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East Timor’s cardinal leap forward

  • 15 June 2022
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