Loyola’s Pastoral Counseling program helped shape new Tongan cardinal

Loyola University Maryland graduate to become the youngest Cardinal in the Catholic Church

By George P. Matysek, Jr., '94  |  Photo courtesy of Diocese of Tonga

Tongan Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi was fast asleep Jan. 5 when the graduate of Loyola University Maryland’s pastoral counseling program was awakened at 4 a.m. with news so improbable, it may have seemed like a dream.

The bishop’s younger brother was on the line from California asking if Bishop Mafi had heard the announcement that Pope Francis had named him a cardinal. Heading a diocese of approximately 20,000 people (about the size of a large American parish), Bishop Mafi never imagined he would get a red hat.

“I was very surprised, but very humbled and reflective,” Bishop Mafi told Loyola magazine in an email interview.

What message was the pope sending when he plucked a bishop from a remote archipelago nation in the South Pacific Ocean to become a prince of the church?

“That small and young churches are real parts of Mother Church,” Bishop Mafi said. “That the pope does care for the little ones, for they, too, have values. They can have something of their faith to give or share to the rest of the world.”

Bishop Mafi will become the first cardinal of the Diocese of Tonga and Niue during the Feb. 14, 2015, consistory at the Vatican.

At 53, he will also be the world’s youngest cardinal.

The cardinal-designate is determined to use his raised profile to encourage people to live lives of simplicity and humility, and to “go back to basics of good Christian family” as taught by the Catholic Church.

He believes his years at Loyola helped equip him to be a pastoral leader.

Learning to Listen

Bishop Mafi chose to study at Loyola because the pastoral counseling program was highly recommended by fellow priests who were completing their studies there. They included then-Father John Bosco Baremes, who graduated with a master’s from the program in 1999 and is now the bishop of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific.

The pastoral counseling program gave Bishop Mafi skills for “listening empathetically” and knowing how to respond appropriately and effectively to other people, he said, “especially in the context of lending loving hearts and minds in encountering individuals or groups in conversation or counseling.”

Because the program helped him know and appreciate himself better as a person, Bishop Mafi said, it led to a better and holistic understanding and acceptance of other people. He left Loyola with a clearer understanding of how human behavior and personality develop, he said.

Bishop Mafi, who earned his master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Loyola in 2000, said he enjoyed reading books on psychology and spirituality written by one of his Loyola lecturers, Robert Wicks, Psy.D., emeritus professor of pastoral counseling. Others who influenced him were the late Joseph Ciarrocchi, Psy.D., and Sharon Cheston, Ed.D.

The Jesuits offered clear and logical thinking in their presentations, he said, and were approachable and knowledgeable. They had an ability to integrate or apply spirituality and psychology.

Bishop Mafi recalled small-group discussions in which he and other pastoral counseling students confidentially discussed real-life counseling sessions. The students also listened to recorded sessions with clients to help them learn and grow in the field.

“I remember my own case became sort of a popular case for our group discussion,” he said. “It was considered one of those rare cases, for it was my encounter with a client who suffered the so-called ‘split-personality’ disorder. You can imagine how delicate and complicated it was for me to deal with such a difficult case.”

Deepening the Faith

As a priest in Tonga, Bishop Mafi said he often applied his lessons from Loyola when dealing with parishioners, especially youths and those experiencing difficulties in married life. He also taught human development courses and counseled young seminarians when he was a professor and vice-rector of Pacific Regional Seminary in Fiji.

While studying at Loyola, Bishop Mafi lived at St. Nicholas Parish in Laurel, Md., in the Archdiocese of Washington, where he assisted by celebrating Masses. It was at St. Nicholas, Bishop Mafi said, where he had his first encounter with snow. “I remember feeling like a little boy again, playing outside in the snow at the car park at St. Nicholas.”

Bishop Mafi, who was named coadjutor bishop of Tonga in 2007 and bishop of Tonga in 2008, believes the biggest challenge facing his diocese is informing people about the faith and deepening the faith people already have.

“Faith and doctrines have to be explained well to people, especially in their implication or application to real life,” he said. “I am thinking particularly therefore of the need for stronger catechesis or formational programs for both adults and young ones, especially in schools and special programs for laity, especially young married couples.”

As a cardinal, Bishop Mafi said he will encourage Catholics to live their faith by modeling their lives on the “simplicity of Incarnation.”

Celebrating a Loyola Graduate

In the days leading up to Bishop Mafi’s elevation, leaders of Loyola are excited for the graduate.

“Bishop Mafi was an excellent student and a kind, gracious man who was admired by students and faculty while he studied here,” said Cheston, professor and past chair of the pastoral counseling department. “We are all celebrating his new role in the Catholic Church as a cardinal.”

Rev. Brian Linnane, S.J., Loyola’s president, said Bishop Mafi’s elevation “is telling of the pope’s interest in bringing bishops into leadership who are very pastoral and concerned for the needs of the people, particularly the most vulnerable.”

“It’s very meaningful for me that Loyola’s Jesuit education had a particular influence on Bishop Mafi’s formation and development as a priest and pastoral minister,” Fr. Linnane said.

As for the people of Tonga?

“They are very, very excited and so joyful,” Bishop Mafi said. “It has become the big national talk and (it’s been) in the news in the days after the announcement, even up to now.”

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3 Comments

  • Posted by Daniel Hamala | February 6, 2015

    Bishop Mafi’s elevation to Cardinal is a blessing for the Diocese and the Kingdom of Tonga. Congratulations! Fides profundiorem!

  • Posted by Siutiti Tuipulotu Vamanrav | February 12, 2015

    We first would like to congratulate Bishop Mafi in his new appointment as a Cardinal. I know that the Kingdom of Tonga and it’s people have been waiting a long time for someone to lead the church in Tonga. This means a lot to the church and the people of great spirituality and faith. Thank You Pope Francis for your prayers and love for the people of the Kingdom of Tonga. We love you and Bishop Mafi. Truly Yours. Siutiti Tuipulotu Vamanrav

  • Posted by Tuua Tenebo | November 9, 2016

    I join you in your joy, happiness, thankful and in your prayers. My dear loving borthers and sisters from Tonga your gladness and joyful is ours too from kiribati country. I really thanks God for your first Cardinal and I got the same feeling you are in even thougth I am not in Tonga but my soul and spirits very very anxious and happiness.

    Thank you Bope Francisfor the selcetion. Please pray for us.

    Tuua Tenebo

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