From the time he was a little boy, Fr Epeli Qimaqima would ask God on a regular basis what He wanted him to do with his life. He never received an answer but he kept asking anyway.
Then one day, when he had grown into a young man, God finally answered.
Fr Epeli has now been a priest for seven years and says the “inexplicable peace” he felt upon hearing that initial call to priesthood has never left him.
“I never knew such happiness was possible this side of heaven,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“I never knew it was possible to know so much love in one’s life, from God and from his people.”
Fr Epeli is currently the Director of the Vocations Office for the Sydney Archdiocese.
He grew up in the semi rural village of Naibuluvatu, Kalabu, in Fiji. He is the eldest of four children in the only Catholic family in the village.
Even as a little boy he felt the desire for priesthood. Often, he “played” at being a priest, covering himself with a blanket—with a hole in the middle for his head—that served as a chasuble and using potato chips to represent the Holy Eucharist.
But it was when he visited a remote mountain village for holidays with his family that the young Fr Epeli first realised the importance of the priesthood. Because there was no priest in the village, Catholics could only attend a Communion service led by a local catechist who was Fr Epeli’s uncle.
“I can still see in my mind that little boy in that church looking at this relative of his and thinking, why is uncle doing that when he’s not a priest? That was my first realisation of the unique role the priest has in the community and his connection with the Mass.
“As I thought more about that I started asking the Lord to show me what he wanted me to do for Him and His people. That prayer became more prominent once I got to Year 6 and whenever I thought about being a priest, that’s what I’d say to God.”
After completing his secondary schooling, Fr Epeli attended teacher’s college in Suva, and that’s where God finally answered his question.
He went for his usual “Rosary walk” after dinner one evening, praying as he walked around the college oval. He once again asked God the question he’d been asking since childhood,
“Lord, what do you want me to do for you and your people?”
“Being a romantic, I think God chose his moment, because the college is right on the water so there was this beautiful sunset and I heard this very, very quiet gentle voice in the depths of my heart saying, ‘Priesthood. I want you to be a priest’.
I believe that was the voice of God because of the effect it had—an inexplicable peace that is still there.”
But how did he respond to God’s will?
“Well, I said to God, ‘I’ll do whatever you want, whenever you want it, and wherever you want it. But please give me 10 years. I want to finish teacher’s college, I want to work for a while and I want to see my baby sister grow up’.
It was probably the most honest prayer I’ve ever said. And I didn’t think anymore about it. I finished my Rosary and went back to the dormitory”.
God granted Fr Epeli most of his request, giving him nine years before he entered seminary.
“He was generous, he gave me nine. I don’t know how to explain it but I knew God had given me nine years.” After finishing teacher’s college Fr Epeli moved to Australia in 2002 and worked as a teacher until he entered the seminary. He was ordained in 2012.
He says one of the wonderful aspects of priesthood is the privilege of sharing in people’s lives.
“At the heart of it is seeing that someone has been able to have an encounter with God, with Jesus, just by [the priest] being there. Visiting an elderly person in their home, someone who’s lonely, or someone in their sick bed, children at their First Holy Communion.
“The excitement in the faces of children at their First Reconciliation, their fascination, that wow, Jesus really has forgiven them.
“That could only be possible if the priest is there to give the sacrament … I’ve seen God at work in ways that were just beyond me. I think we put God in a box but He’s got the universe in His hands.”
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After his ordination, Fr Epeli served in three parishes—Mosman, Bonnyrigg Heights and Broadway and says priesthood involves a special kind of friendship, with God – and with God’s people.
“It’s got to be one of the highlights of my priestly life so far, the friendship that Jesus offers you and the friendship that the people offer you.”
Being constantly on-call with parishioners, anytime of day or night, to visit death beds, sick beds and family situations, is the demand of children for the love of their spiritual father, he said.
“It’s the demand of children for their father’s love, a spiritual father’s love and care… I could be so tired on a Sunday afternoon but then you get a phone call to say so and so is in the hospital and you go and you return fulfilled, just in time to say the evening Mass again.”
Serving as Director of Vocations over the last three-and-a-half years has been an enormous encouragement for his own vocation, seeing young people coming forward, still wanting to answer God’s call.
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This year six priests and six deacons will be ordained for the Sydney Archdiocese.
“God really has not abandoned us. I still meet with young people responding to what is in their hearts.”
“Given the circumstances we find ourselves in especially in Australia and around the world, with the actions of a few people in the Church, I think this is a very good opportunity for us to stop and pause and reflect on what the gift of the priesthood is to the Church.
“This is an opportune time to not be too hasty to speak of married clergy or women priests or whatever. This is a time to appreciate and rediscover what the gift of the priesthood is for us to the Church and to the world. Then we will see profound renewal I think in many ways in the life of the Church.
“The Church is a lamp on a hilltop. Thank God it’s still burning. The light is still burning despite the storms of time. So I’m full of hope.”
More info: www.vocationcentre.org.au