ROME – In a long list of depressingly familiar ways, the deck around the world is often stacked against people of color, especially those who hail from distant and forgotten places. One advantage such folks may sometimes have, however, is the ability to say things out loud which, from other sources, might be considered prejudiced or politically incorrect.
Cardinal John Ribat of Papua New Guinea, the first-ever Prince of the Church from his island nation and a native, is a good example, utterly unafraid to say that while a welcoming stance for immigrants in affluent nations is important, those immigrants have to do their part by refusing to engage in criminal activity and showing respect for their host societies.
“As a visitor to a country, or even to a home, you’re always conscious you’re a visitor,” he told Crux on June 13. “You go there with a sense of respect, and you appreciate what they’re offering you. You remain there on those terms, in order to maintain that relationship.”
Ribat is in Rome to take part in a conference sponsored by Pope Francis’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, intended to present a set of recommendations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees towards a proposed “Global Compact” on refugees to be presented later this year.
“Many countries are ready to help, but when all they see [of immigrants] is the negative side, it doesn’t help,” Ribat said. “People become less ready to accept others.
“People who are arriving at the doorstep of different cultures … have to accept the fact that people are ready to receive them, but they have to behave in a way that they will be welcomed and accepted,” he said.
The 60-year-old Ribat, who’s also the first-ever cardinal to belong to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, told Crux he was “shocked” by his appointment in 2016, but also pleased that it brought his country together — in a rare show of unity, he said, both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader praised it.
What he’s learned in the months since, he said, is the importance of being present to people in his new role.
“You’re a Prince of the Church,” he said. “Everyone loves you, everyone wants you to be there. People want to have a glimpse of you. It can be very challenging and so on, but your presence is really a gift and blessing for them.”
Ribat spoke to Crux during a break in the migrants and refugees conference, held in the Vatican’s complex in Piazza San Calisto in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: When you got the news you were being made a cardinal, where were you, who told you, and how did you react?
I was in the Archdiocese of Port Moresby, where I live. It was Sunday, Oct. 9. I went out to a rural parish, for a celebration of the sacrament of confirmation. I came back late in the evening, it was probably about a quarter to nine, when I got a phone call. It was the nuncio [the pope’s ambassador in the country, presently Indian Archbishop Kurian Mathew Vayalunkal.] He said, ‘I have an urgent message to convey to you.’ Now, he had never called me before like this …
You knew he probably wasn’t calling just to talk soccer, right?
For me, it seemed like a negative signal … I was worried. I was thinking, ‘What’s gone wrong? Is there anything wrong with me? Is there something I’ve caused?’ I was waiting to hear what had happened. What’s this news about? Then, when he came, we sat down at the table and I reached over to shake his hand …
He actually came over to tell you?
Yeah, he came to the house. That’s what I was so worried about.
So you had to sweat blood for a half-hour or something waiting for him to show up?
Right! So when he came, we sat down and shook hands, and he told me, ‘Congratulations!’ I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘You don’t know? Well, in that case, let me tell you … this evening, Pope Francis has appointed you the cardinal of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.’
I was shocked. I sat there for a while, and I didn’t say anything. Eventually I told him, ‘You know, Your Excellency, I never thought about this, I never dreamt of it, I never wrote for it, nothing. It comes as a total surprise. But if it comes like this, and it’s really God’s will, then God should give me the necessary graces to live it out.’
What does it mean to Papua New Guinea to have a cardinal?
Since the appointment, it’s really united everyone … the government, the church, all the different denominations, everyone in the street, everyone in the country. The joyful part of it is that this is the first cardinal ever appointed out of Papua New Guinea for the Church. It’s a great joy for us. It came out in the papers, in the TV. Even the Prime Minister spoke, the opposition leader spoke.
For once, they agreed on something?
Yes, they agreed, they said for once the world has recognized us. They spoke of it in a very positive way, and they accepted it.
How has your life changed since you became a cardinal?
