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Brother Theophane: mission transcending religion for men and women of the cloth: [The Fiji Times, 1 Oct 1999]


Two weeks ago, a “man of the cloth”, Brother Theophane, passed away.   There was an outpouring of grief from thousands of people inFiji,New Zealandand elsewhere in the world, Christians and non-Christians alike.

The sadness was not just at the death of a teacher and school principal, but at the ending of a life dedicated to God, goodness, and the well-being of society.

The extent of grief was also a celebration of a way of life that is today becoming rarer and rarer, an “occupation” that does not fit easily into capitalist market economies, nor into economic models and theories.

Men and women of the cloth: a rare breed

Men and women who belong to religious orders, who dedicate themselves to God and community, with vows of poverty and chastity, are also not popular role models any more, among our people, whether they are Christian, Hindu or Muslim.

Non-christians (like myself) who attended Marist Primary and Secondary Schools, were surprised at the deep respect that our Catholic student friends had for the Brothers and Fathers, sometimes even greater than they had for their own parents.

Most non-Christian students themselves had somewhat ambivalent attitudes to the Christian religious men they came across.

Of course, there was great respect and awe for the Brothers and Fathers in their flowing, long, intimidating, robes.

Concern at the proselytizing

But in the early years, there was also dismay (and scolding from parents), when the religious message was conveyed home, that non-Christians and “pagans” could not get to Heaven unless they became Christians.

Later, there was a compromise message that as long as non-Christians had the “baptism of desire”, everything would be all right, and maybe, they could look forward to “Limbo”- neither the flames, nor the lap of God.

This was little comfort to many Hindu  parents who preached to their children of the depth and strength of their own religions; that  “their” civilisations and religions were already thousands of years old, when the Europeans were still “swinging in the trees”, and Christ was not even born.

But non-conversion to Christianity did not lessen either the children’s or their parents’ respect for the Marist Brothers as teachers and holy men.

They were not perfect

Of course, the aura around the Brothers would be eroded slightly, whenever one left the Order, as did many an expatriate Brother and priest, as well some of our student friends, who had taken up the religious vocations.

They, like the rest of us, were responding to the normal fundamental human urge for procreation and the starting of biological families.  It did not help thatFijiwomen found many a charismatic Brother or priest quite attractive.  The high attrition rate was therefore not surprising.

What was surprising was the number of men like Brother Theophane, who remained dedicated to their vocations, decade after decade.

The many we remember

Over the years, Christian and non-Christian students alike, remember with appreciation, Brothers Raphael, Bertrand, Antony, Placid, Lambert, Fergus, Cletus, Clarent, Victor, and numerous others.

No less appreciated were those who left the order, like the scintillating Brother Walter, the athletic Brother Clement (Suva Soccer and Cricket rep), and the outrageous ex-RAF fighter pilot priest, who knocked students over the moon (and many staid Brothers as well) with his explicit sex education classes.

The Brothers taught us not only to strive for academic excellence, but also in sports, morality and community service.

Many who benefited

A whole generation of  Gujerati boys from Toorak not only took home their certificates of academic achievement (much appreciated by parents), but also (largely unappreciated) certificates verifying excellence in athletics, rugby, cricket, and soccer.

We learnt to take part in voluntary community work such as the St Johns Ambulance Brigade.   Parents reluctantly let Form 3 students serve throughout the night with the ambulances at the CWM hospital (because Brother Bertrand said it was OK), or be the “Aspro Boys” tending to rugby players at Albert Park.

And there continue to be men, like my old friend “tasi” Brother Joe Wara, and dozens of other brothers, nuns, and priests who selflessly serve ourFijicommunities, through their religious Orders, in a wide variety of fields.

Their broader contributions

Like the radical priests, brothers and nuns in South America and Africa, the religious men and women inFiji, have also worked to protect and strengthen democracy.  They know that while “man does not live by bread alone”, the spirit of man can also be corrupted without bread, clothing and shelter for their families.

Father Hurley was a giant inFiji’s efforts to house the poor. Father David Arms works tirelessly towards the reforming of our electoral system for good governance.

Father Kevin Barr hammers away at the alleviation of poverty in our society, for  Christian and non-Christian alike.

The Montfort Brothers are successfully devoted to the training of school dropouts.  The Sisters look after the elderly and the orphans.

For every Mother Theresa in the media eye, there are thousands of nuns, brothers and priests, throughout the world, tending to the sick, the AIDS sufferers, the orphans, the homeless, the starving.

The old motive of conversion to, and the strengthening of Christianity may still be important, but no longer seems paramount.  InFiji, as elsewhere, the Christian religions have come to respect the other religions, through Interfaith Services and common organisations.

Importantly, none of this dedicated labour is done for money, wealth or material satisfaction.

Such lives sit uneasily with economics

Economic theories are not easily able to incorporate such religious men and women into their models. In economic models, every individual is supposed to maximise his personal “utility” or satisfaction, and this only by increasing one’s own personal material consumption (and by extension, one’s own income and wealth).

The raising of Gross Domestic Product per capita, becomes a national virtue, while social justice or sustainable environment, remain marginal matters.

With the globalisation of the world capitalist market economy, these behavioural assumptions are reasonably accurate for most of us, with even the Fijian communal economy finally succumbing.

Yet Christianity and other religions have much in common

Yet our religions and everyday observations remind us that greater wealth does not equate to greater happiness or peace, for the individual, family, mataqali, or the nation.

At every funeral, priests and pundits, remind us, from dust we came, and to dust we shall return.    When we die, we won’t be taking our wealth tied to our chests (chaati pe bhand ke nahin lai jaiyo).

But the only ones in our societies who do faithfully adhere to the homilies, would seem to be the religious brothers, nuns, and priests.

And it is ironic that with their vows of poverty and chastity, their commitment to the welfare of the weak and vulnerable, their honesty, integrity, and frugality, these men and women of the cloth seem an “aberration” in our capitalist market economies.

But the depth and breadth of grief at the death of Brother Theophane makes clear that our society places a value on the lives of “people of the cloth”, beyond that which can be measured by money.

It is social appreciation and grief that money or wealth cannot buy.

[Appeared as “Mission transcends religion: an appreciation of the life of Brother Theophane”.  The Fiji Times, 1 October 1999.]

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