East Timor’s first Catholic cardinal: An injection of hope in troubled times

Marco Carvalho

An injection of hope for the almost one million inhabitants of East Timor, a young nation marred by a troubled history and political instability – this is how Agostinho Martins, one of the most prominent members of the small East-Timorese community based in Macau, refers to the inauguration of D. Virgílio do Carmo da Silva as the first cardinal for the tiny Catholic-majority country.

Currently the Archbishop of Dili, 54-year-old Carmo is the first-ever Timorese to receive the purple robe. After being elected cardinal in Pope Francis’ eighth ordinary consistory, held at Saint Peter’s Square on the 27th August, D. Virgílio do Carmo da Silva received a huge homecoming in Dili, after the East Timorese Government declared his arrival a public holiday. Thousands of Catholics lined the streets of East Timor’s capital city to welcome home the newly-appointed cardinal. Among them was the country’s president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos Horta.

A witness to the Santa Cruz massacre, Martins believes that the enthusiastic reception that Dom Virgílio do Carmo da Silva was given on his arrival to East Timor can easily be explained by the contribution made by the Catholic Church during the troubled process that led to the country’s independence. But history is only a part of it. Mr. Martins asserts that Dom Virgílio do Carmo da Silva has become a symbol of hope and a strong leadership, as Asia’s youngest nation withers under a long-lasting political crisis. He says, “If we look at what the Church has done in the past, the Church has always been an important pillar for the Timorese people. It was an important pillar for those involved in the Timorese struggle for self-determination. The appointment of Dom Virgílio do Carmo can help to strengthen our position, and I sincerely hope it can unite the politicians and the Timorese people,” Martins continues, saying, “This appointment is also, and in a certain sense, a slap on the wrist, endorsed by the Vatican. To a large extent, it will now depend on Dom Virgílio. Our cardinal will have to find a way to involve the politicians, and he will have to know how to manage his influence so that the members of the political class don’t ever forget that they were elected to work for each and every Timorese.”

Based in Macau since 1993, Martins claims that the inauguration of Dom Virgílio do Carmo da Silva as East-Timor’s first-ever cardinal, is further proof of the great affection that the Catholic Church has always shown for the cause of the Timorese people. Starting with the appeal made by D. Martinho da Costa Lopes to unite the Timorese people to the visit that Pope John Paul II made to East-Timor in 1989, the Santa Cruz massacre and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to D. Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Catholic Church, Martins maintains, was part of all the great moments that led to the self-determination of the East-Timorese people. “The Vatican never forgets us. When Pope John Paul II visited Indonesia, he also visited Timor, and this was also a triumph for our cause. The appointment of Dom Virgílio do Carmo da Silva means that we are not alone,” the former guerrilla fighter claims. “When the Santa Cruz massacre took place, back in 1999, young people prayed the Rosary. Instead of being afraid or defying the Indonesian military, they prayed the Rosary. They had guns pointed at them less than 50 meters away. The Indonesians were there with their weapons pointed at them, and what did they do? They prayed,” Martins concludes.

(Image source: https://www.ucanews.com)