Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
“When I heard the news, I was so shocked that I almost fainted.” This was the reaction of Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva (of Dili, East Timor) when he learned that on August 27, at the age of 54, he will become the first cardinal of East Timor. With his creation as a cardinal, this small Southeast Asian country of 1.3 million people, about 97% of whom are Catholic, takes another step toward the world stage after a turbulent history and recent independence.
“I am convinced that Pope Francis did not offer this to me, Virgilio, but rather to the Church and people of East Timor,” the archbishop said at a news conference on May 30, 2022, the day after learning of his appointment. “The people and the Church of East Timor deserve this grace and recognition from God, in a country where the Gospel arrived 500 years ago and which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its independence on May 20.”
Born in 1967 in the city of Venilale, Virgilio do Carmo da Silva studied in schools run by the Society of St. Francis de Sales—the Salesians of Don Bosco. He then decided to join that congregation, making his first profession in 1990 and his final profession in 1997. He was then ordained a priest on December 18, 1998.
He dedicated the first period of his priestly life to the formation of novices and the direction of Salesian schools in East Timor, with a detour to Rome from 2005 to 2007 to pursue a degree in spirituality at the Pontifical Salesian University. He then returned to his native country and, in 2015, was elected superior of the Salesian province of East Timor and Indonesia. A year later, on March 18, 2016, Pope Francis appointed him bishop of Dili, the capital of East Timor, which would later be elevated to the rank of archdiocese, making him an archbishop in 2019. The future cardinal is also vice-president of the Timorese Episcopal Conference.
In August, Bishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, 54, will also become the second youngest cardinal after Bishop Giorgio Marengo, 48, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia).
A young country, Catholic and close to the Church
East Timor is a young island country with strong Catholic roots. From the 17th century until 1975, the small nation was under Portuguese colonial rule, which brought Catholicism to its population. It declared independence in 1975, but soon after, neighboring Indonesia invaded the country, leading to many years of violence and conflict between the military and separatist groups.
The Catholic Church played an important role during this period in assisting the Timorese people, particularly under the leadership of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, then Apostolic Administrator of Dili, who openly condemned the occupation by Indonesian forces and called for non-violent resistance. In 1996, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, along with politician José Ramos-Horta, who is now the country’s president.
John Paul II’s gentle nudge
In addition, in 1989, Pope John Paul II made a controversial visit to the country, helping to bring the Indonesian occupation of East Timor into the spotlight for the first time. The Polish Pontiff condemned human rights abuses without explicitly naming Indonesian forces, while being careful not to make any gestures that would have asserted East Timorese sovereignty. The Vatican supported the local priests and bishops while remaining officially neutral on the issue of independence.
More than 5,000 of the faithful attended a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva in 2019 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Polish Pope’s visit. Another bishop said at the time that John Paul II’s visit “was the moment when the world began to know about the Timorese struggle for independence.” The country observed three days of national mourning after the Pontiff’s death.
The United Nations eventually sponsored a referendum on independence that led to the departure of Indonesian forces in 1999. The country’s constitution, which took effect in 2002, states that “the state recognizes and appreciates the participation of the Catholic Church in the national liberation process.”
A focus on education and stability in the post-independence period
This is the context in which Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva grew up and ministers today, as this still-fragile, politically divided country tries to find its feet as an independent nation. Like his predecessors before him, he has maintained a close relationship with the state.
President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak were quick to congratulate the archbishop on his creation as a cardinal. Parliament also issued a congratulatory statement, saying it was a “historic moment” for the country and a source of “pride for the people of East Timor.”
With a background as an educator himself, Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva has worked closely with the state to try to improve the quality of education and educational opportunities in his country. In addition, as East Timor has a very young population, with an average age of 20.8 years in 2020, the future cardinal has stressed the need to educate and form young people in the Catholic faith.
In December 2021, the Timorese prelate inaugurated the country’s first Catholic university, dedicated to John Paul II, fulfilling a long-term goal of the archdiocese. “The Catholic University of Timor must offer a world-class education in all areas of human activity, inspired by Catholic intellectual, moral, and spiritual traditions,” he said.
In May 2022, Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva was also present at the renewal of an agreement between the Church and the government of East Timor, which allocates public funds to support the work and activities of the Church. For the year 2022, the government allocated $15 million, 50% of which was to support educational objectives, according to UCA News.
Despite his close relationship with the state, the archbishop of Dili has also not shied away from making his voice heard on political processes, which have not always been smooth in the young developing nation. Regarding the April 2022 elections, he called on the future president to “keep his election promises so that the people do not lose confidence” and to “be close to the people not only during the campaign, but also during the term of office, so he can know the difficulties faced by the citizens.”
“We must uphold the Constitution and instill discipline in all residents to definitively convert our nation into a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society,” he added.
A possible papal visit?
Pope Francis was scheduled to visit East Timor, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea in September 2020. The trip was never officially announced, but while no reason was given for the cancellation, the pandemic had been considered the most likely explanation.
However, in an interview with the Argentine news agency Telam in October 2021, Pope Francis said he wanted to “settle the unpaid bill for the trip to Papua New Guinea and East Timor.” A possible trip to East Timor does not seem to be currently on the agenda, however, as the 85-year-old Pope, slowed by his knee condition, is expected to visit several other countries in the coming months.