Bonded through tragedy united in hope: The Catholic Church & East Timor’s struggle for independence, a memoir, by Hilton Deakin with Jim and Therese D’Orsa (Melbourne: Garratt Publishing 2017).

Reviewed by Rowan Ireland.

Hilton Deakin arriving to launch a scholarship fund for orphans in East Timor, the OANKIAK Fund. John Casamento.

Australian Catholic bishop, Hilton Deakin, now aged 84, has given us a remarkable memoir. It was produced over several years, with the assistance of Jim and Therese D’Orsa who worked with Hilton on the project as one of their many contributions to the Yarra Institute for Religion & Social Policy. The memoir focuses on Hilton’s years of involvement with East Timor, but it speaks to all involved in the faith-inflected search for justice, peace, and development, at home and abroad.

For activists in the search, it provides inspiration in its stories about the likes of Dili’s Bishop Belo: here, Christian faith is shown nourishing heroic courage, resilience, and strategic wisdom in a struggle for justice and peace as intense as any in the developing world.

The book is also a source of practical guidance, provided not in the form of dot points as in a manual for development aid workers, but rather in Bishop Hilton’s reflections on what he has seen and learned in his own East Timorese engagements over the last twenty-five years.

Three stories unfold in the first half of the book: Hilton’s story, the East Timor Story, and the Church Story, the latter exploring conflict and change in the Catholic Church in Australia, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Vatican. These stories are woven together in the second half of the book, where the three main stories flow into and illuminate one another.

Hilton’s story compresses his early years (until he is well into middle age), growing up in rural Victoria in the 1930s, through seminary education, and on to his work as a parish priest, then as Vicar General in the Melbourne archdiocese. Hilton wants to privilege the years which began when, in 1991, he helped arrange a special Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral for refugees from East Timor.

From that point, East Timor becomes the cauldron in which his perspectives on faith and third world development are refined and revised. His East Timor experiences take him, he tells us, beyond anything he could have imagined for himself or his Church in his seminary days.

Social justice integral to faith

Hilton Deakin with Xanana Gusmao. Photo J. D’Orsa

He wants us to know, though, that his post-1991 story is not all about discontinuities. His interest in social justice and the Catholic Church’s social teachings was kindled in the 1930s in his home town of Finley in southern New South Wales by the Mercy nuns, who lived out those teachings “in their service of the poor and marginalised”. Then, Vatican II and subsequent developments in Catholic justice, peace, and development teaching transformed the perspectives acquired in school and seminary.

Later, but before 1991, came coursework at Monash and fieldwork at Kalumburu for two years, as he worked towards a PhD in anthropology. Lessons learned in the theory and practice of anthropology in the 1970s laid foundations for further changes in perspectives about the Church, socio-cultural development, and modes of pastoral work. These were consolidated and intensified as the Timor story subsumed the Hilton story through the 1990s.

As Hilton Deakin sees it, “Anthropology invites a person to experience the world as other people do. This was quite different from the theological tradition in which I was trained, a tradition which analyses individual experiences in terms of universal principles…”.

Taking up the invitation, Hilton explored the culture of Aboriginal ‘others’ in the Kalumburu community in the remote Kimberley in the far north of Western Australia, through respectful conversation and participant observation of ritual and daily life. He came to understand the human destruction wrought when assumptions of superiority and exclusive possession of truth ruled in encounters between power-holders (missionaries, government agents, et al) and the relatively powerless (Indigenous populations under colonial rule, the marginalised poor).

Here were the foundations for the judgements he made later when he became an advocate, mediator, and (as head of Caritas Australia in the 2000s) a participating decision-maker, along with UN officials, in East Timorese affairs.

Challenged to justice, peace & development

Hilton’s changes in perspective and judgement on faith, his Church, and issues in justice, peace, and development are best drawn out from his stories about, and reflections on, the heroic, though the tragic figure of Bishop Belo. Belo becomes the moving central figure in ‘The Timor story’, but those stories are too long to be rehearsed here.

Deakin, however, makes it easy to discern where his own journeys take him – on development, when he discusses Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, and on faith and his Church, when he positions himself between two archetypes of the Church outlined by Liberation Theology’s Leonardo Boff.

He culls from Populorum Progressio and some subsequent papal elaborations key notions that seem to summarise and inform the principles which guided him as he entered incrementally into the Timor story. These notions echo his discoveries as an anthropologist, as well as his own developing theological vision.

Two principles are especially emphasised. The first is that Church and aid agencies in rich countries should always seek to be partners, respecting the dignity, culture, and insights of those they would aid, so avoiding aid as a form of neo-colonialism. The second is that such partners should always be seeking ‘integral development’, ‘development that allows people to live with dignity’. The corollary notion here is that development, justice, and peace go together – justice always being of the restorative kind, accompanied by attempts at reconciliation.

On matters of Church and faith, Hilton declares his commitment to the dialogue model of the Church in which the emerging Kingdom of God is greater than the Church, and the Spirit of God moves at all times among all peoples, so that people of the Church must enter into dialogue with the religious and non-religious ‘other’, always exchanging and learning.

This Vatican II model of a pilgrim Church has become Hilton Deakin’s. Characteristically, though, he rejects totalising versions of this model, being well aware of how the Church can be ‘co-opted in the service of secular forms of liberation’, unless, in dialogue, its agents remain reflexively faithful to Gospel values and their inheritance in social justice teaching.

Wisdom in positioning on issues of faith and development is only a small part of what this memoir gives us. The Timor story presents both challenge and hope. Challenge lies in Hilton’s unflinching record of suffering and human failure, which often appears intractable in the Timor story. It is also to be found in cautionary tales showing Church leaders, in the name of Vatican realpolitik, subverting the work of those like Bishop Belo seeking to realise the ideals of Populorum Progressio. Indeed, the memoir leaves no room for triumphalism regarding Church or governments or development programs.

On the other hand, Hilton’s memoir opens up the territory of hope. The Timor story records significant achievements of organised ‘moral pressure’ brought to bear on the powers that be. Further, religious faith can be seen here in its amazing power to rebuild communities destroyed by murderous force.

Then, there is Hilton Deakin’s own story, as the D’Orsas present it. Here is the story of a man of faith who has faced all the challenges, yet retains both a passion for social justice, and the hope that members of a pilgrim Church, acting in critical solidarity with others, will progress towards it. A beacon of realistic hope indeed!


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