A Last-Minute Surprise

By Fr. Felisiano Fatu

Fr. Felisiano Fatu, from Tonga, is the rector of the Columban Formation Program in the Philippines based in Singalong, Manila.

I was only seventeen when I completed my secondary education in 1991. I wanted to take a break from furthering my education and decided to search for a job in Tonga. I applied to both government and private sectors for any jobs available. My first preference was to get a job in a bank and second was to work in a government office. My applications to banks were not successful but I was lucky to get a job in the Ministry of Justice. During this time, I really enjoyed being a young man exploring life opportunities and learning about myself.

Being in a Catholic high school run by a religious congregation afforded me numerous opportunities to listen to vocation talks by both religious nuns and priests. I was not overly mad with the idea of becoming a priest though I guess the seed of interest was there but I did not pay much attention to it. I had a number of cousins and uncles who were in the Pacific Regional Seminary in Fiji and some aunts who are nuns. I guess I was greatly influenced by them. They were my role models in terms of vocational discernment. Naturally, I followed their paths by attending the various "Come and See" programs advertised by the religious fathers in Tonga. I had attended a number of their vocation programs and even stayed with them on some weekends. There were very limited options in terms of congregations to apply for. There were only two – the school's religious congregation and the Diocesan priests.

My knowledge of the Columbans was very limited. I only knew them by association. I knew that my uncle, Fr. Palenapa Tavo, was a Columban seminarian in Fiji at the time as he joined in 1993 and we come from the same village in Tonga. Even during his vacation at home, I was not interested in asking him about the Columbans since they were not present in Tonga. I was interested more in joining the religious congregation. At that time, the Diocese of Tonga had a Diocesan Vocation Committee which organized various "Come and See" weekends in different parishes in the main island, promoting priestly and religious vocations. The program lasted for the whole year and at the end of it, most of the vocation searchers were encouraged to make a decision about making formal contacts with the vocation directors from the different congregations and the diocese.

Fr. Felisiano (second row, leftmost) and his uncle Fr. Palenapa Tavo (standing at the back, rightmost) with Columban missionaries and friends, October 2016

It was during one of these "Come and See" weekends in September or October of 1992 that I came to know a little bit about the Columban Fathers. It was a session in which Fr. David Arms, a Columban priest from Fiji, gave a talk about the Columbans and showed us a video about their works. I enjoyed the talk but was more impressed with the video presentation which had a deep impact on me. I think the video was about the Columban works in Peru. At the end of it, there were brochures about the Columbans left on a table for anyone to take, together with Columban magazines. Out of curiosity I took one brochure home. I read the information a couple of times to make sense of what the Columbans were about. Eventually, I filled out my name and address at the back of the brochure and sent it to the Vocation Director in Fiji. At that time, I did not even know who the Vocation Director was.

The surprise was that I totally forgot about continuing with the religious congregation when I received a surprise and prompt response from the Columban Vocation Director in Fiji. I waited with great anticipation for the arrival of the letter with the Columban magazines by post from Fiji. My response to his correspondence was filled with excitement as I shared about what I read in the magazines and about my interest in getting to know more about the Columbans. I stopped attending the vocation weekends with the religious. In hindsight, the excitement and sense of adventure and exploration of an eighteen-year-old got the best of me in the initial stage of correspondence with the Columbans which was a positive one. I was effervescent about my correspondence with the Vocation Director through letters. And I loved receiving and reading the Columban magazines. I never attended any accompaniment program that time. Later I found out, in the course of our correspondence, that the Vocation Director was Fr. Daniel Ahern from Ireland, who was to become my first rector when I joined the Columban formation program in Fiji in 1994. Coincidentally, he was the Fiji Regional Director during my priestly ordination in Tonga in 2003.

It was a surprise for me, at that time, to simply change my attention from the religious to having greater interests in getting to know the Columbans which has eventually led me to become a Columban missionary priest to this day. As I look back, I can say with confidence that it was God’s grace working in my life and I happened to be receptive and open to it.

The Columbans – priests, lay, students and co-workers – during the Joint Area meeting in September 2017, Singalong, Manila. Fr. Felisiano is at the leftmost part in khaki pants & blue sneakers.