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East Timor – Liturgy of the Free

Louise Byrne attends a mass with a difference at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s

A mechanic from Elwood worked through the night, sawing and hammering an old wooden fruitbox into a candle-holder the shape of East Timor, and finished as a rose glow heralded dawn. Later, in St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in East Melboume, small columns of beeswax burn in this crude crib, warming a hush darkened for Joäo Pedro’s buffalo horn call. A low steady throb, a tradition in the village, a gift from God to the Timorese when they inherited the world. Tonight, calling attention to the stress of the gestation of the newest nation on earth. We, four thousand, gathered together, respond; a thundering rhythm on Timor’s big Lulik drum, then two goldmetal trumpets countermelody the horn’s pentatonic tradition. Seventeen firecoal-red-robed priests proceed solemnly. Then a bishop, shepherd’s crook marking stately gait, the mitre’s gold and cream weave dramatising the history of his office. Representatives of every East Timorese institution in Melboume enter, their choir and the women’s graceful ancient dance leading the procession. I watch from a pew, relatively underdressed in Rossi boots and flatmate’s cotton Country Road; surrounded by young couples and talkative children, pearls and twinsets, pumps in thick denier, jeans, and suits, long greying black hair rolled into buns, ringed navels, and the dreadlocks. Later I’m at home, lying in bed, wondrous at the electric experience of the ceremonial. Miracles don’t happen in Melboume, but people who were at that Mass keep talking about it; people who weren’t, love hearing about it. The need to document nagged on. This is my testimony.

Twenty-five years ago, Julie Barbosa, who now lives in Broadmeadows (a suburb of Melboume) saw the lights of a Norwegian cargo ship blinking silent passage through the deep waters of the Wetar Straits that lap the north coast of East Timor. She morsed distress, and ten days later, with a hundred other government workers, landed in Darwin, a bewildered refugee of a decolonisation program that had been pushed too fast, and manipulated by a cruel and clever neighbour. They thought they’d be back home in a month or two, but instead they became the first Timorese in a polyglot of cultures that Australia had only just begun to acknowledge. Tonight, in St Patrick’s, Julie’s family’s richly woven tais adorn the altar, its deep cherry-brown border caught in a glow of light that frames an opulent stillness; gold-flecked mitre, viridian majesty of the robes, the priests arced around the altar, heads bowed, hands shaped for prayer, ready to begin chanting the ancient ritual text.

Patsy Thatcher is in the seventeenth pew, kneeling – or should I say half-kneeling – in that manner of the well-bred agnostic where most of the body’s weight remains on the bench seat. She was born in Woolamai, near Wonthaggi, about sixty years ago, the daughter of a member of the Communist Party of Australia. At some stage in her life Professor Herb Feith, a Jewish scholar from Monash University, suggested she document the lives of East Timorese in Australia. This she did, although the Timorese mostly ignored her drama of questions and invited her, instead, to all their social and political functions. Their preference for this sort of social collaboration meant Patsy has attended many Catholic Masses. She still looks uncomfortable in the religious setting and almost celebrates her ignorance of the rite’s endearing irrationalities.

Paddy Murphy, my godfather’s wife, is in the front seat that Max Potter, the caretaker of the Cathedral, always reserves for her. Paddy’s faith in God is complete and regardless of priests and the occasional bishop who get in the way. She’s the mother of five who’ve all turned out very well indeed – despite the hardships – and grandmother to thirteen more. Her father was Secretary of the Labor Party in Ballarat for five years, and absolutely loyal to the Party all his life, although he resigned for moral reasons after Whitlam ‘disbanded conscription and wrecked Australia’. He was also a very good Catholic, but hated priests playing politics and telling parishioners to vote for the Democratic Labor Party who were ‘all scabs, the lot of them, splitting the Party and betraying the country’. She and Joe worked hard to send their boys to the Jesuits’ Xavier College in Kew, where they sat side by side with the sons of Bob Santamaria, another good Catholic (Italian) who led the unfortunate split in 1955. Many of her friends had voted for these doom-bound rebels, so she learned to hold her tongue and keep her nose right out of politics. However this didn’t stop her from taking the right steps to speak to the right people about matters pertaining to East Timor. This is attested to by the photo of Paddy and the Pope which overwhelms the entrance to her small flat in Mont Albert. The gilt-framed photo was taken in 1998 by the Vatican photographer in the Pope’s private chapel.

