His Eminence, Soane Patita Paini Cardinal Mafi, gave Catholic Outlook journalist Jordan Grantham the privilege of an exclusive wide-ranging interview.
175 years after Marist missionaries shared the Catholic faith in Tonga, missionary zeal still burns brightly in the island nation’s first Cardinal, Soane Patita Mafi, Bishop of Tonga and Niue.
Cardinal Mafi stands resiliently against his local church’s challenges of climate change, poverty and missionary competition.
When cyclones and extreme storms prevented his family gathering for Sunday Mass, young Soane saw the Mafi family gather to pray themselves.
“On days of bad weather where devotional prayers or Masses were cancelled we as a family would have our own time for family prayer at home,” Cardinal Mafi said.
“There were always times at the end of evening family prayers for our Dad as head of the family to give his advice and words of correction and encouragement to all.”
Fidelity to God is the Cardinal’s response to hardship, as learned from his family.
“Consistency and endurance are perhaps key words to describe the way my parents went about doing the daily devotional prayers, such as morning and evening rosaries, and praise and thanksgiving prayers,” he said.
“The only major concerns that we often heard from our Father for us children were to complete our education and to go to church.”
“There wasn’t any other big dream or ambitious longing on the part of our parents for us children.”
The legacy of Tongan endurance is written into the very stones of St Mary’s Cathedral, Nukualofa.
In 1977 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake necessitated the demolition of St Mary’s, which rose again in 1980, incorporating building materials from the original 1886 cathedral.
“These old stones were collected manually in those days from beaches afar through great sacrifices and hard labours of so many people,” Cardinal Mafi said.
“Thus, the present Cathedral still has some reflections and reminders of its original history and especially the sacrifice, courage, and strong faith of those people in the past.”
Tonga has a deeply Christian culture and is ruled by a Christian monarch, His Majesty, King Tupou VI.
The nation was overjoyed by Pope Francis’ appointment of the first ever Tongan cardinal in 2015, which King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u attended in the Vatican, followed by a private audience with the Pope.
The King’s younger son, Prince Ata converted to Mormonism from Methodism in 2015. This followed a decade of stunning Mormon membership growth in Tonga.
According to official Mormon statistics, there are over 64,000 people in Tonga today who are Mormon which is equivalent to around 60% of the total population of Tonga (approximately 107,000 people), representing a 20% growth since 2006 of the Mormon population.
Cardinal Mafi sees this growth as “a wake-up call for all churches and especially for our local Catholic churches.”
“Whatever the real story behind the counting process normally used by the Mormon Church, what is perhaps more important here is something for all other churches including the Catholics to learn from.”
He points to the consistency of Mormon outreach, “untiring door-to-door home visitations and their charitable offerings to struggling families and individuals,” as an inspiring example for Catholic pastoral work.
“Understandably there are many of our people who do struggle with financial needs to their families,” he said.
Caritas International and the St Vincent de Paul Society assist the marginalised with necessities and environmental initiatives. The two are often one in Tonga.
“Our local Caritas Tonga in partnership with Caritas International has been initiating and encouraging community projects in villages and parishes that are part of these efforts against climate change,” he said.
“Such initiatives, for example include planting trees along shorelines as measures of soil protection and windscreen protecting buildings.”
“Long before Caritas was established in Tonga the St Vincent de Paul Society was already functioning on the parish level in helping out those poorer families and those who were lacking in the basic needs in life, such as shelter, water and food.”
His people love the colourful aspects of culture and tradition in liturgical music, singing and arts. The future of the Catholic Church in Tonga depends on faith shining through simplicity.
“For me, ours is a journey along the path to growth in finding real joy in ‘being who we are’, and even in the beauty of just being alive.”
“In other words, we ‘shine out’ in being ‘simple’.”
Richness in faith, love and joy give beauty to many of the poorer Tongan families.
“These people still show joy in their ordinary way of living even when they still give to others out of their own poverty. There is also a ‘glow’ of certain grace in people in homes who on a daily basis take good care of their sick and elderly members,” he said.