Mahalo, Pope Francis. Ho’omaika’i ‘ana, New Cardinals

During my glorious year living in Hawai’i, my Sunday routine was pretty set. In the morning I would walk to Waikiki Beach, rent a surfboard, and pretend like I knew what I was doing. Then, on my way home, I would stop at St. Augustine’s Church for the 5:00 Mass. I always cut an interesting figure sitting in the last pew in board shorts and a pair of flip flops (or rubber slippers, as the locals say).

Everyone else was either a well-dressed tourist or a member of the Tongan community in their traditional clothes. The Mass was designed for the latter, and while everything spoken was in English (except the final blessing, which was in Hawaiian), everything sung by the choir was in the Tongan language.

I came to love the music and the mass just as much as I did the surfing, although I must confess I wasn’t any better at it. I also came to develop an affinity for the Kingdom of Tonga, as I did for all things Polynesian. So, when I read the list of new cardinals made at last weekend’s consistory, I was pleased to see the name of Soane Patita Paini Mafi, bishop of Tonga.

What I wasn’t expecting to see is just how small that diocese is. Of the 100,000 people who live on the 176 islands that make up Tonga, only 15,000 of them are Catholic. This is not, to say the least, a traditional Catholic powerhouse where you would typically expect to see a red hat. It also shows in a concrete way what Pope Francis means when he says that the church should go to the peripheries.

After Pope Benedict stepped down, I questioned why “25% of the votes [in the College of Cardinals] go to the small country of Italy and less than 10% go to the entire continent of Africa, especially when the Church in Italy is in decline and in Africa it is growing by the day.” Pope Francis seems to be asking the same sorts of questions. Of the 20 Cardinals he elevated last weekend, only five are Europeans. I still think there is quite a way to go to reform the College of Cardinals, but once again I am pleased with the track this pontiff has placed us on, and where his priorities lie.

Africa now has 12% of the votes in the College, an all-time high, but it still doesn’t bring it even close to proportional representation. In the 20th century, the Church in Africa grew 6,708%, from 1.9 million to more than 130 million. Cardinal-electors from the developing world now make up 41% of the College, up from 35% when Pope Francis was elected, but two-thirds of Catholics live outside the West.

There is perhaps little a pope can do that will have a greater impact on the long term trajectory of the Church than his appointments to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Mafi is now, at 53 years old, its youngest member. How many times will he travel to the Sistine Chapel (taking 4 planes to cover the 11,000 miles) to elect a successor to St. Peter? How many times will he be called upon for his advice, and bring the perspective of someone who grew up on an isolated island with 1/10th the population of my hometown of Boston?

As a leader, Pope Francis has shaken up the staid office of the papacy and breathed new life into the Church. Here in the United States, John F. Kennedy did the same thing with the presidency. We still have a long way to go before the College of Cardinals reflects the true experience and diversity of the global church but, as our only Catholic president said in his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Pope Francis has begun. He may be 78 years old, but at least culturally it is clear that the torch has been passed to a new generation in the Church. Let us follow his lead.