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Papal visit to reaffirm the true vocation of Timorese people

Pope Francis has a very particular relationship with nations, with peoples, with realities that are still ambiguous
A nun applies ash to a woman's forehead during Ash Wednesday at Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste, on Feb. 26, 2020.

A nun applies ash to a woman's forehead during Ash Wednesday at Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste, on Feb. 26, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 01, 2024 03:56 AM GMT
Updated: June 04, 2024 04:40 AM GMT

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Timor Leste in September this year. John Paul II was the first pope to visit this former Portuguese colony in October 1989, when the country was still under Indonesian occupation.

It was a historic moment. The pope celebrated a public Mass in the capital, Dili. The papal visit put the aspirations of the Timorese people on the world map and international agenda. The first and only pope to visit Timor-Leste helped its people find their direction, helping them gain independence in 2002, albeit following a brutal war.

With 98 percent of its people following Catholicism, the Church played a pivotal role in Timor Leste’s struggle for independence and establishing democracy in the new, tiny nation. People hope Pope Francis' Sept. 9-11 visit, 35 years after the first one, will strengthen their faith and help transform a country plagued by various socio-economic setbacks such as poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare, and economic and political challenges.

The visit comes in a year when Jesuits celebrate 225 years of presence on the island since their arrival during the Portuguese colonial rule. On this special occasion, Jesuit Superior General Father Arturo Sosa visited Timor-Leste. During the visit, he engaged in open dialogue with young people, Church leaders, and political leaders, including Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão. Now, another papal visit will complete Timor's history.

There are striking differences between the two papal visits. When Pope John Paul II visited the Timorese, people were suffering and in a challenging situation. They were like the Israelites who suffered Pharaoh's persecution in the Old Testament. People struggled to have their voices heard and their identity, dignity, and rights recognized.

The reality is different now after the Timorese people have achieved political independence. I believe Pope Francis will, more than anything, help to reaffirm what was proclaimed by Pope John Paul II – Timor-Leste and its people are called to be the true nation of the Rising Sun, the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. The pope will affirm, reaffirm, and confirm this vocation of the Timorese people, inviting them to witness the Gospel.

The challenges the Timorese people face are also different now than they were 35 years ago. They are different not just in an ecclesiastical sense but also in a cultural and political sense.

After achieving freedom, Timor has its own political identity. The Church has three dioceses and an Episcopal Conference. We already have the structural aspects and the bases. Thus, this visit by the Pope has a more pastoral, spiritual aspect.

We have already experienced the most political aspect with Pope John Paul II: he visited our homeland and blessed Timor. He encouraged us to fight as a civilized nation and remain united as one people and one nation.

Pope Francis has a very particular relationship with nations, with peoples, with realities that are still ambiguous. I don't mean to say that Timor is suffering like it was when Pope John Paul II visited us. It is already an independent country, and there have been some advances: it has developed as a nation and an economy, and there has been some development in terms of infrastructure.

However, more studies are needed to understand what the people want more as a nation.

Pope Francis' visit to Timor is expected to transform people's mentality with a new national identity. The issue of mentality is the transformation of attitude towards spiritual life, an important dimension of deepening spirituality and improvement.

We need a Church that does not stagnate with what we have experienced and what we already have, but a Church that can really go out, to have more dialogue and encounter with an open mind and heart, to continue re-evangelize, re-enculturation the gospel’s values, and to re-educate or re-intellectualize the Timorese people, to live a life with the value of the Gospel, toward a new horizon of civilization as a people of God. 

Venâncio Pereira is a Timorese Jesuit priest. This article is a translated and edited version of a Portuguese-language interview published by Macau’s Catholic weekly, Jornal O-Clarim on April 29, 2024.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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