ROME – East Timor’s cardinal has said Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to the country, scheduled for this fall, is not only a moment of joy for local Catholics, but also represents an opportunity to send a message of peace and reconciliation after their independence.

Speaking to Crux, Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili in Timor-Leste said it is “with great joy” that Catholics in East Timor, also called Timor Leste, welcomed the recent announcement of a papal visit to the country later this year.

“The people have been waiting for long time and the last visit was 35 years ago,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will undertake a tour of Asia and Oceania later this year, visiting Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Singapore from September 2-13, making it the longest foreign trip of his papacy.

Francis as part of the tour will stop in Jakarta Sept. 3-6 before traveling to Port Moresby and Vanimo from Sept. 6-9, Dili from Sept. 9-11, and Singapore from Sept. 11-13.

Silva noted now East Timor’s last papal visit, when Pope John Paul came in 1989, took place while East Timor was still under “Indonesia occupation.”

“The political situation was very difficult, but His Holiness Pope John Paul II was able to visit,” he said, saying the 1989 visit “encouraged the people to stand firmed amidst their sufferings because of war and oppressions.”

Calling John Paul II the “voice of a prophet,” he said the trip “called on to the faithful to be the salt of the earth and light of the world.”

“This message kept in the heart and mind of many Timorese and still today echoes in the ears of the Timorese People,” he said.

Pope Francis’s visit this year will be different, he said, first of all because East Timor, a majority Catholic nation, is now an independent country, having become formally independent of Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, in 2002.

“As one of the newest countries in the new millennium, as well as the fact that the majority of the people are Catholics, we have long desired the pope because the head of Catholic Church’s presence here in East Timor is a blessing, a moment of unity, moment of love and hope,” Silva said.

He voiced his hope that the pope’s presence would help consolidate reconciliation efforts and encourage the people to live “in harmony with each other as well as the nature,” saying the message of peace the pope is expected to deliver “is very relevant.”

“East Timor and Indonesia more than two decades after the independence have been working on the theme of reconciliation,” Silva said, saying the topic of reconciliation “needs to improve” and ought to be promoted in other countries who face similar situations where it is “difficult to reconcile with each other.”

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.

The fact that he is visiting now, with the added stop in Singapore, shows what an ongoing priority Asia and Oceania are for Pope Francis, who has visited Asia multiple times in his 11-year papacy and who often speaks of issues relevant to the Oceania region, such as climate change.

Silva, who was named a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2022, also spoke of the status of interreligious relations between Indonesia and East Timor, noting that while one is majority Catholic and the other majority Muslim, “there is very good religious tolerance.”

“I think tolerance is one of topic that also needs to be promoted during the visit of the pope,” he said, noting tolerance and human fraternity have been major discussion points in the local church.

He said the local church enjoys good relations with the government, solidified by the signing of the concordat between East Timor and the Holy See in 2015, as well as the government’s decision in 2022 to adopt the Vatican document on human fraternity, signed by the pope in Abu Dhabi in 2019 along with Egypt’s Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad el-Tayyeb, and which has been signed by other interfaith leaders.

“The Timorese feel the pope is so close to them even though geographically they are very far from Rome,” Silva said, saying the trip, his own elevation as a cardinal, and the presence of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, sostituto of the Vatican Secretariat of State, at the inauguration of the Vatican’s new embassy in East Timor in 2022, are all signs of the pope’s attention and closeness to the local church.

Silva said that as a relatively new country, “we long for the message of peace, especially for the young people, because 65 percent of the population is young.”

He said he expects Pope Francis during his visit will deliver a message “of hope living in this world and of persevering in Catholics values,” as well as living in harmony with others and with creation.

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