Timor-Leste bishop urges more religious devotion

Dili prelate promotes Senhor Morto, other devotions to foster more love for the Church in Catholic nation
Timor-Leste bishop urges more religious devotion

Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva from the Timor-Leste capital Dili looks on with other priests as women mourn Senhor Morto in this undated file photo. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

Catholic leaders in Timor-Leste are refocusing their energies on promoting Church-related events and devotions to attract more domestic and foreign pilgrims while helping people to grow in their faith.

Last year, the government and Church agreed to develop religious sites to attract domestic and foreign tourists.

But for Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili, foregrounding the importance of religious devotion is a way to foster greater love for the Church.

While celebrating Good Friday this year in the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse, he was amazed to see thousands of Catholics join the devotion to Senhor Morto.

This is a Portuguese term that translates as "Dead Lord." It refers to a life-size statue of Jesus' body that lies prostrate on a special platform and is venerated in this part of Timor-Leste at Easter.

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The statue was inherited from Portuguese missionaries who landed in Oecusse in the 15th century. It is stored in the attic of St. Anthony's Chapel, which was also built centuries ago, and is only open for public viewing on Good Friday to mark the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Even though Oecusse — a special enclave separated from Timor-Leste by West Timor in Indonesia — is a part of Dili Diocese, this was the first time Bishop Da Silva came to witness the procession.

"I had heard about this devotion. But this was my first time to see it in person from the beginning to the end," Bishop Da Silva said.

Senhor Morto, a two-meter statue of Jesus that lies in a chest inherited from Portuguese missionaries, is kept at St. Anthony's Church in the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse. Before the statue is taken on a procession, the chest must be opened by a descendant of King Pedro Da Costa, a former ruler of Timor. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com) 

 
"I was really amazed," the prelate said, admitting he was moved to see so many Catholics of all ages and both sexes come out in force to support the annual rite. 

Bishop Da Silva said he saw nothing that contravened official Church teachings, and vowed to encourage more people to join the procession in the future.

"It helps Catholics understand Holy Week, particularly Good Friday, when the Church reflects on the death of Christ," he said.

The diocese will strive to make the rite more widely recognized in the region, he said, adding a special committee has already been formed to document such religious heritage and ensure it is theologically sound.

"We will make it more sure it is better publicized by Holy Week next year," the bishop said.

Devotion to Senhor Morto is important to strengthen people's faith and protect Catholics from the influence of new sects in Oecusse, he noted.

Oecusse deanery has five parishes but just eight priests serving a population of 75,000, most farmers who reside in mountainous areas.

Powerful devotion

Attending the Senhor Morto procession were not only local Catholics but also those from West Timor.

Divine Word Father Salvator Towary, the former parish priest of Our Lady of Rosary Parish Oecusse, said devotion to Senhor Morto had even brought miracles into the lives of some parishioners.

"Because of their faith, many people are healed when they kneel and pray before it," he said.

"So this is a powerful devotion that can help people see Jesus as the center of their life," said Father Towary, who now works in Kefamenanu in West Timor.

He said he hoped to see religious sites and destinations in Oecusse gain world fame one day.

On the evening of Good Friday, representatives of 18 villages in Oecusse carry the chest around the city along with thousands of people. The chest bearers must wear black clothing, according to tradition. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)

 

Antonio Hermenegildo da Costa, 50, the primary guardian of the wooden chest where Senhor Morto resides, said it could only be opened on Good Friday through a special ritual.

This is performed by representatives of 18 villages in Oecusse. They are led by members of the Da Costa family, descendants of former Timor king and ruler Pedro da Costa who governed in the 19th century. They prepare special candles made with infusions of honey and cotton to offer to the statue on Good Friday.

The candles are then given to a priest to be blessed several days later.

"On the morning of Good Friday, the statue is bathed and anointed with oil," Da Costa said, adding this was similar to what is written in the Gospel in the final days of Christ's life.

He cited previous attempts by some individuals to open the chest on other days, adding this had angered tribal leaders and local communities.

There was even a request to open it when Timor-Leste celebrated 500 years of evangelization in 2015, but the community refused to acquiesce.

Joao Evaristo Bobo, 56, a victim of state repression during the 1999 war for independence, said many survivors credited their faith in Senhor Morto for having spared their lives.

"The Indonesian military arrested and beat me, severely injuring my face. At the time, I thought I would die," he said.

"So I took some of my hair that the soldiers had cut off, mixed it with my blood and asked a friend of mine to place it next to Senhor Morto," he said.

"I'm still alive now, and I believe that is because of God's help," said Bobo, a clerk at the Education Department in Oecusse.

Julieta da Apresentacao Baquifai, 60, said she was introduced to the Senhor Morto devotion by her parents as a child.

"I've also introduced my kids to it," she said. "I asked them to never forget to pray to Senhor Morto."

Lukas Abi, 28, a farmer who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2006, said praying to the statue completely healed him.

He said he was treated for two months at the Bairo Pite Clinic, run by American doctor Daniel Murphy in Dili, but getting closer to Jesus through such acts of devotion cleared up his TB while also "healing" him spiritually.

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