Cardinal says tiny East Timor, in shadow of Muslim giant, is laboratory of tolerance

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ROME – East Timor’s new and first-ever cardinal has said his small nation, one of just two Catholic majority countries in Asia and located in the shadow of the world’s largest Muslim nation, is still longing for a papal visit after one was postponed due to the coronavirus.

In the meantime, he said, his church is trying to promote inter-faith tolerance, a natural vocation given East Timor’s neighborhood.

Although it was never officially announced, Pope Francis was expected to visit East Timor, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea in 2020, but the trip was postponed with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to be rescheduled.

According to new Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, the Archbishop of Dili in Timor-Leste, “The visit of a pope to a land like Timor is very important.”

Silva was one of 20 prelates to get a red hat from Pope Francis during Saturday’s consistory, and he’s currently participating in a two-day meeting of the world’s cardinals dedicated to studying papal reforms of the Roman Curia, the church’s governing body.

Speaking to Crux inside the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, Silva said the visit of Pope John Paul II to East Timor in 1989 “was a milestone in our history, a turning point, an opening of Timor to the world, and it helped us to push for our own dream” of independence.

In 2002, East Timor became formally independent of Indonesia – which, despite not being a constitutionally “Islamic” country, nonetheless is the largest Muslim nation in the world in terms of population – after years of grueling and violent conflict. Yet after 20 years, Silva said the two countries now enjoy good relations, which he credits in part to the Catholic faith of East Timorese.

After two decades of independence, Silva described another papal visit as “the hope of the people.”

“The people long to have a visit of the Holy Father, especially helping the people in this period of transition from people who have been under occupation and have now become a free people, a free country,” he said.

Silva also spoke about the role of faith in his country’s complex history, the importance of human fraternity, as well as the pope’s reform and his expectations for the global meeting of cardinals.

The following are excerpts of Crux’s interview with Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva.

Crux: Did you expect your nomination as a cardinal, or was it a complete surprise?

Da Silva: I didn’t know anything about this appointment. I was in a retreat house with my relatives in the evening, because here it was midday but there it was 7:30 in the evening. The head of international affairs in East Timor called me in the evening, and I picked up the phone, and he said, “congratulations.” I asked, why are you congratulating me now? He said, you are elevated to a cardinal. I said, “What?”

Of course, then I had no words. I told myself, who are you? You are nobody; this is for the church, for the people of Timor, the church of Timor, it is time for them to receive a gift from God. Why am I saying this? Because East Timor on May 20 celebrated our 20th anniversary of the restoration of our independence. At the same time, in 2015, we completed 500 years of evangelization of the Catholic Church in Timor-Leste.

I think the church has been growing throughout these years, and the faith of the people, in difficult moments. The faith of the people has manifested, the people have grown in their faith in these difficult moments, until now. So, I thought maybe it’s time, it’s a time when God is giving this to the people.

What contribution can East Timor offer to the universal church?

Although our part of the world is so far from Rome, the Catholic Church also exists. We are not a Catholic country, but the majority of people are Catholic, and the church has identified with the people during their long struggle for our independence. In that struggle, people also became Catholic.

We have been occupied, invaded by Indonesia for 24 years, and prior to that, we were under the Portuguese for 450 years, and in 2002, we restored our independence. Due to (our) Catholic background, we are able to reconcile with Indonesia. The speed of this reconciliation came because of this Catholic faith that we have, and because of that, just two decades after our independence, we can enjoy a very good relationship with Indonesians.

Another thing is, precisely in 2022, when we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of our restoration, the government adopted this document on human fraternity. Our parliament adopted that document in order to apply it to our people. I don’t think many countries in the world have adopted that. We are very proud that our government was able to do that.

Is this the same document as the one signed in Abu Dhabi?

Yes, this is the same document that was signed by the Holy Father and the Grand Imam. Our country, our national parliament, has adopted, has ratified it, so it’s now become an official document that has the force to be implemented in the country, especially in the schools. Now, we have to take the next steps. We may form a commission to study how to implement (it).

Could the government incorporate the human fraternity document into the national school curriculum?

Yes. Though we are majority Catholic, we decided that this document must be officially implemented, and then I think in a short period also we are going to launch a program, a center for human fraternity in our country with all these different religions. Another different thing we have is this, because although we are a majority, we enjoy a good relationship with minorities in the country, like Muslims, Protestants, but still in a spirit of human fraternity.

You would describe East Timor as a tolerant place in terms of interfaith relations?

