On September 23rd, our first 9 Pacific Climate Warriors arrived in Paris. The final 3 of our party of 12 – which included me – arrived in Paris 2 days later. The Island Warriors represented on this tour were
- George Nacewa from Fiji
- Raedena Solomona from Samoa
- Litia Maiava from Tokelau
- Silivestiteli Loloa from Tonga
- Litiana Kalsrap from Vanuatu
- Niten Anni from the Marshall Islands
- Starlin Konainao from the Solomon Islands
- Toani Benson from Kiribati
- Clemencia Sioneholo from Niue.
From the moment our first Warriors arrived in Paris, they hit the ground running with interviews, photo shoots and various media opportunities. We were very fortunate to have the support from the Europe team who made arrangements for many of these opportunities. Although the Warriors were heavily jet-lagged and tired, they were absolute troopers turning up to every interview full of energy and sharing stories of their journey.
On the 26th of September, we participated in the Alternatiba concert at Republique. We displayed the mats that we had brought from the Pacific for the first time and George Nacewa dressed in traditional Fiji costume spoke on behalf of the Pacific Climate Warriors.
To end, Starlin Konainao sang his original song about the Warriors that he wrote for this event. It was great and it really got the crowd dancing. A video of his performance can be seen here.
It was such a powerful experience to have shared a small part of our story with the thousands of people – even better was immediately following our time on stage we did more media interviews with journalists from other parts of Europe.
Our next 2 days in Paris were spent having some photo opportunities at iconic places around Paris in preparation for COP and preparing as a group for our time in Rome – the real reason we had come to Europe.
On Tuesday 29th of September, we boarded an overnight train bound for Rome. As the men slept soundly in their cabin, the women spent the entire night bonding with stories, a lot of laughter and music – which earned us several poundings on the wall from neighbouring cabins. It was a profound moment to mention as other than my meeting Raedena in Newcastle for the flotilla, and skyping with Sina, none of us had ever met prior to this trip. As women, we learned so much about each other that night and truly bonded as sisters willing to do all that we could for each other. This would be one of the most memorable parts of the trip for us all and would be important for the remaining days of our trip.
We arrived at Termini Station on Wednesday morning and walked the 2 minutes to our accommodation. After settling in and some breakfast we decided, to make our way to St Peter’s Square to familiarise ourselves with the location and how to get there.
Entering St Peter’s Square for the first time that afternoon was overwhelming for us all. We were all truly in awe of the place we had only seen in images or tv. For some of us, it was the spiritual home our faith.
For those who were non-Catholics, the feeling of being in such a Holy place was very strong. We took 15 minutes to go our separate ways around the square for some reflection time before gathering in the centre by the large obelisk where we sat and had our first meeting session – centering ourselves in this place and our purpose for travelling to Rome. It was a very emotional session with the Warriors sharing very personal stories of what being here meant to them, their families and their people. We ended by once again walking around the space to reflect on what we had just learned from each other before coming together by one of the fountains where we circled up for a final prayer. It was dusk by the time we left that evening.
On Thursday the 1st of October, we received an email from Yeb Sano advising that the Peoples Pilgrimage would be resting at Viterbo which, according to our train maps, didn’t look very far away. Therefore, we made a group decision to go meet with Yeb and the pilgrims ahead of officially joining them the following day. Viterbo turned out to be a 2-hour train ride away which we only discovered while sitting on the train. We managed to catch up with Yeb and the crew minutes before they were due to resume the next leg of their journey to Foligno where we were to join them the next day. Yeb and the pilgrims were very happy to see us and excited that we would be walking together the following day. I believe making the effort to go and meet with them that day was a great experience for the group in terms of centering ourselves in our purpose for coming to Rome and preparing us for the pilgrimage and our 3-day prayer vigil. We used the time on the train to practice songs, select our prayer vigil programme organisers and touch base on the journey so far.
The People’s Pilgrimage – from Foligno to Assisi
On Friday the 2nd of October, we all boarded a train to Foligno where we would meet the People’s Pilgrimage group for the night before joining them on a 21km walk to Assisi. We were hosted for dinner that night by the local Caritas group where Yeb spoke to hosts about the journey and about how the PCWs were joining for this leg. It was a wonderful evening in a beautiful space. That night we slept on the floor of a church hall that had offered to host the pilgrims for the night.
