PAPUA New Guinea's first cardinal John Ribat believes his appointment highlights Pope Francis’s wish for Catholics to be treated equally from all parts of the world.
"He's been very true to his word that he's not looking at the traditional places where cardinals have been appointed in the past, but going beyond that and wanting a fairer representation," said Cardinal-elect John Ribat, 59, archbishop of Port Moresby.
"He wants to say the church is for the poor, and that's how he sees it in his mind and wants to show it now in practice, not only through the traditional places, but also reaching out to small places," he said about his nomination as the first-ever cardinal from the South Pacific country, which has 853 registered languages and a mostly rural population.
Cardinal-elect Ribat told Radio New Zealand that climate change had caused rising sea levels and the "slow disappearance" of islands in the region, where many inhabitants were now unable to eat harvested food because of salt contamination.
"The church is in the midst of all these things and we are preparing ourselves to meet the challenges," he said.
"And what we are doing here is not only for the church -- for those who are Catholic -- but for everyone. We go out and help all of them, and encourage them to feel we're doing it for them."
Born at Volavolo in the Gazelle Peninsula in 1957, John Ribat made his first profession with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in February 1979. He was ordained a priest in December 1985 and worked in parishes in Bereina Diocese. After studies in Manila, Philippines, he served as master of novices for the order at Suva.
He was appointed auxiliary bishop of Bereina in October 2000 and then bishop in February 2002. He became archbishop of Port Moresby in March 2008, a year after Pope Benedict XVI appointed him coadjutor archbishop.
After heading the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands from 2011 to 2014, he was elected president of the Federation of Catholic Bishops' Conferences of Oceania in 2014.
In a Facebook message, Bishop Rochus Tatamai of Bereina said the country had succumbed to "contagious cardinal fever" after hearing the news of Cardinal-elect Ribat's elevation, which looked set to impel Papua New Guinea "toward the global centre stage."
The Catholic Church's four archdioceses and 15 dioceses comprise about 27% of Papua New Guinea's 7.3 million people, 70% of whom are Protestants.
The new cardinal has vigorously opposed parliamentary calls to reinstate the death penalty in PNG after a 50-year moratorium, and appealed to politicians during a constitutional crisis in July to "work together and unite for the good of the nation."
A church source said his concerns about poverty, the environment and climate change made him "the pope's sort of bishop."
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill described Cardinal-elect Ribat's nomination as an honour for the country and the Vatican's newly appointed nuncio, Archbishop Kurian Matthew Vayalunkal, added that it exemplified "what can be achieved through commitment and dedication."
The prime minister said he had invited the pope to visit PNG, which hosted Pope St John Paul II twice in 1984 and 1995, and hoped the country would "unite in prayer" during Cardinal-elect Ribat’s installation in Rome on 19 November.
"For many decades, the government did not do much in rural and remote areas, and it was the church that stepped in to help our people," O'Neill said.
"Ours is a deeply Christian nation, and regardless of our denomination, all Papua New Guinean Christians can be proud of our first cardinal."