THE small Micronesian nation of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean is home to 110,000 people.
Of that number, 96 per cent are Christian and 56 per cent are Catholic.
Azure blue waters and white sand encircles the islands of Kiribati; however, the tropical paradise is juxtaposed against thatched huts, unsophisticated sewerage and extreme privation.
The nation is among the poorest countries in the world, with one of the highest infant mortality rates.
Yet, the people are proud of their faith and pour into Mass every day.
“Kiribati is the first country to see the sunrise, and it’s the only country in the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western hemispheres,” St Stephen’s Cathedral parishioner Caroline Grogan said.
Caroline, 28, travelled to Kiribati at Easter with her sister Alice, 30, her brother Joseph, 31, and their father John Grogan for a retreat.
It was a pilgrimage to their family roots.
“Kiribati is where Dad taught as a missionary,” Caroline said.
“It’s where our mother is from; it’s where Joe was born. It’s a fascinating place.”
John first travelled to Kiribati in 1981 as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus through PALMS Australia.
“The I-Kiribati people share a rich spirituality, balancing Christianity with pre-Christian shrines,” Mr Grogan said.
“I came to serve, but ultimately received the greatest blessings in my life.
“In July 1987 Joseph Kokoria Grogan was born in Takoronga on the capital island of Tarawa.
“It was an arduous 24-hour labour in a village hut.
“There was no electricity, no running water, beaches as toilets, and a traditional birth without formal doctors or nurses.
“There was an alarming infant mortality rate, and there were fears Joe or his mother would not survive.”
It was this ordeal that would make the Grogans aware of the spiritual power of two Catholic devotions: the Rosary and Lourdes holy water.
“I remembered the story of my birth in 1987 and knew how deeply Lourdes water and the Rosary are cherished in Kiribati,” Joseph said.
“Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Irish Sister Mella gave Lourdes water to soothe my mother while our family prayed the Rosary around us.
“Thankfully, I was born healthy and my mother survived.
“We appreciated first-hand the profound Marian devotion of the I-Kiribati people.
“I shared a Lourdes pilgrimages with the Order of Malta in 2017 and 2018, first with Alice and then with Dad and Caroline, too.
“Every year the Order of Malta organises a Lourdes Healing Mass at St Paschal’s Church, Wavell Heights, where all attendees receive Lourdes water and Rosary beads.
“I asked friends in the order if we could please seek a handful of Lourdes water bottlettes and Rosary beads to share with communities in Kiribati for Easter.
“We are very grateful to the Order of Malta’s North Eastern regional hospitaller Derek Pingel for generously donating about 100 Lourdes water bottlettes and Rosary beads combined for us to share with Kiribati communities.
“It felt full circle with my family and faith.”
Alice said: “It was priceless to deliver Lourdes water, Rosaries and donated school materials to St Rabaere’s (St Raphael’s) Catholic preschool and see the children’s faces light up.
“The children were incredulous then elated when their mothers explained the water was from Mother Mary in Lourdes, all the way in France.
“Many said they couldn’t wait to give the Lourdes water to their grandparents.”
The Catholic faith in Kiribati is ubiquitous.
The people were proud of their faith and they didn’t take it for granted, Caroline said.
“I witnessed such a hunger to explore and live their Catholic faith,” she said.
“Faith is tangible; they look to God with trust and love.
“The churches are often simple – an altar, no seats – yet when the church overfills with people, the whole village can hear the sound of worship raising the roof.”
The Easter Vigil Mass crowds in Kirabiti were so formidable this year that the people were forced to relocate from the local cathedral to a large, open-walled meeting space.
“After the vigil ended, the road was packed for kilometres with the large congregation walking back to their homes,” John said.
“There is strong respect for Catholic clergy and religious, especially Bishop Paul Mea and Australian veterans Fr Albert Yelds and Sr Eileen Kennedy, both around 90 years old and still serving strong.
“Fr Yelds … is 93 years old.
“Late at night after the Vigil Mass, Fr Yelds was at his car when a man approached seeking confession.
“The man had been waiting in line earlier when the priest had to leave to celebrate the Vigil.
“Standing by his car, Fr Yelds agreed to hear the man’s confession.
“A passer-by noticed and lined up nearby. Others also began lining up for confession.
“Fr Yelds stayed by his car for over two hours, listening to confessions under the stars.”
It was the actions of individuals like Fr Yelds that reaffirmed the power and glory of the Catholic faith for the Grogans.
“On the outer island of Abaiang, we visited the historic Catholic church and there was a group of children playing outside,” Caroline said.
“As I walked passed, I said ‘Mauri’ (hello) and one boy pointed to my wooden Rosary beads around my neck and said ‘Jesus’ (in Kiribati).
“I stopped, smiled, said ‘yes’ and kneeled down to show it to him closer.
“To my surprise he then took the Crucifix in his hands, kissed it and signed the cross.
“The four other kids with them then did the same thing.
“They looked up at me with beaming bright eyes and smiles. It was such a rare and moving encounter.
“When you strip away our consumerist culture and non-stop technological communications, you are left purely with your relationship with God, the people in your life and your land … your faith and hopes.”
Pope Francis encouraged us to be in close dialogue with diverse people in the context of their lives, John said.
“This helps us to experience the mutual blessings of sharing our Catholic faith and cultural knowledge,” he said.
“Thinking of Kiribati, Jesus’ teachings make sense most when lived,” Joseph said.
“I’m often amazed how our Catholic faith and Lourdes water can unite diverse people from around the globe.”
The Lourdes Healing Mass will be held at 10am on August 17 at St Paschalís Catholic Church, Wavell Heights, and all attendees can receive Lourdes water bottlettes and Rosary beads.