Seventeen years in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati crystalised Kevin Dobbyn’s calling to Marist Brotherhood because there he found himself standing with the marginalised.
The word used for ‘brother’ in Kiribati actually means ’same sex sibling’ and is a good metaphor for what it means to be brother. However, it has usually meant someone in the Church who does manual work, someone ‘not intelligent enough’ to be ordained. This suited Kevin’s spirituality because he wanted to be identified with those on the edge.
Kevin has been back in New Zealand just over a year and is working in the Marist Brothers’ Vocation Ministry team. [A new community in Wilton, called the FM Connection, allows for young men to discern where the Lord is calling them within the Church.
Kevin says young men who do not have the status of priest can find themselves on the edges of Church society.
He says this sense became clear for him when the people of Kiribati were trying to understand why he was not a priest when he was obviously ‘intelligent enough’.
‘For a long time they did not know what to make of me.’ Kevin says he began to know how it felt for a woman in the Church being part of a culture that had been sidelined by a patriarchal system.
Kevin went to Kiribati in 1985 and, except for a four-year stint in Australia to study theology, stayed mostly in the island’s capital of Tarawa until the end of 2005.
An essential tool of his ministry was the Kiribati language whichhe learnt by immersing himself in the culture for six months soon after arriving in the country.
Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, won independence from the British in 1979 so English is one of two official languages.
‘One of the things that surprised me was that although many were more adept at English than I was at Kiribati, they preferred to use their own language in conversation.’
After four years studying counselling and theology in Australia, he returned in 1994 to work with the first brothers’ community on the outer island of Marakei, so small you could cycle around it in two hours.
‘There my language improved and I began to realise that you can’t really be effective in mission unless you have the language.’
When he returned to Tarawa he was asked to be part of a counselling training programme which he could never have done without the language.
‘Because you get into people’s personal worlds. Because I was involved in formation, you get into the whole area of relationships, sexuality.’
Local church slow to change
Kevin says he sensed a frustration among the women especially over the slow pace of change in the Church in Kiribati. The country is overwhelmingly Catholic but it has been immersed in a top-down model of the Church. This is despite the Kiribati practice of making decisions by consensus and Vatican II’s challenge to allow more lay people into leadership.
The government has been well ahead of the Church in giving jobs to the best people.
‘Sometimes I would get myself into trouble because I’d ask questions about the Church that people didn’t want to hear. But this is sometimes a gift outsiders can bring to the Church.’
‘When I think of the Brothers in Kiribati I have sometimes felt the sense that we’re not wanted and one of our Brothers used to say that “we go where we’re needed but not wanted, and we leave when we’re wanted but not needed”. I think that’s not a bad approach to mission.’
One feature of his four years with the first Brothers’ community on Marakei was that these young men all left, except for one who died. Some years later, however, they are meeting informally to pursue the kind of spiritual sharing they had while in the order.
He says we can take a leaf out of Opus Dei or the neo-catechumenate. Even if we do not accept their approach and theology, there is value in their style of community – people are members whether they’re ordained, married or single.
‘Maybe religious orders need to go that way instead of having associates which is a second-class sort of thing.’
He says it has been hard coming back to New Zealand. People remember him as he was before he left 20 years ago and he sometimes has felt his experience on Kiribati is dismissed.
‘I’ve heard many missionaries talk about this same thing, the re-entry [to New Zealand] process. I wouldn’t like another year like I had last year.’
The Marists generally have a reputation as one of the most missionary provinces in the Marist world.
‘But I don’t think we’ve handled very well people coming back from missionary experience. I don’t know what it is – perhaps it’s out of sight out of mind sort of stuff.’
A highlight of his return is coming back into a Church that is alive – struggling.
‘One of the difficulties I think we have is to try to integrate into the Church the various groups that have a different model of Church. The young New Zealand-born Samoans, for example, don’t want the catechists telling them what they should be doing. I guess that the integration of different cultures and different generations is the challenge of what it is to be truly Catholic.’