Abel Guterres sits, head bowed, in a pew at the back of the Church. Years ago, in 1975, in the middle of the same inferno that prompted Julie Barbosa to signal the Norwegian cargo ship, Abel hijacked a Red Cross aeroplane in Baucau and flew to Australia. Later, perhaps in 1983, he knocked on Patsy Thatcher’s door in Middle Park and asked her to document the role of women in East Timorese society before and after the Indonesian invasion. Abel has worked for Melbourne’s public transport service for twenty years, and filled every hour in between lobbying politicians, organising meetings, arranging aid, and telling the story of East Timor. In July 1999 he returned to help with the ballot, euphoric that a democratic process, at last, would render worthwhile the long loneliness of life in exile. Back in his homeland his well-honed diplomacy bore sweet fruit, for he was able to arrange a meeting between Taur Matan Ruak, leader of the resistance in East Timor, and Bishop Hilton Deakin, Vice-President of Caritas International (arguably the biggest non-government organisation in the world). The bishop, who is the main celebrant in St Patrick’s tonight, had to trek for three hours in a clapped-out jeep and another five on foot to the fighters’ cantonment in the mountains. They asked him to bless their small bamboo church, the Chapel of the Holy Family, which he christened Freedom Chapel, and to baptise a baby, Izildo Freitas, who will be known forever as the one who had water poured over his head by a ‘red’ bishop. He listened as the men, chewing betelnut, recalled years of routing the bush for berries to eat, of their comrades’ deaths left unattended on the rocky peaks; and then, together, they prayed for a peaceful referendum. Abel stayed on while the United Nations implemented the ‘key to peace’ and was forced to watch as his friends and relatives were hacked to death and his country was burned to the ground.

Sitting beside Abel in the back row is Alan Matheson, the International Representative of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Leigh Hubbard, former Industrial Officer of the Plumbers Union (now the CEPU) and current Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Neither usually goes to church, but they are here tonight to support Abel and his community, to ameliorate the troubles, share the sorrows, nourish this latest Gethsemane. And, I suspect, to reflect upon the safety of their workers during the Union strike against Indonesia’s Garuda. The fight started at 4.30 this morning when twelve workers raced forty Victorian Police to the rollaround gate at Tullamarine. The tangle of burly arms and legs locked in battle along the baggage carrier, and ended up at the bottom of the shute, bruised and battered like a new-shorn sheep. Police made a couple of perfunctory arrests, but essentially the workers and the Timorese (who had maintained a rhythmic chant throughout) won the day and Garuda had to cancel the first of many flights. The media failed to capture the pain or the glory, and interviewed a motley of Australian brats who tried to debase the coinage by proclaiming their democratic right to visit the Indonesian island of Bali.

Lots of other Union members are at the Mass because they’d heard the Victorian Trade Union Choir was singing. No one can recall the Union being invited to St Pat’s, let alone bannered members being requested to lead a procession of firecoal-red-robed priests. Typically, no one seems able to recall exactly why, either. In truth, the Labor Party, political arm of the workers’ movement, was once considered to be concerned (some say exclusively) with bettering the lot of impoverished Irish Catholics. Then some members began to make overtures to oppressed Russian (not necessarily Catholic) workers, causing other members – more loyal to hearth and home politics, and, incidentally, led by a charismatic Irish Bishop – to see red and split the party. Such was this group’s bitterness that it was prepared to couple with Australian Communists just to keep the parent body out of Federal Parliament for years (and years).

Everyone knows the Catholic Mass is a tightly structured series of liturgical events with a miracle in the middle. It’s been like this all over the world for a couple of thousand years. However this Mass in St Pat’s was already suspiciously different. For a start, the ritual hadn’t begun with an organ-generated hymn, but an evocative two-phrase melody resonated by a buffalo’s horn and a thundering rap on a magnificently carved drum. This was a novel soundscape for some, but for many others a deeply emotional moment. Few realised it was also animist Timor displaying its proud tradition, perhaps for the first time, inside the sacrosanct boundaries of the Catholic ritual. Then there was the business of the trade unionists, some with bannered lettering, some with sheets of music, some unsure which knee to genuflect with. The Diocesan chiefs hadn’t known the banners were coming, and were uneasily surprised to note their passage in the procession. They’d been worrying for days about what the unblessed choir might be singing, and had bent their proud heads to ask; but most had replied ‘I dunno, probably thingummyjig’. This left the chiefs in the unenviable position of having to heap their faith on a couple of hopes that thingummyjig would prove to be appropriate liturgical text. When it was time for the sermon to be delivered, the Bishop, who had recently returned from his thirteenth visit to Timor, moved deliberately to the microphone at the edge of the altar. He welcomed the Victorian Trade Union Choir, then said, ‘When this night is over the word will go from here to wherever people will talk about East Timor that we are in solidarity with you’. Rising his arms aloft, he invited the congregation to stand and with joined hands to sing ‘Solidarity Forever’, the Union’s anthem. There was silence. An electric silence. The choir itself looked shocked. For, in the name of the East Timorese, the Bishop had invited fifty years of history to fall over and reconcile. And here we were, only two-thirds of the way through the ritual.

But in St Patrick’s on Thursday 9 September 1999 a very old ritual provided structure for the release of energy that had been tied up for a long long time. The four thousand who sang together an old tune of six words – and then spontaneously clapped for such a long time that the bishop eventually had to ask them to stop – became 26,000 in Bourke Street the next day; and Abel Guterres, the village school teacher from Baucau, looked beyond the gathered throng and saw his diplomacy become new Australian foreign policy. A week after that there were 40,000 in Spring Street, and old soldiers whose lives were saved by Timorese during the Pacific War rejoiced, because their nation had decided to pay its debt to the East Timorese. Peacemakers, blessed peacemakers, reached out to kin in Indonesia who had courageously supported the rights of the Timorese to self determination. Peacemakers recalled kin in Burma and the West Papuans of Irian Jaya who had voted for their freedom but then were robbed. And peacemakers everywhere were reminded of the power of solidarity to render their cause anew.

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