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Pacific island of Tonga celebrates its 1st Catholic cardinal

Published:Thursday | February 12, 2015 | 2:03 PM

NEW ZEALAND

WELLINGTON, (AP):

Churches dot the heavily Christian, tiny island of Tonga everywhere 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 cardinals 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. He needed to first fly about 800 kilometres (500 miles) to Fiji and wait there several days to get his visa, because Tonga is too small to 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 church and 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.