The following morning, we were invited to join the group for a presentation at a local high school. We were given an opportunity to talk to the students about where we had come from and how the PCWs had come to be in Rome. Everything was translated by an interpreter, and at times it was difficult but the students were moved by our story and gave us all a standing ovation. There was some movement amongst the students and before we left, 2 students entered the room with a box of baked goods – they had been taking up a collection while we were presenting and had gone to buy us all baked treats before we set out for the day. That was really nice.
After our time at the high school, it was time for the Pilgrims and Warriors to set off on the first leg of our walk together. Most of the Warriors did not have appropriate footwear for the trek but this didn’t stop them from participating – some walking only in thong sandals. Two of the Warriors took a vow of silence for the day to represent those suffering climate impacts who could not speak for themselves (animals, sea creatures, the ocean, land etc).
During the 5hr walk, the group had two rest stops where we attended to blisters and mild dehydration. The groups were in great spirits all the way along the journey and with the Warriors, lots of laughter and singing was involved too. The Warriors also had the great opportunity to share stories with the pilgrims learning about climate struggles in other parts of the world.
When the group entered the town of Assisi, the town was bustling as they were preparing for the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi to be celebrated the following day. It was such a celebration to have completed the walk with the pilgrims.
While the pilgrimage had been a great success, some tensions had begun to build within the group. It was identified that 3 of the Warriors for reasons that were unclear had formed a little “clique” during the walk. During that Saturday evening prepping for dinner with the group, organising where everyone was to sleep, these 3 individuals had decided to, in a way separate themselves from the group. There didn’t appear to be a clear reason for it but we decided not to address it until there was something to address. For that Saturday evening, all it looked like was they were choosing to eat together on their own, be the last ones to arrive for dinner and sleep away from the rest of the group.
On Sunday morning, 4th October, we made the call to be dressed and ready to go to Mass at the St Francis of Assisi cathedral by 7.30am. Thousands of people were expected to be there and we had to navigate our way to the church so wanted to be ready to beat the rush. All of the group was ready outside having breakfast by 7.30am – except for the same 3 individuals from the night before. We sent one person to give them another 10mins. At the end of the 10mins when only one had appeared, it was time to address the issue.
When the last person came outside, we got the group to circle up away from the pilgrims and had a very intense session to clear the air. I was direct with my approach because I believe that it was important not to beat around the bush and asked the 3 individuals this question to start:
“Is it your intention to undermine the leadership and disrespect the group?” There was no hiding from it and the fact that the entire group was being impacted by their behaviour needed to be addressed. I reminded the group of where we were, what it had taken to get us all here and who we were here for – our greater purpose. If we were not able to fulfill that purpose united in our cause then it was time for us to head home. We were due to begin our Fa’anoanoa (prayer vigil) the following day and going into it with tension would be pointless.
The session became an opportunity for everyone to check-in with how they were feeling – what was going wrong and what was going right. We encouraged everyone to throw it all in the centre so that we could move forward – that whatever we were carrying would be squashed, forgotten and forgiven after this session. It was emotional, sometimes hard to hear but above all else cleansing. It allowed us to re-centre ourselves on our goals forgive each other and let go. Our real work was yet to come. One of the Warriors had commented that we are a family and this is what families do – we talk about things even when they are ugly and tackle them together. This is why the PCWs works so well – there is an innate love, care and concern for each other which supersedes everything when we gather as a group. We become borderless and fight for our common goal as one. From this, we were ready to move forward.
As expected, the crowd at the St Francis of Assisi cathedral service was MASSIVE.
We watched and followed the service from outside but Yeb led a small group of us to take communion inside and to visit the tomb of St Francis which lies under the Cathedral. It was a very powerful moment and signalled that our time with Yeb and the People’s Pilgrimage was coming to an end. We joined with another pilgrimage group who hosted us for dinner that evening and when we returned to our accommodation with the pilgrims that evening, we had a special evening circle up session with them. Again, it was very emotional and moving as we thanked them for allowing us to be a part of this journey with them and that they would continue to be in our prayers as they made their way to Paris. We sang songs with them and presented them with a mat that would continue to them. The entire experience of this time was powerful for the PCWs and I believe was exactly what we needed in preparing ourselves for the last, and most important part of our journey: Our 3-day Fa’anoanoa.
