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Tongan bishop shares challenges and hopes
July 15th, 2008
By Michael Vick


When Coadjutor Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi of Tonga takes office this month following the retirement of Bishop Soane Lilo Foliaki, he will become the first local diocesan priest to be bishop in the history of the Diocese of Tonga. In an interview with Catholic San Francisco during a recent visit to the Bay Area, Bishop Mafi said he felt humbled to be chosen by Pope Benedict XVI to lead the diocese where he was born.

 

”I knew my name was under consideration,” Bishop Mafi said, adding that at 47, he was the youngest of the three known candidates. He did not expect to be chosen. “I was overwhelmed, excited and at the same time confused. I didn’t know whether to cry or to jump up. Why me?”

 

Born to devout Catholic parents, both Bishop Mafi’s father and grandfather were catechists. Attracted to the priesthood as a child, the bishop joined a youth group at his parish in the small town of Kolofo‘ou, just outside the Tongan capital, Nuku‘alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu.

 

The bishop studied at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji, and returned to Tonga where he was ordained in 1991. He spent four years at Ha‘apai Parish on one of Tonga’s small outer islands. In 1995 Bishop Foliaki called him back to the main island to become vicar general.

 

Bishop Mafi recalled that, as he was only 34 at the time, he felt a similar shock to the one he experienced when appointed coadjutor. In almost all instances a coadjutor bishop is appointed with the right of succession to the current ordinary.

 

”The bishop called me and said, ‘Go and think about what I am asking you,’” Bishop Mafi said. Returning to Ha‘apai Parish, he prayed and ultimately accepted the position, but not without asking the same question he would ask a decade later: “Why me?”

 

Bishop Foliaki lauded then-Father Mafi’s ability to relate to people, and said he had plans for his future. Those plans included three years at Loyola College in Baltimore, Md., where Bishop Foliaki sent his young vicar general to study religious education. Graduating in 2000, the future bishop returned to the seminary in Fiji to join a formation team training local priests.

 

He had just begun a sabbatical after six years teaching at the seminary when he received the call that the Church would like him to be a bishop. The bishop said adjusting to his new role was difficult.

 

”It’s exciting. I’m the bishop now, the shepherd,” Bishop Mafi said. “It makes me a little uneasy at the same time, because I want to be myself. It’s kind of a mixed feeling, excited but at the same time overwhelming. Now I belong to everybody.” On previous trips to the United States, he was able to spend more quiet time with family and friends.

 

During his five-day trip to the Bay Area, Bishop Mafi celebrated Mass at St. Pius Church in Redwood City and at the Santa Clara Convention Center. A welcoming ceremony and reception were held for him at St. Anthony Church in Menlo Park. There he met with members of the Tongan community from around the Bay Area and beyond, with some coming from as far away as Arizona to visit him.

 

The 2000 census reported more than 27,000 Tongans lived in the United States. Joseph Benitani, secretary of the Tongan chaplaincy of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said the local Tongan community is centered in the Peninsula, especially San Mateo, and also in Oakland. Benitani estimated around half the Tongans in the U.S. live in California, with a large community residing in the greater Los Angeles area.

 

When he goes back to Tonga, the bishop will confront a nation in transition. He spoke of the push among the people and the parliament to secure greater democratic rights for Tonga, currently a monarchy. Bishop Mafi said the Church welcomes this change, and has done everything it can to ensure the shift is peaceful.

 

On the theological front, the bishop said traditional Catholic teaching has found a welcome home among the Tongan people. While the majority of Tongans are Methodist, roughly 16 percent of the population is Catholic, about 15,000 people.

 

The diocese is small but robust, the bishop said, thanking the Catholic missionaries who came to Tonga 150 years ago. With so many Tongans living abroad, especially in the United States, the bishop also said he was thankful to dioceses around the world for their support of the Tongan diaspora.

 

”I’m so grateful to the Church in America for welcoming our Tongan people,” Bishop Mafi said. “They bring the gifts that they have. At the same time, they are enriched by the richness of other cultures.”

 

From April 11, 2008 issue of Catholic San Francisco.







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