It’s been six months. What has happened, I’m realizing more and more, is that I’m being invited to many, many meetings … probably too many! This is saying something to me. I have to be prepared and be ready to listen, to accept the situation, and be ready to face up to issues that I’m called to share. I’m also being called to visit places and so on. For instance, I’m being invited to places where there’s this climate change program, so I go there. There are other issues, and these are the problems that I’m seeing.
This conference on migration is an example. We have migrants and asylum-seekers also in Papua New Guinea, and I’ve gone to visit them. That’s what this conference is about, and it’s my responsibility to share my experience.
Bottom line, your life has become a lot busier?
Yes, definitely! Very busy, much busier than before …
I bet you’re racking up the frequent flyer miles.
Yeah, I am. You know, you try to recover from the previous trip, and five days later you have to get on a plane again, and you’re still not rested up!
You’re here for a conference on migration. In the Vatican under Pope Francis, the language of welcome and compassion for immigrants and refugees has become so familiar it can seem obvious. Yet in the political realm, things don’t always seem to be moving in that direction. The United States elected a president based in part on promises to crack down on immigration, we’ve seen the rise of populist movements in Europe, and over the weekend, the mayor of Lampedusa, who welcomed the pope on his first trip and who’s famous for her welcoming stance, got trounced in her reelection bid. How can the Church speak a language people respond to?
This is a very challenging issue. The Church speaks about caring for, loving and accepting [new arrivals]. But on the other hand, there’s also a challenge that’s there, a reality people face, which is fear. That’s what always comes up, and some recent happenings have deepened these fears in people in countries who are receiving [migrants]. They see migrants as criminals, and then there’s the problem of ISIS and so on, which creates fear around security and terrorism. That makes it more difficult to receive people peacefully.
The question is, how do we deal with that fear? For me, I’m thinking this way. Let’s create awareness, including among those people who are arriving at the doorstep of different cultures, that they have to accept the fact that people are ready to receive them, but they have to behave in a way that they will be welcomed and accepted. Many countries are ready to help, but when all they see [of immigrants] is the negative side, it doesn’t help. People become less ready to accept others.
Your point is that immigrants have to play their part too?
That’s right, exactly. They have to realize that if they’re seen as what people think they are, as criminals, it will make things difficult. On the part of welcoming countries, with the Church’s encouragement, they need to help these people, and most will be ready to do it. But the migrants have to be ready to make sure there’s peace and order in the societies they’re entering.
Are you saying also that migrants shouldn’t retreat into a ghetto in their host countries?
As a visitor to a country, or even to a home, you’re always conscious you’re a visitor. You go there with a sense of respect, and you appreciate what they’re offering you. You remain there on those terms, in order to maintain that relationship.
What have you learned from this conference in Rome?
Here, I’ve seen both sides … countries that are ready to accept immigrants, and those not ready to accept them. Seeing all of that has given me an understanding that we have a lot of work to do. Our hearts go out to those who are displaced, that’s for sure. But, how can we see this [welcoming migrants] happening more? For me, that’s the struggle. We need to recognize them, give them work, take care of families that are coming, and so on.
It’s a huge problem, and the question is how we can approach it in a way that’s common to all and unites us. That’s the way to see it, but it’s so complex.
There’s no question in your mind this is a major priority for Pope Francis and for the Vatican?
Not at all, this is a very important message [from the pope.] That’s why we’ve come together to work on a document that will try to help all of us, the whole Church throughout the world.
On June 28, Pope Francis will hold a consistory to create new cardinals from Mali, Spain, Sweden, El Salvador and Laos. If you had to give some advice to these new Princes of the Church, what would it be?
For me, my advice to them would be, be ready to accept this. That’s now who you are, you’re a Prince of the Church. Everyone loves you, everyone wants you to be there. People want to have a glimpse of you. It can be very challenging and so on, but your presence is really a gift and blessing for them. For me, that’s really important.
You’re talking about the ‘ministry of presence’?
Yes, availability and presence.
You know the famous American comic Woody Allen once said that ‘eighty percent of success is showing up.’ I guess you’re saying that’s pretty key for a cardinal too?
That’s it! Of course, you also have to be involved with whatever you’re showing up at, but yes, simple presence is very important.