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Life and death in the Cathedral

  • 10 October 2022
Two weeks ago, Bishop Hilton Deakin died. My memories of him are inextricably tied to the Mass he celebrated in 1999 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, certainly the most emotionally charged event that I have seen there. The church was packed with people standing along the walls, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people outside the Cathedral. For some the Cathedral was clearly home ground; for others it seemed foreign territory. Many people were weeping, many angry. In such a fraught atmosphere I wondered at the time how Hilton could, would channel such intense and various feelings of so varied a congregation into the celebration of the Mass.

The occasion that brought people together was the violence orchestrated by the Indonesian military following the Referendum on Independence in East Timor. During the struggle for Independence many East Timorese had joined the Catholic Church — one of the religious groups open to them under Indonesian law. Many of its leaders had supported the move for Independence. After the Massacre at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991, many East Timorese had fled to Australia and settled in Melbourne, supported by Catholic agencies and parish groups as well as by the Trade Unions and many other groups. Though they did not have permanent residence they enjoyed the strong sympathy of the larger community. Many of us had made Timorese friends some of whom returned to East Timor and to government office in Timor Leste after Independence.

The Referendum had aroused wide interest and hope among the East Timorese refugees and their supporters. The joy at the news of its result had been replaced by grief at the death of those killed in the violence, outrage at the killings and destruction, and fear that the people’s vote might not be honoured.

St Patrick’s Cathedral was a natural place in which to gather in grief and rage. A space designed for the Irish Catholic immigrant tribe, it now became a home for the Catholic people of East Timor and those connected with them. To lead the Mass in a way that encouraged the feelings and allegiances of such a diverse group was a large challenge and responsibility.

Hilton Deakin was up to the challenge. A big man both in size and personality, one not dwarfed by the Cathedral where he had served for many years as Vicar General, he could be quite rude if disengaged, but was also intensely