Although Catholics are a majority, we enjoy good relationships that we have encouraged everybody to respect. One of the examples to mention is that before coming up with this human fraternity (document), we already (were working on) a so-called association of religious tourism, we are developing that. It is being headed by a Catholic, but inside we put Muslims, Protestants, Confucians, and Buddhists. Because of Indonesia, we have a few followers of Buddha, and also Confucians and Hindus.

So, we are trying to promote this. In our capital itself, we have a big mosque there, and now they are putting up, also in the capital, a big Hindu temple. It will be one of the big temples in south Asia. They haven’t finished it, but they are working. We are a majority, but we have the chance for everybody to grow together in this atmosphere, and it will be more consolidated with the presence of the human fraternity center. It will be a center not only for Catholics, but for all that are there, they can share that spirit. This is maybe another uniqueness that we can share with everybody.

What are your other top priorities for the church in East Timor?

I think there will be no other priority other than to continue to promote and preach the Word of God. I think also, as a priest, as a bishop, as a cardinal, we should continue on the mission of preaching the Word of God to the whole world.

I think in these two days that are coming, there will be a meeting with the pope, and we are going to talk about this document, Predicate Evangelium. The title itself already mentions the mission for a bishop, for cardinals, to continue. For me personally, especially for East Timor, we will continue in this, because since I became a bishop, my only aim is to continue to consolidate the Catholic faith in our country.

During the war, many Timorese were baptized and became Catholic, but we had a good preparation. Now, it’s not only to increase the number of Catholics, but how to catechize the people so that people know their faith properly. I think this is one thing that for me personally will be a priority…starting with accompanying all of the seminarians and priests so they have a good formation so that we can also be good formators and catechists to our people, and to the people that we are serving.

As the pope himself has said, that when he nominates new cardinals, he always mentions that “I would like them to be my close collaborators,” so we are also called to take part and to help him, especially on my side, which is far away, to continue working on this area of evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel in this area.

What would you say is the most important aspect of the pope’s reform for you?

I think I will experience it especially in these days, because I haven’t had the experience. Of course, I have read through the text itself, but I will come to experience it especially in this meeting and will hopefully come out with something more practical. But certainly, the title, Predicate Evangelium, it’s an invitation for the whole world to think about how to change our attitude of serving the church, our attitude of being the church.

I think it’s something which for me is still new, and now I’m trying to immerse myself in this situation, so that I can come out with something more concrete. All of these things are (here) to help us, to motivate us, in order to be of better service to the church and to the People of God. I think that, in the end, it will lead to that.

You’ve mentioned that East Timor is so far from Rome. Do you think your appointment will help Catholics there to feel more connected to the universal church?

That also can be. I think the joy of most of East Timor about this nomination (is) the joy that in the end, that though we are little and distant, somehow now this distance has been shortened by the presence here in the Vatican, that our voice, the voice of the church, may also be very close to the center.

In these past years, we always felt close, very close, even during the war when we were still under domination (by) Indonesia, those were difficult moments, during John Paul II’s time. Timor, even in those years, we felt him close to us. That’s why in 1989, John Paul II came to visit Timor-Leste, and 1989 became a very historical moment for Timor-Leste in those years. It became a push for our independence itself.

Speaking of papal visits, Pope Francis was supposed to visit both East Timor and Indonesia in 2020. Are you still hoping he’ll come?

The visit of a pope to a land like Timor is very important, because the first visit ever done by John Paul II, was a milestone in our history, a turning point, an opening of Timor to the world, and it helped us to push for our own dream. The visit was very fruitful. That’s why now, after (our) independence, that’s the hope of the people, the people long to have a visit of the Holy Father, especially helping the people in this period of transition from people who have been under occupation and have now become a free people, a free country.

When John Paul came to East Timor, his message was planted in the hearts of many people, that message of you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, in spite of all the difficulties and oppression we had in history in those years. People never gave up, they continued to hold on. Until now, these words of the Holy Father echo in the ears of many Timor East people. People always long for the pope to help people, to help politicians, to show people how to live the faith in this new era that we are living.

We hope, though with COVID it was postponed, but people still hope that in a short period that, God willing, the Holy Father can visit Timor-Leste.

How likely do you think a papal visit still is at this point?

We never know, I cannot predict. It all depends, too, on the pope’s health, as all of us know. When (it was) conveyed to the people that the pope was coming to Timor-Leste, it gave the people a spirit of longing, waiting, for the visit, even though COVID affected it. Even some politicians used it and said, we need to be vaccinated in order to prepare ourselves for the pope to come. People are very eager and long for the visit of the pope. We don’t know whether it will come sooner or later, but we hope one day that it will happen. It already happened once; we believe, hope, it will happen again.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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