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Interview: Sister Veronica Vasethe CSC, Melanesian religious and priest

14 June 2013

'We need to create a community so that people feel they belong'

I am a Curate at St Andrew's, Ham, near Richmond in Surrey, where I have been since October 2011, and I am a member of the Community of the Sisters of the Church in the Solomon Islands.

There are lots of sisters - so many of us - About 60 back in the Solomons, and about 25 in the UK. I live in St Michael's Convent here.

It's very demanding life, very busy. We have lots of visitors, lots of people coming in for quiet days and retreats. We also respond to the needs of people who call in for food or advice. We engage with so many areas in life, and respond to the needs of the people around us.

I'm happiest when I am responding to people's needs, listening to them.

I trained at Trinity College, Bristol. I was ordained deacon on 2 October 2011, and priested on 30 September 2012. Becoming a priest in Melanesia is still difficult because the General Synod in the Solomon Islands has not passed a resolution allowing women to be priested, even though they have talked about it many times.

It seems to be more a cultural problem than a theological one. The worldwide CSC were willing to accept the sense of [priestly] vocation after my life profession in 2001. Most of my Sisters in the Solomons are in agreement.

I was working in the novitiate at Tetete Ni Kolivuti [Hill of Prayer], and it was difficult to get a priest sometimes to celebrate the eucharist. Reading the Old Testament, the example of Judith being raised up by God as a leader, and our Mother Emily responding to God's call in her own day, gave me courage to think that this might be possible.

As a priest, I am under the Bishop's authority; but for everything else I am a member of the Community, and under obedience to it. There are other Sisters ordained in the Community - two in the UK, two in Australia; and there was one in Canada who is now deceased.

When I started, it was a very big challenge, to be honest. I work for the parish three days, and three days for community, and when I was very new, it was difficult for me. But now I seem to find the wisdom to balance the two ministries. I'm an NSM, which makes it a bit easier. 

If I'm in the parish, I tell myself, "This is a parish day." And if I'm in the Community, I am just there. I have to learn about that. . . It's challenging not to worry if I failed the other party. I need to say to myself: "I cannot be in two different places at once."

Being with people, with their needs, talking about God, prayer, and love, listening to them, walking alongside them, as well as doing presiding and all the priestly roles - yes, I love that. 

Differences? The climate! When I arrived six years ago, I came in the winter, and I thought: "My God!" Another difference is attendance at church here only on Sundays, Wednesdays, and major festivals, rather than a daily eucharist, and morning and evening prayer. And women have a more equal role in society and the Church here.

I would hope to help with the training of our novitiate in the Solomons, working with women and children, particularly at the Christian Care Centre for women and children who are victims of domestic violence and abuse - also work with other women's groups in the Church and society to challenge cultural prejudices.

I have learned leadership skills in the church here, and benefited from studying theology. I think I will be able to work as a priest in the Community, as other Sisters from overseas do. When my Archbishop was here for the consecration of Archbishop Welby, he told me I could preside in my Community. So we will start small and slowly. We will grow.

And then, people will see me, as a woman, being a priest. It's good for them to see someone from their own country who is a priest. 

As a member of a religious community, and as a Solomon Islander, I bring a strong sense of community [to the UK]. I think now the community of St Andrew's has a sense of belonging. People feel very loved and welcomed in the church.

I really love my parish. I think there is so much individualism here: people seem to be doing their own thing. So in the church we need to create a community, so that people feel they belong and they are loved and cared for.

My father was a priest in the Solomon Islands. He died in 1989, when I was just 19. I think that's the greatest regret in my life. My father's sermons were an inspiration to me as a child, and having the opportunity to ask him questions. My mother is still alive, and very proud of me - even though I did a very, very risky thing. 

I wouldn't say I'm very brave. It's only God's grace which helped me to take that step. 

I have two older sisters and a younger sister, and three younger brothers: I saw them last four years ago. My two eldest sisters came to my ordination in 2012. I like to spend holidays on the island of Isabel in the Solomons.

I am going home to visit for a month this summer. I will see my family and be back with my Community in the Solomons - I miss them - and to see the church.

How will they receive me when I go back? Will they see me as a threat? Will they accept me? I need to go and really feel the reaction of the people. Four years ago, I did my church placement in the cathedral, and they really appreciated my time there, but I was only a student at that time. Now I'm a priest, will there be challenges? It will be good for me, rather than assuming things from a distance.

The most important choice in my life has been following my vocation as a Sister in the Community of the Sisters of the Church. 

I'd like to be remembered for bringing a change in attitude to women in the Church in the Solomons. Women don't have equal rights in the Church, though they have equal rights in terms of everything else - they can become doctors, pilots, whatever. . . But the Church is very, very conservative, in a male-dominated culture.

My favourite sound is hearing scripture read. My favourite is Joshua 1.1-9. The least-liked part is 1 Corinthians 14.34-35, where Paul talks about women keeping quiet: they are not allowed to talk in the church! People who study theology will know why he said that, but most people just take it literally.

I get angry about injustice and favouritism, and a lack of fairness.

I pray for people in war-torn countries, for peace and justice for them. 

I'd like to be locked in a church with Mother Emily Ayckboum, founder of our Community. She is such an inspiration to me, because of her own struggles as a woman and with the Church of her day.

Sister Veronica CSC was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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