Pacific Island of Tonga Celebrates Its 1st Catholic Cardinal

On the tiny, heavily Christian island of Tonga, churches dot the landscape and choirs can be heard singing on any day of the week.

So many in the Pacific nation of 106,000 are overjoyed that the Catholic Church is making a Tongan a cardinal for the first time even though a majority of islanders are Protestant. The island's king, a Wesleyan Methodist, is hoping to attend the ceremony Saturday at the Vatican and later has a private meeting scheduled with the pope.

Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi is one of 20 bishops and archbishops being elevated by the pope and is an outlier not only in geography but also in age: At 53, he will be the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

Just getting to the Vatican has proved a challenge for Mafi. Literally. He needed to first fly about 800 kilometers (500 miles) to Fiji and wait there several days to get his visa, because Tonga is too small to have a Vatican mission that can issue them.

"Well everybody here in Tonga is just so surprised," said the Rev. Lutoviko Finau, who is responsible for the Tongan Catholic church in Mafi's absence. "We are so happy about it. So grateful as well."

Mafi represents a region grappling with climate change, which is one of the major concerns of Pope Francis. In a recent interview with the Jesuit magazine America, Mafi spoke about the "permanent vulnerability" low-lying Pacific islands such as Tonga face from global warming.

Francis has said climate change is mostly man-made and is expected to lay out his call for greater stewardship of God's creation in an upcoming encyclical that has elated environmentalists and alarmed climate change skeptics, including those within the church.

Mafi, who was traveling and could not be reached for comment, on his resume lists paying attention to the needs of the disadvantaged and women as a priority.

He grew up in a religious family, and both his grandfather and father were church catechists. The Rev. Sepa Maka said there was no electricity in Tonga when Mafi was young. He said before turning to the seminary, Mafi was a free spirit "who did what he was doing according to the wind."

Mafi attended a year at St. Patrick's College in Wellington in part to improve his English. New Zealander Peter Gregan said Mafi boarded with his late mother, who had suffered a stroke, and helped her cook and clean.

He then entered the Pacific Regional Seminary in Fiji. The Rev. Michael O'Connor, the rector, said that like the other students, Mafi would help in the plantations, harvesting cassava, talo and bananas. He said Mafi was a keen sportsman, playing rugby, a sport which has now been banned from the seminary because of the number of injuries.

"He's a very warm person, gentle," O'Connor said. "He's doesn't go for a lot of show. He's very humble."

Mafi also studied pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Maryland. He became a vice rector at the seminary in Fiji and was consecrated coadjutor bishop for Tonga in 2007, taking over as bishop the following year.

He recently told the SIR news agency of the Italian bishops' conference that his church represents the periphery that Francis often speaks about, and that the church has to reach out in particular to the poor, those on the margins, and those who are often overlooked because they aren't big players in the world.

"I think the Pope is probably trying to make the point that the church is composed of all four corners of the globe and not just one," Mafi told SIR. "The pope is trying to make people understand the existence of the 'small ones' and show that the 'small ones' can make a contribution."

Suka Otukolo, a senior assistant for Tonga's monarch, King Tupou VI, said the king, who is on a preplanned trip to London, was hoping to make it to the Vatican for the ceremony. The Vatican schedule calls for Pope Francis to receive Tupou in a private audience on Monday.

"It's a huge thing here in Tonga," Otukolo said, adding that most of Mafi's family was traveling to the Vatican.

Strict Christian-based guidelines in Tonga keep everything from gas stations to restaurants closed on Sundays, noted Stuart Perry, general manager of the Tonga Tourism Authority. He said public transport is limited on Sundays and no flights enter the country.

"The churches play a key role in society and in the local village communities," he said.

He said the celebration for the new cardinal when he returns, which will be held after Lent, will likely be something special. Such feasts typically feature many pigs being roasted on spits, food cooked in underground ovens, or umus, and huge quantities of fresh fish and fruit.

"Boy, do Tongans know how to celebrate," he said.

Perhaps there will even be country music. On his resume, Mafi lists listening to it as one of his hobbies.