in command of his thoughts and body.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God has sent people into the world to serve him (Gen 1, Eph 3, John 17). Through the unbroken succession of bishops, this mission and the power given by the Holy Spirit continue to be handed down. The new archbishop's task will be to see that the love of our Saviour grows and spreads. When wealth is served, violence comes, because God is not at the centre of those peoples world. But others of our people live in squatter settlements and cry for our assistance; we must act as their brothers and sisters, for we are all sons and daughters of God. Yet others of our people live in villages as subsistence farmers and fishermen, surrounded by God's creation. All of us, especially women and children, are thirsting for God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The vision of Christ in the beautiful backdrop was certainly heavenly, as was the sharing of the eucharist by so many people, including those literally on the outside. And one could, with a little imagination, think of all those in white behind the altar as representing the heavenly host. Also, a few less formal touches said a lot about the new archbishop and his vision for the church in Fiji. He highlighted its inclusivity by having not only the Chinese drummers at the start, but also a male Fijian dancer in full traditional bark-cloth (masi) leading the offertory procession, and a doxology (aarti) with diya lamps (small round oil lamps made of clay) held by a small group of Indo-Fijian ladies during the eucharist.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

If it was like heaven inside, then my being shut out at the door would have to rate as hellish. Though perhaps it was only limbo, as I could still catch glimpses of heaven through the miracle of television.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Archbishop Chong's short speech near the end of the service was basically one of thanks to all who had supported him, including the Pope, his parents, and all those present today, before he personally greeted many of the congregation on his procession out. But as I was at home, Mrs Tukai put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea ...

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

... made the way I like it.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – The message of God's love for us all and the desire to put that message into action came through clearly, which is what one wants in a church. But I would not want a three-hour service every week, and this venue would seem cavernously empty with a more normal-sized congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Certainly. The feeling of inclusion in a diverse group of Christians was manifest.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The backdrop and the crowd so large that even this venue could not accommodate all who wanted to be part of the event.

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