Subject: New Pope John Paul II Memorial

Pat Walsh, Post-CAVR Secretariat, Dili

On 15 June 2008, a towering statue of Pope John Paul II will be inaugurated in Dili. Located on a hill overlooking the western approach to Dili, the statue is a fitting companion for the solitary Christ figure on the opposite side of the bay. Fitness afficionados used to clambering up the Cristo Rei steps will no doubt welcome the challenge of the new John Paul II steps. Many of Dili’s multi-cultural international community might be wondering, however, why Timor-Leste is going to such lengths to honour the Polish Pope, as yet uncanonised. Others might feel that the honour should have gone to Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes, East Timor’s first indigenous church leader, rather than Pope John Paul II, the man who removed him from office in 1983.

Some of the answers can be found in the CAVR report Chega! In its section on the Vatican, Chega! reports that Pope John Paul II was the only world leader to visit Timor-Leste during the dark years of the Indonesian occupation. The Report places the visit in the context of the political contest over Timor’s future, including tensions between the activist Timorese local Church and the conservative bureaucracy in Rome. It concludes that John Paul II was more active on Timor-Leste’s behalf than his predecessor, Paul VI, after whom a school is named in Dili, and that, on balance, he contributed significantly to Timor’s struggle. The bronze memorial soon to be unveiled is testimony in lasting bronze that, 20 years on, this view is now official in Timor-Leste.

The Pope’s visit to Indonesia in November 1989 was the centre of an intense power struggle. Both the Resistance and Indonesia felt they had much to gain from the occasion. Hosting this Pope was regarded by Jakarta as a major coup. The peripatetic Pope had not included Indonesia in two previous visits to the region despite his and President Soeharto’s shared antipathy to communism. Because the itinerary included Timor-Leste, the visit was also a rare opportunity for Timor-Leste’s isolated resistance. The visit could be used to strengthen vital links between the resistance and the local Church, the two most important indigenous institutions in Timor-Leste, and to prove to the world that resistance continued despite its near-annihilation by the Indonesian military some years before.

Which side gained the most, however, would be a matter of interpretation, made difficult by the Vatican’s awareness of the acute sensitivities of the visit and the corresponding ambiguity of its protocol. Who won depended on answers to the following conundrums: if the Pope visited Timor during a visit to Indonesia would this not mean he considered Timor part of Indonesia? If he kissed the ground in Jakarta but not in Dili would this mean he accepted integration? If he gave communion to Benny Murdani, the hardline Catholic general in charge of Jakarta’s Timor campaign, would this mean he condoned human rights violations? If the language of the Papal mass at Taci Tolu was Tetun, not Indonesian, would this mean he favoured self-determination?

To learn what happened, read Chega! In brief, the Pope side-stepped controversy by emphasising he was making a pastoral visit to a troubled community and to a church for which the Vatican had assumed direct control. The result was more or less win-win all round, though the Timorese felt they won on points. What mattered to them was that the Pope went out of his way to visit tiny Timor and to identify with the local Church and its leader, Dom Carlos Felipe Belo, whose stance in favour of political self-determination was already on the public record. The protest at the end of the Papal mass was also significant. Broadcast by the visiting media, it served to inform the international community, two years before Santa Cruz, that resistance continued and, ominously for Jakarta and its allies, had spread to the youth who had only known Indonesia. As one of the protestors that memorable day summed it up to CAVR: ‘We felt very proud. If he’d only come to Indonesia it would have meant he accepted East Timor as part of Indonesia, but he singled us out. It gave us a lot of hope’.

Where does this leave Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes? Chega! recommends (1.12) that he should be honoured - as a loyal son of the Church, Timorese patriot and representative of church personnel, including some Indonesians, murdered in 1999. Maybe the Vatican could reciprocate Timor-Leste’s memorial gesture by taking the initiative on his behalf.

Further information, Chega! Chap 7.1 pp. 67-76. Website:

Pope John Paul II memorial


Back to June menu

World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu