Fr Iowane Has Many Strings to his Bow

Apr 12, 2024

Our newest Columban missionary priest has already lived many different lives, writes Fr Frank Hoare.  

Fr Iowane Naio speaks five languages and has lived in five different cultures and will soon add to that. But his roots are in Namau Settlement about 10 km from Ba town on the Western side of Viti Levu, Fiji.

When he was in class three, the Indo-Fijian farmer, for whom his father was cutting cane, asked for Iowane to live with them. Iowane didn’t know why his parents agreed but didn’t ask them. He found it hard to adjust but the farmer and his wife were very loving to him. He enjoyed playing soccer and learning to read and write Hindi. He used to participate in a Fijian dance meke and in Hindi drama for the school concerts.

Iowane returned to his Fijian family after finishing class 8 because that was the deal, although no one had told him beforehand. The extended Indo-Fijian family brought him back and, using Fijian ritual, apologised for any hurt they caused him and thanked his Fijian family for him. They in turn thanked the Indo-Fijian family for caring for him. Then they all had a party and Iowane felt good about the way things were concluded.

Three years later his Indian father died suddenly. His widow asked for Iowane to live with them again and take her two young children daily to the bus stop. Iowane was upset to be separated again from his twin brother, but his Fijian mother persuaded him to help out. He lived happily again with the Indian family for the next four years until they emigrated.

But In Form 6, he lost focus and failed the Fiji School Leaving Certificate Exam. He lost hope, feeling that there was nothing for him now but sugarcane farming.

A sugarcane farmer, Hari, promised dishonestly to give some land if he and two brothers cut his cane for a few years. In 2009 another farmer, Prakash, who was emigrating, made a written contract with Iowane to give him his farm after five years of cane cutting. The transfer went through, and it was the happiest moment of Iowane’s working life when he gave the farm to his family.

In 2010, while potato farming in the highlands, an Assembly of God pastor taught him to match his lifestyle with the Word of God and wanted him to become a minister. He refused but began to think of becoming a priest.

He began to pray for this intention, and he told a Columban lay missionary about his desire. An IQ test and seminary English test revealed his intelligence. So after some preparation he was accepted as a Columban seminarian.

He studied for three years at Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva and was then sent to study theology in Manila. He felt challenged there at first but afterwards he was grateful to have studied theology in Loyola University in Manila. Columban formation there broadened his understanding of mission and stretched him to discover his potential. Pastoral work with the third generation of people living in a cemetery shocked him to the core.

Three years later, Iowane was sent for overseas training to Peru. After studying Spanish in Bolivia Iowane went to a parish in Lima. He struggled to adapt to the cold in the early months but the Columban hospitality encouraged him greatly. He related well with the people and found that they accepted him with his limited Spanish. He enjoyed playing soccer with the neighbourhood youths.

Rev Iowane Naio

The COVID 19 lockdown made life difficult. Religious gatherings were replaced by ZOOM prayer sessions. Iowane had responsibility for shopping for the presbytery household and he continued to exercise as much as possible. He continued to learn from the people of the parish and from his pastoral advisor. His quiet self-confidence drew respect and trust.

Iowane returned then to Manila, finished his theology course and was ordained deacon before returning to Fiji. Rev. Iowane then worked as a deacon in Labasa parish on Vanua Levu since November 2023.

As a deacon, he preached regularly at Mass, celebrated weddings and funerals, brought communion to the sick and participated in community prayer meetings and discussions. He emphasizes ministry as self-sacrificing service. He asked a Sister and a teacher to critique his homilies with him. He showed patience in the face of anger from some people in a community far from the parish centre.

Iowane’s ordination on Wednesday, 10th April 2024 was a memorable occasion. About 500 people attended. Fifteen volunteers spent the whole rainy night preparing two big pigs, dozens of chickens and mountains of root crops for the earth oven in which they were cooked at our Formation House. The generosity, self-sacrifice and community of Pacific culture on display. “We are honoured to be part of this great function,” they said.

Earth oven in Formation House grounds

The ordination was conducted in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fijian and with elements of Fijian culture integrated. The reception afterwards was held at the Columban Canter House in Suva. Fr Iowane was accorded a traditional welcome with a yaqona ceremony. The guests enjoyed the yaqona, food and social mixing.

Fr Iowane will take up his mission appointment at the end of this year. Where? In Pakistan. The journey continues. Another language, another culture, another mission.

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