East Timor’s cardinal leap forward

By Pat Walsh, Eureka Street, 5 June 2022
A Catholic Church in central Dili, Timor-Leste. Image: JM Travel Photography/Shutterstock.com


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.

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.

This article was originally published on Eureka Street, a publication of the Australian Jesuits. Reproduced with permission.


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