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East Timor’s cardinal leap forward



Pope Francis recently announced that on 27 August 2022 he would make the archbishop of Dili, Dom Virgilio do Carmo da Costa, a cardinal. The church in tiny East Timor, population 1.3 million, most of whom are Catholics, has come a long way in a short time. Its centuries-long history in East Timor not withstanding, Archbishop Virgilio is only the fourth East Timorese to head up the local church, the first archbishop and now the first cardinal.

The Pope’s choice of Dom Virgilio reflects his laudable commitment to the peripheral church of the South and his wish that the universal face of the church be reflected in its leadership. Most of the new appointments are from outside Europe; six are from Asia.

But that’s not the full story. The Vatican has every reason to be happy with East Timor, now the most Catholic nation in Asia. In just four decades, Catholic numbers have tripled from an estimated thirty percent of the population in 1975 after centuries of Portuguese rule to around ninety seven percent today. The church is acknowledged in the nation’s Constitution and, after a rough patch in 2005, it now enjoys a close working relationship with the government.

This has paid handsome dividends for both the church and the government. Inter alia, President Jose Ramos-Horta has been photographed with both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis and has played up his Catholicism in election campaigns; substantial allocations of ‘state aid’ have been received for buildings and other church activities, prompting complaints of discrimination by non-catholic religious organisations; most Catholic holy days are public holidays; a towering statue of Pope John Paul II stands on a hill top looking across Dili bay to one of Cristo Rei.

In return, the church minds its own business and engages in a range of activities including vocational training and excellent educational services, delivered by a large number of international religious orders. The partnership was deepened in 2015 with the finalisation of an historic bi-lateral Concordat. Its Vatican signatory was none other than its number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who visited Timor that year to celebrate the country’s fifth centenary of Catholicism.


'As the country approaches the cliff of declining oil revenue, will the church use its new authority to ensure that the interests of East Timor’s majority poor, most of them Catholic, are more clearly heard by the government?'  


This is a far cry from the recent Indonesian era when church and state were at loggerheads. However, it was never envisaged, just the contrary. In 1981, during the seemingly irreversible Indonesian occupation, a Vatican diplomat told me that East Timor must resign itself to being part of Indonesia and, like a latter day Israel, accept God’s plan to be an island of faith in a Muslim sea.

In a great irony, however, it was majority-Muslim Indonesia that drove the East Timorese into the arms of the church. Desperate to preserve their culture, identity and human rights in the face of the Indonesian military’s onslaught and imposition of the state pancasila ideology, ordinary East Timorese turned to the church en masse. With the Resistance confined to the mountains, the church alone was able to offer sanctuary and a voice. Many of its clergy and religious stepped up magnificently led initially by Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes, East Timor’s first indigenous head of the church, then by his successor, Dom Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. A Salesian like Dom Virgilio, Bishop Belo is the catholic church’s only ever Nobel Laureate.

The Timorese church, however, should not be over-rated. Some, for example, have wrongly concluded that its role during the war with Indonesia means that it espoused liberation theology. It is, in fact, a deeply traditional church, arguably pre-Vatican II in style akin to the church of my youth in the 1950s. Allowing for notable exceptions, priests enjoy a caste-like authority and status. Laity are junior partners to the clergy. Devotions to Our Lady of Fatima, St Anthony and other saints in the form of processions and other popular practices are mainstream and encouraged. This style is arguably suited to Timor’s culture and current circumstances, but its sustainability among its growing and modernising youth population and educated Timorese is doubtful.

While the church has its hands full serving its large membership, a big challenge is to work out what its role should be in post-war Timor. Rather than entrench its comfortable status quo, Cardinal Virgilio, educated in the Philippines and from an order skilled in youth education, must ensure that the church’s new status is used to move it towards the model advocated by Pope Francis.

Sixtus Harson, writing for UCA in Jakarta, has noted a related challenge, that of the church’s relationship with the government. He stresses that ‘the cardinal must safeguard the Church’s prophetic mission in Timor-Leste, where personal interests often determine politics and the process of democracy’ and asks will the cardinal’s elevation ‘amplify the voice of the people’.

