Timor-Leste signs historic agreement with Holy See on 500th anniversary of its evangelization

Timor-Leste, the most Catholic country in Asia, signed a historic Agreement with the Holy See as it celebrated the fifth centenary of the evangelization of the Timorese people. 

Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, signed the accord during an official ceremony at the Government Palace in Dili, the capital city, on August 14, in the presence of delegations from both sides and the national and international media.

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Pope Francis sent Cardinal Parolin for this historic event and celebration to the delight of the country’s 1.3 million people, 97 percent of whom are Catholic.  

The Accord, in its preamble, expresses the desire of both sides “to establish in a stable manner the legal framework for the relations between the Holy See and the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.” It recognizes that the Catholic Church in this land has “always” placed itself at the side of the Timorese people “in defence of their most fundamental rights.”   

This latter declaration is a reference to the key role played by the Catholic Church during Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence, a role that the Prime Minister publicly acknowledged in a statement on the eve of the signing. He recalled how the church then “encouraged the people’s resistance and legitimized the purposes of the Resistance.” 

The preamble also speaks about “the historic and present role” of the Catholic Church “in the life of the nation,” in “the service of the development of the human person” in the different fields, and “in the consolidation of moral principles in the Timorese society.”

The first of the 26 articles of the Agreement recognizes the separation of church and state in Timor-Leste and speaks about how the two sides can cooperate together for the good of all the people of this land. It affirms the fundamental human right to religious freedom and guarantees “the freedom to publicly profess and practice the Catholic faith.”  

In Article 4, the state recognizes “the fundamental rights of the Catholic Church,” including its right “to carry out its apostolic mission” in the fields of education, charitable works, health care and to manage and administer its own goods. It also recognizes the church’s right “to freely nominate the bishops” and to establish and suppress dioceses.

Article 7 recognizes a number of the church’s religious festivals as national ones too, including Christmas and Easter. Article 8 affirms the right of the church to provide religious assistance to people in such public institutions as prisons, hospitals, orphanages and clinics.

Significantly, in Article 9, the state “recognizes and guarantees the right of the Catholic Church to establish and manage schools, of whatever kind and level, and to carry out Catholic teaching and formation there, and to administer them in an autonomous way” while respecting the country’s legislation and in accordance with the ethical principles of the Catholic Church.   It also opens the way to the establishment of universities and institutes of higher education. Article 10 gives the church similar rights for the establishment and management of seminaries.

Other articles (from 11 to 20) deal with such matters as church finances, the right of the church to buy and hold property, the question of tax exemption, the safeguarding of the church’s historical and cultural heritage, the state recognition of church marriages and the right of the church to use the means of social communications.

Importantly too, Article 21 acknowledges the right of the church in Timor-Leste to draw on the assistance of foreign missionaries whenever the local bishop discerns a need for them. Article 22, on the other hand, affirms the right of the church to build or expand places of worship, as well as Catholic cemeteries.

This wide ranging Agreement is very positive for the future of the Catholic Church in this land. It is the result of an initiative by the government earlier this year, and of the fine collaboration of the Holy See’s American-born nuncio, Archbishop Joseph Marino, and the relevant authorities in the country. He involved the Secretariat of State directly in the final stages of the negotiations and arranged for a Timor-Leste delegation to travel to the Vatican some months ago for a decisive meeting with their counterparts there.

As the historical record shows, the evangelization of the Timorese people began in 1515 with the arrival of missionaries of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) from Portugal. The country was a Portuguese colony from the late 1500s until 1975 when, as Portugal’s empire began to collapse, neighbouring Indonesia occupied what was then called East Timor (the eastern part of the island of Timor) and remained its rulers until 1999 when the United Nations took charge as it moved to independence after a hard fought struggle and with the support of the church.   

John Paul II came here on October 12, 1989, at the end of visit to Indonesia; he was the only foreign Head of State to visit the territory during the Indonesian occupation. His visit is said to have given an important boost to the quest for independence. It came as little surprise then that when this small state—the world’s most Catholic country—established diplomatic relations with the Holy See on the very day it became independent, 20 May 2002.  

Cardinal Parolin is the highest church official to make an official visit to the county since 1989. As Pope Francis’ personal envoy he was treated with the highest honors and given the warmest of welcomes.  

On the evening of his arrival in Dili, the capital city, on August 13, the cardinal celebrated Mass for seminarians at the major seminary. Next day, after the signing of the historic agreement with the prime minister, he met the press and afterwards the president of the Parliament. He then had lunch with the Major Religious Superiors at the nunciature, where he stayed during his visit.  That evening he celebrated Mass in the cathedral for the country’s some 600 women and men religious, and then travelled to the Palacio Nobre Lahane when he was the guest of honour at an official dinner hosted by the Prime Minister. After dinner, he had a meeting with Catholic youth.

The papal legate will conclude his visit to Timor-Leste on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, by celebrating a public Mass in thanksgiving for the 500 years of the beginning of evangelization of the people of Timor-Leste. Afterwards, he is scheduled to take the plane back to Rome where he will to report to Pope Francis on the happy events of these days.

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