Obituary: Bishop Patelesio Finau

Patelesio Finau, priest: born 1934; ordained priest 1959; Bishop of Tonga and Niue 1972-93; died Niue 2 October 1993.

THERE are arguably two kinds of national church leader. One speaks out on matters of public interest and concern; and may well be urged not to interfere in the business and responsibilities of government. The other is silent on such things, concentrates from pulpit or press on spiritual issues and pastoral concerns and gets told that the church is out of touch with the real world. There is no doubt that Bishop Patelesio Finau was one of the former.

Trained in a Marist seminary in New Zealand, Finau became a priest in 1959; and the first Tongan to be appointed by the Pope as Bishop of Tonga and Niue in 1972. He was 37. For 21 years, he led by example a dynamic, influential minority church. The mark of his ecumenical humanitarianism is on it everywhere. He told me in 1991:

There are matters of importance on which I must speak out. So I do so, and have been called a Marxist by the King, and an agent of the Pope by the Crown Prince, with a curious absence of consistent reasoning in both cases. Political policies and actions touch on morality and human rights and the dignity of people as individuals. You can no longer assume automatic acceptance or compliance whether in Tonga or elsewhere. People have to be convinced today by consultation.

It is generally more difficult - a special kind of courage is required - to be publicly critical of customary authority, of sanctified traditions and of entrenched attitudes in small island communities than it is in the anonymity of great cities and nations. Not least is this so in Tonga, the last remaining Polynesian island kingdom with its semi- feudal society of monarch, nobles, lesser chiefs and commoners.

Bishops, like headmistresses, strike a sort of advanced fear in me. So it was with a touch of apprehension that I had approached my initial meeting with Finau. There was no need. Heat and humidity notwithstanding, I had dressed in tie and jacket. Finau received me in an open-neck blue and white Hawaiian-style shirt. The only evidence of clerical office was the cross and chain around his neck. He radiated warmth, gentleness and reflective rather than oratorical dynamism. Yet that was not all. I had with me the latest edition of the news magazine Matangi Tonga, with a splendidly robed Finau occupying the front cover and a penetrative article within. Highlighted on the cover: 'Bishop Finau speaks out against tyranny in the home and state.'

'Our people are coming of age and should be given the right to vote in a fully democratic process,' he had said.

Our system with nine members of parliament representing 100,000 people and nine noble representatives representing 33 nobles and 12 members of parliament appointed by the King is just ridiculous. One day our grandchildren will laugh at how foolish we are. I just laugh at us now. If our King and nobles were Papalangis (Europeans), we would not let this happen; but we have been fooled by the fact that they are Tongans, our own people.

Finau's hand moved to the cross and chain at his neck. 'If the nobles ever had to make a choice between Christ and the King,' he said, 'there is no doubt that, at least for some of them, the King would win. Intellectually they still live in the days when the King's attendants were entombed with him when he died.'

The development of a close working relationship with the Free Wesleyan state church in Tonga was one of Bishop Finau's notable achievements. As he described it:

This is a new Roman Catholicism - working closely with other Christian churches. It reflects our shared faith in being disciples of the Lord. Our common ground is in gospel values in the world of today. Seeking solutions to basic human problems and needs rather than pursuing theological arguments which divide.

The Wesleyan Church President confirmed this: 'Our relations with the Roman Catholic Church are especially productive,' he said. 'This is entirely due to the enlightened perspectives of Bishop Finau.'

It was not just in Tonga that Finau's influence was felt. He was active elsewhere in the vast Archbishopric of Oceania. Last year, he had led an inter-church group to the troubled island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea; and in June this year, as President of the Pacific Council of Churches, he was in Geneva to voice his humanitarian concerns at a meeting of the World Council of Churches.

Finau collapsed and died while standing in for an absent colleague on the neighbouring Polynesian island of Niue. The gulf he leaves so prematurely goes beyond his own church. A man of God, he was a priest for all people.