FIJIAN-born Divine Word Missionary Father Asaeli Raass wants to act as a “kind of spiritual midwife” when he speaks at a Brisbane Pentecost Vigil next Saturday afternoon.
“I want to be like a facilitator helping to bring people’s conversion to life – to use my ministry of preaching to help people get in touch with their own transformation,” he said.
“I want to help people in the often painful process of this transformation – to help them become aware of how God is working in their life.
“The aim is to make the process as experiential as possible … certainly not ‘airy fairy’ but very down to earth.”
Fr Raass will take on this role as guest speaker giving a talk “The Transforming Spirit of God” at an annual Pentecost Vigil run by the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters at their Carseldine headquarters in Brisbane.
The aspiration is typical of his down-to-earth approach to spirituality, informed by his six years as chaplain for Aboriginal Catholics in 16 remote communities in Central Australia as well as three years living among the Ashanti people in Africa.
What he saw in common with both these people were that they, like the Old Testament Israelites, had their “walls” broken down.
“That is they had been dispossessed of their sacred land and were struggling in various ways to come to terms with this fact,” he said.
This passion to see justice for these people would eventually see Fr Raass sent by the Aboriginal Catholics of Central Australia to represent them at the United Nations Indigenous Forum in New York in 2006.
Fr Raass speaks fondly of his own Fijian culture – his childhood in a remote village called Koroivonu and his memories of a “relaxed and casual life where clocks barely existed and things got done when they got done”.
His decision to enter the seminary was taken after serious prayer and discernment.
As often happens the initial impetus came from contact with the member of a religious order.
“A Divine Word Missionary priest from the Philippines came to Fiji in the 1980s to work in the Archdiocese of Suva,” Fr Raass said.
“I was attracted to his humanity.
“He did paint a rosy picture about the missionary work of the Church.
“Of course little did I realise there would be thorns along the way and crosses to carry.”
After several years studying in Melbourne with the Society of the Divine Word at the Yarra Theological Union (YTU) seminary, the young Fijian seminarian decided to go to Africa.
“This was for my own spiritual growth,” he said.
“I’d got tired of theological abstractions and wanted to take part in the mission.”
From 1998 to 2000, he lived in Ghana with the Ashanti people and worked hard at learning their language and understanding their culture.
In December 2003 Fr Raass was ordained at St Anne’s Parish, Fiji, by Archbishop Petero Mataca.
Before long he was considering the work of ministry with Aboriginals in Central Australia in Darwin diocese. “In the case of the Aboriginal people, I was moved by their plight,” he said.
“They, like the Israelites, had been dispossessed of their sacred land.
“The walls surrounding Aboriginal communities had been torn away and the gates were wide open.
“Any outsider could come in and out and do what they liked with these vulnerable people.”
The effects of this dispossession were all too clear, Fr Raass said.
“For many it was too much to bear.
“The elders had to live with the tension of honouring their tradition and culture while at the same time living in the 21st Century.
“The young in particular were suffering … some weekends I would be saying up to three funeral Masses for young Aboriginal people who had suicided.”
Meanwhile, Fr Raass was struggling to learn the Arunta and other languages to communicate with these people while also trying to bridge the gap between his Pacific island culture of Fiji and that of the indigenous people of Central Australia.
He was in the midst of dealing with these challenges when the Howard Government in 2007 introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or Intervention as it has come to be known.
The Intervention was intended to address claims of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.
“There was then and still are a lot of people with good will involved,” he said.
“However, the Intervention’s focus on punitive law and order measures sparked a lot of criticism.”
Prior to this he’d been asked to speak at the UN Indigenous Forum on behalf of Aboriginal communities in Central Australia.
The forum was in the UN’s New York headquarters.
“What a big challenge this was for someone who’d grown up amongst coconut palms, surrounded by blue seas,” he said.
“There were skyscrapers everywhere … I kept getting lost.
“Then there was the matter of me as a Fijian representing the Aboriginal people.
“When I finally found my way to the UN I was amongst about 4000 other representatives of indigenous people around the world. The issues were similar the world over – theft of land, expulsion of indigenous people, the marginalisation of women, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse …”
Despite the magnitude of his task, Fr Raas was confident he had planted a seed for the future at this forum.
“A voice is better than no voice – I was able to make a contribution on their behalf at the highest level.
“Without such voices being heard there can be no development.”
Since then Fr Raass has moved out of his chaplaincy to the Aboriginal people and teaches at the YTU Heart of Life Spirituality Centre.
So, has this work with the disadvantaged people in Africa and Central Australia help inform his understanding of the pain – and necessity – of spiritual transformation?
“Absolutely,” he said.
“This understanding came particularly out of my experiences in Central Australia – witnessing the people’s vulnerability as they faced so many problems.
“These people had stories to tell of struggles and suffering, and their search for spirituality was actually in these stories.
“I realised I was struggling to find my own identity both culturally and spiritually as a Fijian man in Australian society.
“I also became much more aware of my own vulnerability and sinfulness.”
It’s such knowledge – of self and others – Fr Raass in his talk at Carseldine next Saturday will draw on.
And, given the Divine Word Missionary’s considerable experience, those present can be assured of being in the hands of a practised and sensitive “midwife” indeed. For further information contact Holy Spirit Missionary Sister Noela Williamson (07) 3263 0313.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.