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Bishop J.P. Pompallier led the seven French Marists, who were the first Catholics to enter Tonga in 1837 when they met King Taufa’ahau but were not given permission to stay in the Kingdom.
It was not until 1842, when they were successful with a permission to remain in Tonga. However, they made very slow progress due to lack of sympathies from the authorities as well as the Wesleyan Missionaries.
‘A kind of breakthrough was the conversion of the Tu’I Tonga in 1851, even if this was due to his desire for reinforcing his independent identity when confronted with the drive of George Tupou I to complete hios political domination.’ Winds of Change.
1852 ‘ a war broke out as a matter of indigenous politics but with ‘strong religious overstones’ : ‘this eventually saw the Catholics on the losing side’
The Marists extended their activities in the following years but progress was still slow. It was until 1885, when trouble began to stir within the Wesleyan Church.
1892 ‘ after 50 years of mission work, the Catholics established a total fellowship of 2,315.
The established fellowship was just a part of the Vicariate Apostolic of Central Oceania which was set up in 1842.
1935 ‘ Tonga, together with Wallis and Futuna, was detached from the Vicariate Apostolic of Central Oceania.
1966 ‘ Tonga became a single diocese.
‘In 1922 the Catholic population in Tonga was about 13.500; organized into 13 parishes and served by 21 priests and 75 sisters.’
There used to be 1 priest in Auckland and one in the USA to serve the Tongan Catholics abroad. The missionary phase ended in 1972 when Fr. Patelesio Finau became the first local Bishop. Bishop Finau was a strong advocate of social justice. This allowed him to significantly broaden the role of a Pacific Church leader.
Beside being a strong and effective spiritual leader ‘he became the outspoken champion of social and economic reforms and ecumenism in Tonga and the South Pacific Region.’ Winds of Change.
In 1991, he was elected as Chairman of the Pacific Conference of Churches during its sixth assembly in Vanuatu. This election underlined his growing role as a key person for ecumenism’s development.
‘This was the first time a Catholic had been made head of a regional ecumenical body, anywhere in the world. Bishop Finau’s sudden death in 1993 was widely lamented as a great loss to the Pacific Churches.’ Winds of Change.
Catholocism in Tonga presents itself there as a typical ‘opposition church’ with an obvious vision for the future. Even if this impact is not always reflected in an increase of adherents, the movement of pro-democracy is growing, with Catholic priests as leading figures.
Just like the other Pacific Islands, small but growing charismatic group within it, is its biggest challenge. Representing 1% of Catholics, these Charismatic at the moment cooperate beyond their ‘denominational borders with other evangelical-fundamentalist-Pentecostal-charismatic Christians, but remain within the church structure.’ Winds of Change.
However, their differences in theological and political agenda will lead soon or later to a major break. It is because it is diametrically opposed to the mainstream of Catholicism in Tonga.