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A question of time zones

· Interview with the Cardinal of Tonga ·

He is the first Cardinal from Tonga and also the youngest member of the College of Cardinals, but the notable accomplishments of Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Bishop of the small and fractionated archipelago of the Pacific, do not end there. He is also probably the only cardinal to have received the news of his appointment the day after it was announced. It was a question of time zones, as the Cardinal himself said in this interview with L’Osservatore Romano.

How did you receive the news of Francis’ decision?

“Woven strips” by Dagmar Dyck, a Tongan artist based in New Zealand

At around 4 am Tonga time on Monday, 5 January, (that was Sunday the 4th in Rome) my mobile phone rang. I saw it was my younger brother’s number from the us but I didn’t feel like answering. But when it rang twice I picked it up, for I felt that it had to have been an urgent message, like someone in my family in San Francisco may have been sick or died. Instead my younger brother Petelo told me his parish priest had just texted him about the news on Rome tv and that he saw my name mentioned. The priest knew me well, too, and my younger brother as well. It was totally a surprise for me, especially when such news was first learned of by other people miles and miles from home.

Do you believe that your appointment as Cardinal is an indication of Pope Francis’ concern for this extreme periphery of the South Pacific?

I think so. The Pope probably wants to show that no matter how small (or big) a church is, it is still very much part of Mother Church. Surely, this Pope has special attention, care and respect for those in the peripheries, like the poor, the neglected, the so-called ‘little ones’.

The Catholic community in Tonga has coexisted with Protestants for decades. Have you established an ecumenical dialogue?

Ecumenism is active and quite strong where I come from. Tonga is just a small island nation of around 100,000 people and thus we know one another well and depend on each other culturally, socially and economically. Though there were challenges and difficulties in the beginning, ecumenical spirit has come a long way with the establishment of the Tonga National Council of Churches in the early 70s and the Tonga National Forum of Church Leaders in 2004. Both are fairly active and carry on effectively, though there is still more work to be done.

How is pastoral ministry possible in such a geographically fragmented territory?

Our region of Oceania is so vast and the island nations are separated by sea, and therefore we have to face a number of difficulties and challenges, especially when there are some differences in language, culture, distances in travel, communication, environmental hazards, etc.

The consequences of climate change, with the dangers of rising sea levels and the protection of marine life, are at the centre of public attention in your area. How can Catholics raise greater awareness of those ecological issues?Thus, modern means of communication, such as the Internet, still need to be further developed in order to reach the people in the most remote areas, as is to teach them how to use these technologies well and effectively. So the promotion of religious vocation among our local people is really vital for the pastoral needs of our people as is the formation of lay leaders. To me, these two areas are very important for us in our region, in order to cater to our own needs and challenges.

Those dioceses with active local Caritas benefit from greater awareness and lessons on these issues through the relative programs conducted and sponsored through the Caritas. Here in Tonga, the local Caritas Tonga has a close working partnership with the Government’s department for natural disasters and environmental changes. Thus, they are trying to inform the public and our people about the impact of these ecological issues and are helping them to be ready when natural disasters take place.

How do you face the challenge of emigration to other countries on the continent?

It’s always a challenge since people will always feel like going to ‘greener pastures’, countries such as the usa, Australia and New Zealand, where more money, work opportunities, and education can be found. Some countries in our region, like Tonga, have very limited resources and sources of income. So despite the government’s constant effort to create jobs and living opportunities for our people, people still feel that ends do not meet. On the other hand our people living overseas do contribute very much to their home countries by way of sending remittances, which is one of the major sources of income to our countries.

Nicola Gori

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