A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Most Reverend Soane Foliaki, s.m. Emeritus Bishop of Tonga

Bishop FoliakiThe following tribute to Bishop Foliaki was given by Fr Grahame Connolly sm at a memorial Mass at St Peter Chanel’s church, Clover Park on 29 December 2013.

 We mark the life and death of a man who made a mark in different countries. He is Soane Lilo Foliaki, member of the Society of Mary, and Emeritus Bishop of Tonga.

Eight months ago he turned 80. And now he has died – on the morning of Christmas Eve. He died at Nuku’alofa in Tonga, near enough to the place – Ma’ofanga – and clearly the land of his birth. Tonga at the start, Tonga in the middle, and Tonga for many years until the end of his life on earth. This last period included the nearly fourteen years as bishop of Tonga and the 5 years and 4 months in retirement.

New Zealand became something of a second home to him – final primary schooling with the Cluny sisters in Tauranga when he and Patelisio Finau were like members of the Gooch family, directed there by Bishop Rodgers since Mrs Gooch was his sister. Then secondary education at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream. At that time NZ’s wicket-keeper played club cricket for St Pat’s Old Boys in Wellington. It is a measure of John Foliaki’s skill, that in school holidays Frank Mooney would step down and let John take the gloves for St Pat’s Old Boys. NZ’s captain of the time, John Reid, said he had never seen a keeper with the sight and coordination of Soane Foliaki in standing up close on the leg side. And he was poetry in motion with a cricket bat in his hands. When he went on to Mount St Mary’s Seminary, Greenmeadows, the long-time Philosophy professor, Fr George Duggan,  said he was the brightest student he had taught there. We, his fellow-students, were in wonder at his ability, and at the same time very fond of him. He was a laid-back, undemanding companion always. It is no wonder that when Patelisio Finau became Bishop of Tonga in 1972, he ensured that his longtime classmate and close friend, Soane, was there at his right hand at Bishop’s House, Lutu.

That was not to last. Fr Foliaki’s ability marked him out for wider service. In his life as a Marist priest, he went overseas for studies, including a degree in Maths from the University of Hull. He also studied at EAPI in Manila, gained a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in Rome, and later did doctoral studies there. He was based in Suva for several years as rector of the Pacific Regional Seminary, where students for priesthood from countries of the Western Pacific gained so much from him. At news of his death there will be former students honouring his memory in countries like Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshalls, Guam – i.e. most of the 17 dioceses & countries coming under the Bishops’ Conference of the Western Pacific.

Within the Society of Mary he became Provincial of Oceania. That made him responsible for Marists and their ministry in eight regions, representing perhaps a dozen countries. His talents became well-known over a wide area. In 1993, there were pointers to the likelihood of Soane Foliaki becoming the Superior-General of the Society of Mary. It didn’t happen. But we think that’s because of Soane’s cunning. Certainly he had the ability. I remember the Marist provincial of Australia saying after a meeting in Sydney: “That bloke (Fr Foliaki) sits there through meetings, never making a note. But he has total recall of everything.”

That’s what makes the decline of recent years all the sadder. The sharp memory left him. This man of keen mind and purposeful organisation found himself progressively forgetful and floundering. Symptoms were apparent just a few years after he became bishop. There is release for him now.

And we pray release from anything which might need cleansing or strengthening as God confirms Soane Foliaki in life with Him. As we do so we give thanks for all that Bishop John has been and is for us.

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