A CARDINAL best known for defending Pacific island nations swamped by the impacts of climate change has spoken candidly of another challenge – his own daily commitment to be a priest.
“The question really is how do I live my life in relation to the formation but also the sexuality that is deep within us. How do you live that?” Cardinal John Ribat, president of the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania, said in an interview with The Catholic Leader.
“For me, the thought of having a wife, in life, it will always be there, and a challenge that I have to face until I die.
“And I talk to priests about it, and I work with seminarians as well, and that’s what I talk about.
“How do we see this God-given gift to us? How do we see giving life to others, and building the community and unity that we want to see?”
In 2016, Pope Francis elevated John Ribat, Archbishop of Port Moresby since 2008, to become Papua New Guinea’s first cardinal, an appointment widely seen as an example of the Pontiff reaching out to include leadership voices far from Rome.
In the same year, Cardinal Ribat was honoured with a knighthood – named in the Queen’s Birthday honour list.
Since then, Cardinal Sir John Ribat has publicly focused much of his ministry on addressing climate change, drawing on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) to advocate for urgent global action to address rising sea levels and predictions of hotter days and more volatile rainy days in PNG and Pacific islands.
Yet, just as important, he said, was the life-affirming personal witness he can offer to strengthen the resolve of seminarians and younger priests.
“The sexuality that we have – we did not choose it. It is a gift to all human beings … we did not choose it, God gave it to us,” Cardinal Ribat said.
“But then how do we use it? In a way that helps us to live our life … joyfully and meaningfully.
“It’s a challenge and each person has to realise it.”
In his own, early formation, as a young seminarian Cardinal Ribat said he reached a life-defining crossroad when a former school friend proposed they get married.
His rector told him to take time to reflect and pray about the direction of his life.
“This is deep within your soul – you need to have a partner in life,” Cardinal Ribat said, recalling his thinking at that time.
“This person has prepared for life and now she is looking for a partner … do you follow her now or assume your intention and be that person (a priest) in life?”
He said it became clear to him that God wanted him to prepare “not for this life, but for another life”.
“… The Lord has said this for me, and I have accepted it,” the cardinal said.
“He will always see that this is fulfilled.
“That was the beginning and that was not the last challenge.
“The challenge is … I have to make decisions all the time about where I am with my life in relation to the God-given gift of sexuality in my life.
“It’s not always easy, but if it is Him helping us I believe we’ll find strength to continue to do this until the end.”
Cardinal Ribat has applied this same zeal of faith in addressing even the most difficult issues confronting his ministry.
Laudato Si’ became his guiding document on “how we are shaping the future of our planet”.
“He (Pope Francis) did not address this message only to the Catholic Church, no, it is to humanity because the planet we are living on belongs to all of us and we should work together.
“When I saw that, I said: ‘This is the point’.”
Cardinal Ribat watched with concern as bushfires engulfed Australia’s east coast recently, and resolved that Australia and Pacific nations must be united in pressing for climate change solutions.
“The rising seas level across the Pacific – we are all affected by this,” he said.
“In Europe and here in Australia you don’t see this affecting the lives of the people.
“But for us coming from many islands – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu – we are seeing what the sea is doing … washing away good parts of our islands already.
“The first island that has to be evacuated … Carteret Island in Bougainville has been broken into three parts and is really disappearing.
“By 2050 most of the islands will be gone, and that is a great threat to us.
“The work of the Church is to make governments aware that we are responsible for our nation and the common good of our people.”
Similarly, the housing of refugees and asylum seekers on PNG’s Manus Island, and now in Port Moresby is an issue for the Church to help resolve.
“How can we help them (refugees) so they are not affected psychologically?” Cardinal Ribat said.
“It is really an issue that challenges our nation and our people.
“And of course we have our own refugees coming across (the border) from West Papua.
“We realise it is not an issue just for us but for the whole world where people are moving, and their movement is because of something that has happened in their country and has caused them to move out.
“This always reminds me of the voice of Christ – how he challenges us.
“He said; ‘When I was hungry you fed me, when I was sick you came and visited me, and when I was homeless you came for me’.
“And it is a message we cannot just forget, pretend it is not there.”
Cardinal Ribat said a great strength in PNG can be seen when Catholic and Protestant churches work closely together, to “journey with the people” and help the government solve national crises.
“We always want the message for all the churches to be united,” he said.
“(In the past) one of the issues that brought us together was the HIV/AIDS. I was there when we launched an ecumenical movement to address AIDS.
“Now the issue is refugees. Our aim is to be ‘one voice’ and in this way we pull the churches together.”