By Linda Bordoni
The highly diverse members of the Caritas Oceania family are from the larger and smaller islands of the Pacific Ocean, united in faith and in their dependence on the ocean – their livelihood and their home. The 2021 annual meeting was inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli tutti” and took place in the name fraternity.
The organization’s new President is Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi from Tonga. Speaking to Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni, he highlighted two the main issues tackled during the Forum: the effects of climate change on the region and its people, and of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Environmental protection, care for our common home is always a top priority in Oceania,” Cardinal Mafi explained, pointing out that “one of our main treasures is the ocean”, the main source of the people’s livelihoods as well as our home.
Climate change, he said, increasingly causes natural disasters, and in the region that has always been affected by monsoons, tropical cyclones and other extreme weather patterns, has resulted in huge number of people being dramatically affected.
Diversity and unity
Caritas Oceania brings together Caritas Australia, Caritas Papua New Guinea, Caritas Samoa, Caritas Aotearoa-New Zealand, Caritas Pacific Islands (CEPAC) and Caritas Tonga.
“They have much in common,” Cardinal Mafi said, “but they are also very diverse.”
They are diverse, he explained, because they are home to different ethnic groups, especially within the Polynesian and Micronesian areas, “ so we are so rich in that way with our diversity in culture.”
But they also have much in common, he added, “A common shared reality: we are all in this vast ocean, the Pacific, and I think the faith element is a strong element of our communality.”
The Cardinal explained that the vast majority of Oceania’s inhabitants are Christians, about a third of them Catholic.
A collective effort
So, he continued, the annual Forum is “a special time when we come together” – the seven different Caritas offices that make the Caritas Oceania Family – “to show the varieties of experiences and the way we handle or cope with these common issues of environmental disasters – cyclones and storms. So when we come together, we try to search for a collective effort in spite of our differences.”
The Forum, he explained, concluded with the endorsement of our Caritas Oceania regional advocacy strategy with priorities focusing on environmental protection but also on women and youth.
“We are split and scattered by the ocean, but we must find ways to tackle our issues, so the theme this year was “Fraternal cooperation in our Caritas Oceania Family”, a precious occasion, he said, to “come together to build on this spirit of fraternity and to listen.
Cardinal Mafi pointed out that despite the huge geographical distances that separate the members, the “Fratelli tutti” message has been received by everyone.
“It is quite inspiring to hear how the encyclical has reached so many” but one of the challenges, he added, is to translate it into the local vernacular: we need good translators so that people can properly understand the message.
Cardinal Mafi said the current coronavirus pandemic has affected the region, especially from the tourism and economic perspective. The health emergency, he said, has been mitigated by the collaborative work of Caritas and Catholic Relief Services that have managed to help enormously with putting protective measures into place, and providing equipment and sanitizers throughout the islands, where, he notes, the virus could destroy indigenous peoples and cultures.
“It is amazing to see and learn how that partnership has been helping the most vulnerable and remote communities, supplying them with all that is necessary,” he said.
“We share these bleak and gloomy times in history with Covid-19,” the Cardinal concluded, “but the inspiration from Fratelli tutti gives us a new way of looking at our lives, showing kindness to one another in a spirit of fraternity: we need to love, to get back to basics, to family units, and build up love from there.”