Pacific Climate Warrior Fa’anoanoa – The Vatican.
At 6 am on Monday the 5th of October, the Warriors boarded a train from Assisi back to Termini station in Rome. Two hours later, we disembarked, found some breakfast and went to get ready in our traditional black mourning clothes. Day One of our Fa’anoanoa was upon us.
The truth of the matter was that we had no set plan. Nowhere to hold our vigil for the next 3 days. In essence, we were winging it but we believed that the right place would reveal itself – we were motivated by faith and we just needed to get out there early enough to find it. We decided to make our way to St Peter’s square and plan our movements. We walked in with the mats rolled up on our shoulders and in our bags and had barely walked across the square when were suddenly surrounded by Vatican police. They demanded to know what it was we were carrying, I explained to them that they were mats. We pulled one out to unfurl it. There was a lot of speaking on cell phones and RT’s by the police Vatican security. They asked a barrage of questions – where did we come from? who did you come with? why have you brought these mats here?
I spoke on behalf of the group and explained to them that we were here to celebrate the Pope’s encyclical and that the mats were from the Pacific. We were going to use the mats to pray as they represented for us, the stories of how our people were suffering the impacts of climate change, I also added that our intention was NOT to stay at the Vatican but just to meet here before we determined where we might hold our 3-day prayer vigil which is why we had come to Rome. They demanded to see my passport and we were soon joined by 2 Italian Police officers who had also been called in. I asked why they were there and was told that if we were going to be thrown out of the Vatican, we would be placed in their custody.
A Vatican police officer who seemed to be a supervisor of some kind and appeared to have taken the lead over the other officers and the following conversation was had.
Officer: “So you are from the Pacific?”
Officer: “And you are here to pray?”
Me: “Yes – for the Pacific and the impacts of climate change they are experiencing.”
Officer: “Are you selling the mats or something?”
Me: “Oh no!”
Officer “So just here to use the mats to pray?”
Me: “Yes – but we weren’t planning on staying here”
Officer: “How long are you here?”
Me: “3 more days. We leave on Thursday.
[Officer speaks Italian into his RT for a few minutes. Meanwhile there are about 7 police officers nearby]
Officer: “I have spoken to Vatican security and explained the situation. They have said you may set up anywhere in the square that you like. If you have any problems, please let us know.”
Shock, Joy. Grateful. We were allowed to have our vigil in the square for all 3 days. We thanked the police for their help and chose a discrete spot under the pillars of the Square so as not to be too much of a distraction and went to work spreading out the mats. It looked amazing.
Once the mats were laid out, we started our vigil by going to each of the mats individually to silently reflect on the journey of that mat – where it had come from, who had woven it and the people of that Island. What we had intended would be a quick acknowledgement of each mat, became something so much more. Every one of us wept completely overcome with emotion as we went to each of the mats. Thinking about that very special moment brings tears to my eyes because what we shared in that moment was a deep sense of compassion and pain for the people for whom these mats represented. It was the best way that we could have started our vigil for the coming days. It bound us together and held true the promise that none of us were alone.
We had set up a team of 3 Warriors to lead the vigil programme over the next 3 days. On each day, four Islands would be given an opportunity to share the story of their mat and stories of impacts with the group, We would then collectively as a group offer up prayers for that Island, prayers for the leaders of that Island, share a moment of silence and where appropriate for the mat, an act of contrition. We finished each Island presentation with a hymn – songs we had been practicing all week.
As people passed by or stopped to watch what we were doing, we invited to them to join in. We had not planned for any media for the actual Fa’anoanoa but the Pope was also hosting the Synod on Family so there were a lot of press in the Square. We piqued the interest of a few media outlets from the US and Europe so used our media spokespeople for them without disturbing the flow of our vigil. We also did a few radio interviews over the phone.
