Papal visit a ‘source of hope’ for East Timor 

Devotion to the Catholic Church is a distinguishing feature of East Timorese culture. Pope Francis will be the second Pope to visit the country and the first since independence. 

East Timor is one of the world’s youngest countries, having obtained independence in 2002. It is also the Asian country with the highest proportion of Catholics, at close to 99 percent of the population, and one of only two majority Catholic countries in Asia, alongside the Philippines. 

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) from the Timorese town of Bobonaro, where she works as a missionary and a nurse, Sister Cristina Macrino of the Sisters of the Reparation of Our Lady of Fátima, says that Pope Francis’s visit is eagerly awaited by the people.  

“Preparations are already underway. People are anxious to experience this event as intensely and joyfully as possible and are expecting it to be a source of blessings, and hope for the nation,” says the Portuguese religious sister.  

Pope Francis will visit East Timor in September, as part of his trip to East Asia. This will be the Pope’s longest journey so far. The visit will begin on September 2nd in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a significant Catholic minority. From there, the 87-year-old Pope will fly to Papua New Guinea, where he will remain until September 9th, and then to East Timor until September 11th. The trip will end in Singapore, and then Pope Francis is expected to return to Rome on September 13th.  

East Timor, which covers only half of the small island of Timor and has a population of about 1.3 million, was a Portuguese colony for centuries and occupied by Indonesia in 1975. The occupation of the country ended in 2002, following an independence referendum supported by the international community. 

Strong devotion to the Catholic faith has been a distinguishing trait of the Timorese people, and the Church plays a very important role in the country, especially at a social level. This will be the second papal visit to the territory, after John Paul II’s in 1989.  

At the time, the visit brought the plight of the Timorese people to the world’s attention. East Timor was still under Indonesian occupation and was visited by the Pope during his trip to Indonesia. There was some tension during the trip. For example, there was doubt as to whether the Polish Pope would kiss the ground upon his arrival in East Timor, as he always did when visiting a new country. This would have angered the Indonesian government, which did not recognize the independence of East Timor and could have led to the repression of Indonesia’s Catholic population. John Paul II kissed a crucifix and pressed it to the ground instead.  

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor saw a harsh crackdown on the local population. Many priests and nuns risked their lives defending citizens from military abuse. 

The motto of Pope Francis’s visit, “May your faith be your culture,” recalls this history and asks the Timorese people to remain steadfast in their love of Christ.  

For decades, ACN has supported the Church’s mission in East Timor and approved dozens of projects.   

—Paulo Aido & Filipe d’Avillez