As the country approaches the cliff of declining oil revenue, will the church use its new authority to ensure that the interests of East Timor’s majority poor, most of them Catholic, are more clearly heard by the government?  





Pat Walsh is the author of The Day Hope and History Rhymed in East Timor and Other East Timor Stories (2019). Pat served as special adviser to East Timor's CAVR commission, and helped design the country's successor body, Centro Nasional Chega!, to which he is an advisor.

Main image: Worshippers from East Timor wave a flag in the air at the Sanctuary of Fatima. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, East Timor, Timor-Leste, Church, Cardinal Virgilio



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Existing comments

The Church is in the State but not of it and should sup with the State with a long spoon. The State, after all, is just an institutional incarnation of the people who live within its boundaries and people, even pew dwellers, have, since the Fall, somewhat like fish, been swimming in a fluid mixture of the world, the flesh and the Devil.

roy chen yee | 14 June 2022  

Thank you, Pat, for this informative and challenging overview. I agree wholeheartedly that the Timorese church should not be over-rated. It's not fair to do that, just as it's not fair to idealise the Timorese people as a whole.

Your last question could be equally asked of the Australian Church in relation to Timor-Leste. Official Australia's monumental failures from WWII onwards (with some redemption in 1999) were accompanied by a divided response to the Timorese question from the Australian Catholic Church especially during the 70's and 80's. The scandalous espionage against Timor-Leste in 2004 for the financial benefit of Australian companies, and the current prosecutions of those who told the truth, present the Australian church with some very curly questions indeed concerning both Australia and Timor-Leste.

Susan Connelly | 23 June 2022  

Thanks for this article Pat.

Although not a religious person, I have been involved in East Timor solidarity since 197 and I think it is positive that Pope Francis has made the archbishop of Dili, Dom Virgilio do Carmo da Costa, a cardinal.

Like Pat, I see this as a move by Francis to give recognition to people who live in the South. Having come from Argentina, he has had strong sympathy for and solidarity with people in developing nations.

Compared with the popes who came before him, Francis has displayed a much stronger commitment to social justice and the movements for liberation in the developing world. People of goodwill who value the importance of democracy, social justice, the rule of law and basic human rights appreciate this.

And Sister Susan Connelly is correct when she points out the division in the Catholic Church over support for our East Timorese WW2 allies during the years of Indonesian occupation during the years of the fascist Suharto dictatorship

The National Civic Council (NCC) led by Bartholomew Santamaria was extremely right wing that indulged in very hard right wing politics during the Cold War. It is reputed to have helped encourage the leaders of the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) to pull out of the coalition it had with the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN).

After pulling out of the coalition, UDT initiated a military action against FRETILIN in August 1975 which led to a 3 week civil war which it lost. Some of its leaders then supported the Indonesian invasion.

Many had hoped that Bernard Callinan – a senior officer of the Australian commandos in Portuguese Timor during WW2 and a speaker of Portuguese and Tetum – would make a strong stand to support East Timor’s independence after the 1974 Portuguese Carnation Revolution. This was at a time when Australia’s leaders were very conflicted about the impending Indonesian invasion. Initially he did, but later refused to speak in Timor’s defence and some have attributed this to his membership of the NCC.

Other parts of Australian society at the time were also divided about what stand to take on the Timor question And shamefully, as Susan Connelly has pointed out in her recently published book – East Timor, Rene Girard & Neocolonial Violence – Scapegoating as Australian Policy – official Australia supported the actions of the Indonesian dictatorship and it was left to small groups of Australian activists to support our East Timorese friends.

The East Timorese could have avoided much death, suffering and destruction if Australian and other western leaders had lived up to the principles that they so freely espouse.

We have to ensure that such betrayals do not occur in the future. Having more popes like Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) would help.

And hopefully, progressive Timorese Catholics along with their compatriots will act to ensure that their government will pursue the most effective development policies.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 26 June 2022  

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