Tonga will celebrate in a major way on Saturday when Pope Francis inducts the Pacific island nation’s first cardinal. Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, 53, will become the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.
Mafi’s appointment is a first for Oceania. While there have been cardinals from New Zealand and Australia, none have come from any of the Pacific Islands. Protestants make up the largest religious group among Tonga's 106,000 people. Still, the nation island is overjoyed about Mafi’s new role.
"Well, everybody here in Tonga is just so surprised," the Rev. Lutoviko Finau told the Associated Press. He will lead Tonga's Catholics in Mafi's absence. "We are so happy about it. So grateful as well."
Mafi is one of 20 new cardinals from 18 countries who will be formally elevated to the College of Cardinals on Saturday at St. Peter’s Basilica. Two other cardinals will be the first ones from their countries to reach one of the Vatican’s top posts: Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado of Cape Verde and Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar.
The pope “wants to raise world consciousness that this church is truly global,” the Rev. James M. Weiss, associate professor of theology at Boston College, told International Business Times on Jan. 5. “That goal can't be reached by continuing to appoint cardinals in places like Venice. But Cape Verde? Tonga? Myanmar? They bring into the highest circles of the church an awareness of a world on the edges, a truly global church.”
Not only did Francis elevate three bishops to cardinals, he chose leaders from far-flung places – an initiative central to his papacy. On several occasions he has urged clergy to bring the church to “the fringes of society” as Jesus Christ did when he spread his message outside Jerusalem.
“It’s like a president or CEO of a company ignoring his senior vice presidents and going off to select branch managers of various places -- outside headquarters – to his inner circle to advise him,” James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College, told IBTimes. Besides Tonga, Myanmar and Cape Verde, the pope also selected archbishops from relatively cities with relatively small Catholic communities, including Hanoi, Addis Ababa and Bangkok.
"The peripheries have all these situations that are not exactly at the center of the [world's] political and economic life," Portuguese Cardinal-elect Manuel Jose Macario do Nascimento Clemente told reporters Friday. "The pope wants [refugees and the poor] now to be at the center of the life of the church, also to be at the center of the life of the world."