“God has heard the cry of my people”
An interview with Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva
The Fiji Archipelago in the South Pacific is a renowned destination for tourists from Australia, New Zealand and the United States in general. Its capital city, Suva, is also the commercial and political center of Fiji. However, what few people realize is that parts of this seeming earthly paradise are in danger of extinction. Maria Lozano spoke to Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva, on the Fiji Islands, during his visit to the central headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the consequences of climate change for his country and the sufferings of the Fijian people.
You took part in a conference in Rome related to the third anniversary of the encyclical Laudato Si’ which, among other things, deals with the problem of climate change. Why were you invited to take part in this meeting, and is Suva affected by this phenomenon?
Absolutely. The ocean levels are increasing each year, so the island is disappearing. It is about our homes; many of them will be under water in 50 years’ time. It’s not just a matter of statistics; we can see it with our own eyes. Before, on our island, everyone tried to build their homes near the water. It was seen as a sign of development. The people living close to the sea considered themselves more civilized than the people from the mountains. My grandfather himself built his house just 50 meters away from the sea. The air was good, and it was easy to fish. But now, many houses have to be rebuilt closer to the hills, because the sea is approaching dangerously.
But are these changes simply sporadic? Do they only affect a few people, or are the impacts of climate change affecting all the islands of Fiji?
It’s not just a random event. On the contrary, in the coming years people living in 34 coastal villages in Fiji face upheavals that will force them to relocate their homes, due to the rise in sea level. Fiji’s government has identified these villages as susceptible to the effects of the changes in the next 5 to 10 years. One village in the province of Bua has already been relocated to Yadua and there are plans to move the village of Tavea soon.
Many people don’t believe that the situation is that serious, including many within the Catholic Church, despite all the commitment of the Holy Father on this subject. What would you say to them?
A little while ago I was editing a statement put together by the Pacific Catholic Bishops Conference. The first draft stated that the ‘Pacific was a sea of opportunities’. I corrected this statement stating instead of opportunities that the sea is life for island peoples. The sea provides food, no just opportunities.The first draft also mentioned that we are learning to live with the negative effects of climate change. This is a weak statement. For Pacific Islanders are suffering from the impacts of climate change. Climate change is a matter of survival. How am I going to tell my people that they have to “learn to live with this”?
“Our faith teaches us to transform our suffering and anguish into prayer, into pleas that God may hear the cry of my people. For this reason, it is not simply a matter of something external, of economy or politics. It is a question of respect for God and his creation and of alleviating the pain of those who suffer.”
At any rate, some people still find it difficult to understand what is the role of the Church in this sphere. Is it not rather an economic and political problem?
I believe that there are two respects in which the Church plays an important role. The first is that it is a problem that affects the nucleus of our life and our faith – creation, which is a gift, but at the same time a responsibility that God has given us to take care of. And we have to ask ourselves if we are doing this well or not. Secondly, and this affects me much more directly as a pastor, how am I to console, to accompany the suffering that I see in my people? Their cries, their pain makes me think of the psalms of the Old Testament and of how they call on God to hear the cry of his people. For example in Psalm 12 (13), where we pray, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Our faith teaches us to transform our suffering and anguish into prayer, into pleas that God may hear the cry of my people. For this reason, it is not simply a matter of something external, of economy or politics. It is a question of respect for God and his creation and of alleviating the pain of those who suffer.
Pope Francis has spoken of an “ecological conversion”. How would you apply this term? In might sound a little abstract…
The Holy Father speaks of conversion, and I believe that this affects all of us, both at the international level and also at the national level. Our islands are being devastated, our rivers polluted, our trees cut down. The result is that the fish are disappearing from our shores. Now the fish are moving several kilometers away and this in its turn is having repercussions on the modus vivendi of the ordinary people, because now they need boats in order to go out and fish, and this costs money. All this means that the women, for example, can no longer go fishing as they did before. Previously, they stood on the shore and fished for themselves, but now there are no fish in these areas. In other words, the conversion of which we are speaking has to happen at the local level. But in addition there needs to be a conversion of hearts. Ecological conversion doesn’t happen in isolation, the conversion also has to be something internal in the heart of each individual. There has to be a drawing closer to God, respect for his creation, a spirit of solidarity and generosity towards all those who, even if they are far away geographically, are still our brothers and are suffering terribly. My people are weeping; who will dry their tears?
What for you personally was the most moving moment of your meeting in Rome?
One of the most moving moments for me was when a young woman, a poetess, read out a poem about how to tell her children about what is happening on her island, about what we are going to say to those who come afterwards. What is this mother going to say to her son in 50 years time? It moved me because, as she was reading the poem, she was so affected by it that just as she was starting to say a verse with the words “my faith…”, she was unable to continue and instead repeated several times over, “my faith”, “my faith” in an attempt to continue with the poem… But she was unable to do so. And I thought this was quite providential – it meant that we ourselves have to finish this poem, we have to complete the phrase: “my faith…” What is the response that my faith gives me in the face of this anguish, of this suffering?
Oceania, to which the Fiji Islands belong, comprises more than 7,500 sparsely populated or unpopulated islands spread covering an area of about 70 million square kilometers. The Church considers the region with its unusual variety of indigenous peoples as unique. The proclamation of faith among small, young, secluded, culturally and linguistically diverse communities is a challenging yet also enriching task. The Pontifical Charity Aid to the Church in Need has contributed more than 7.5 million dollars towards projects in Oceania over the last ten years.