DILI, East Timor — The newly elevated archbishop of Dili said the number of the Catholics and vocations in East Timor remains high, but the faithful face many challenges, including high unemployment, emigration and proselytism by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili, which was elevated to an archdiocese Sept. 11, also told Catholic News Service the Church in East Timor is “in a period of transition from a church of the suffering to one which is accompanying its people in an era of greater freedom in the modern world.”

He said that, 20 years after the Timorese voted for independence from Indonesian occupation, “poverty and unemployment remain very high,” linked to a lack of manufacturing industry.

When the Indonesian military left East Timor in November 1999 after a 24-year occupation, pro-integration militias sponsored by Indonesia had already razed Dili, destroying infrastructure such as the telephone and power networks, homes, schools and medical facilities. Despite oil and gas revenues, the tiny state is facing an uphill struggle to rebuild, he said.

“Today poverty still dominates this country,” said da Silva. “We are exporting our young people to other countries like the U.K., Ireland, South Korea and Australia. When they go to a new culture, that affects their lives and impacts their country of origin,” he said of the Timorese brain drain.

The archbishop said the Catholic Church “shared the suffering of the people” under Indonesian occupation and “was identified as the voice of the voiceless.”

“That is why the Church is part of the lives of people,” he said. But many Timorese were “Christianized without proper preparation in a time of war,” he added.

“We in the Church lose many of our faithful Catholics because the sects are coming with money — especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With money it is easy to buy the faith of the people,” he said. “That is a fact not only here in Dili, but in the mountains, too. So many have joined the sects because of their poverty. These people are good; they are Catholic but at a certain point, because of their financial problems, they are forced to abandon their faith.”

Other challenges, he said, emanate from the influence of the media on young people and the promotion of LGBT issues by organizations funded by other countries and international agencies.

“With money, the identity of the people of Timor is easily changed,” he said.

Despite the challenges, “the number and quality of the Catholics in Timor is still strong,” da Silva told CNS.

“We can measure this through the vocations. I thought that after independence — achieved in May 2002 — vocations to the priesthood and religious life would fall, but on the contrary they are still strong. The interdiocesan seminary as well as the religious seminaries and convents are still full.”

The archbishop said there are 78 diocesan priests and 80 religious priests serving in his diocese, one of three in the half-island state’s population of 1.3 million.

“I am now in my fourth year and I have already ordained 15 priests in the last three years. By the end of this year I will have ordained 20,” he said.

The interdiocesan seminary for the three dioceses has 150 seminarians, and next year it will have 190 seminarians.

“As a matter of fact, there are no places in the seminary, and now we are constructing a new building so hopefully, next year, we will be able to accommodate everybody,” he said.

In 2018, Richard Daschbach, a Divine Word missionary from Pennsylvania, was laicized by the Vatican after allegations of child abuse emerged. He had founded and run children’s homes in East Timor.

“That case was the first experience I had,” the archbishop said. “We are trying to apply the new Vatican guidelines to the diocesan process in accordance with the law as well as reporting to the civil authorities.”

In the future, he said, more cases may emerge about things that happened in the past.

“The Church of Timor is new. When things like this happen, there is a different reaction compared to other countries — it is not easily accepted. But at the same time also we cannot cover it up.”

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