Another thing we had not been able to do was connect with Pacific clergy based in Rome. We had sent a few emails and reached out to some through contacts in the Pacific but got little response. On that Monday, a man had sat and watched us for a long time and waited till after we had concluded our 2nd Island dedication for the day before approaching us. It turned out that he was a priest from Papua New Guinea and knew most of the Pacific Island priests in Rome. He spread word quickly about our presence and on the following day, we were visited by a total of 6 Pacific priests from Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. It was so wonderful to have them join with us and share in our vigil.
Day 2 we dressed in colourful traditional clothing and this time as we entered, the Police were waiting for us. They told us again that we could set up wherever we liked but that they had our same spot ready if was wanted to go back there. It was such a good feeling.
Tuesday was also special because it was the only day you could collect tickets for the Pope’s private audience for Wednesday. We had not received a response to the fax we sent requesting tickets so were on a mission to try to get some that morning as they window of time to get some was limited. Two of our Warriors went to join the queue to try to secure some tickets when we were visited by one of the Tongan priests. He asked us if we had tickets for the audience yet. When we told him no and that we were trying, he left and returned a short time later with 12 tickets! Again we celebrated and felt so very blessed. When our two Warriors returned, they too had managed to get tickets so we went from having 0 to 24. We were able to give the extra tickets to others who needed them.
Our day followed the same format as the day before but included was dedicated prayers for leaders of high-polluting nations. We prayed that they would come to Paris with the commitments needed to keep our Islands above water.
We prayed also for the Islands that did not make it to Rome with us. Again we were visited throughout the day by curious onlookers and more Pacific Island Priests. To thank the Police for taking care of us, we also presented them with a small gift of a mat. One of the senior Police officers accepted it and in return, gave me a small badge of wings from the lapel of his jacket, He said that we were the most colourful and interesting group he had ever seen in 16 years of working at the Vatican and thanked us for coming. We were all blown away. Blessed beyond any expectation.
We finished our vigil for the day by 5pm and decided to do a tour of the Basilica as a group because it was free. That was an amazing experience. When we came out by about 6pm, the 6 Priests were there to meet us and on their insistence, we performed what we believe to have been a Vatican first: that evening, we held the first ever traditional kava ceremony in the Vatican under the pillars. We definitely left our Pacific mark on the Vatican that day!
Day 3 was the big one. Today was the audience with the Pope. A couple thousand people were expected to be there so we wanted to arrive early for good seats. We had decided the day before that we wanted to gift a mat to the Pope. The mat we chose was the one from Tonga. It was very fine and delicate – a beautifully woven mat. We wrote a letter to Pope telling him about why we had come and wrapped it with a tauvala (Tongan woven belt) sealing it with a Pacific Climate Warrior sticker. We had given the duty to our Tongan representative – Silivesiteli (Sylvester) Loloa – to try and get it to the Pope. Sylvester is someone who is very shy and reserved and he was nervous to be the one to give our gift but accepted the opportunity.
When the Popemobile entered the Square, we were not in the front near one of the partitions. We were about 4 rows back but when Sylvester saw that the Pope was approaching near where we were, out of nowhere, he surged forward to the front. There were 2 guards walking along the partitions and one right next to his vehicle. Sylvester asked each of the guards to please give this to the Pope and all three of the guards rejected him. Then the Pope himself looked at Sylvester and with his hand motioned for the mat to be brought forward. The guard by his side came and took the mat from Sylvester and placed it in the Popemobile. Mission accomplished!
We were all so excited and so very proud of Sylvester. It was such a great moment for us all but also – what a moment for him! The mat that his people had woven had made it to the Pope. It would be such a great story to tell for years to come! We celebrated with hugs, tears and song. Everything we had sought to achieve, came to fruition and we were elated!
After the Pope’s message and the crowd began to disperse, we stayed in our seats and began to sing. People came and joined us and we just enjoyed the moment for a while. We held up the flags of our Pacific nations and just soaked in the moment. We then decided to hold a debrief in our vigil spot under the pillars. We shared how we felt about and it was our opportunity as leaders to thank them for all of their effort and for their spirit to see this mission through to the end. It had been a powerful 3 days and the best possible way to end our vigil.
Our story had been shared widely in Pacific media and by our network of the Pacific Climate Warriors, and that was what we had wanted – to show our people that this journey of faith was for THEM.