The idea that Cardinal George Pell might make a visit to Timor Leste, the world's "newest" country, was first mooted when Br Marcal Lopes and I called on him in his Sydney office in July 2004.
As part of my work with Salesian Missions I have been undertaking field visits to the country a couple of times a year since 2000 and Br Marcal was in Australia at that time working on his Masters degree in Educational Leadership at Australian Catholic University.
It was suggested that I draw up a draft itinerary for discussion, the trip being eventually set down for mid-January 2006.
Within hours of his arrival in Timor Leste, Cardinal Pell was received by President Xanana Gusmao - a man of great charm and charisma.
The Cardinal saw a good deal of the country, especially the eastern regions travelling in a utility driven by Br Marcal, the Headmaster of Don Bosco Technical School Fatumaca (near Baucau).
He stayed with the Salesians at Baucau, Fuliloro, Lospalos, Fatumaca, and Comoro (Dili), and visited schools, orphanages, parishes and villages, and had lengthy meetings with Bishop Basilio Nascimento of Baucau and Bishop Ricardo Alberto of Dili, as well as discussions with priests in the Dili parishes and religious from several congregations.
Cardinal Pell celebrated Mass in the Tetum language on three occasions, and after the Sunday Mass to a packed church in Fatumaca, he was greeted by a bevy of teenagers seeking his autograph.
The extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, was obvious to him. It was clear the Government has not yet developed the mechanisms of providing basic services to improve the lives of ordinary people.
However, the Cardinal observed that the Church's presence is widespread with the services provided by its various agencies, especially the religious congregations (schools, orphanages, medical, loan of tractors, help with micro-finance, dress-making co-operatives, etc), proving essential.
We were in Lospalos on the day of the running of the heats of their annual horse race: the Don Bosco Cup, with the jockeys skilfully riding Timorese ponies bareback and without stirrups.
I thought the atmosphere that day was very much like a country race meeting in many parts of Australia with an attendance exceeding 3,000. The Cardinal was invited by the organisers to start the first race.
During his visit, Cardinal Pell:
* Received an informal briefing by the Acting Australian Ambassador, Ms Marena Tsirvas.
* Met Australian Defence Forces personnel stationed in Dili.
* Visited the Ahisaun Centre for the Disabled in Dili where Sydney couple Cheree and Michael Flanagan are volunteer workers.
* Addressed teacher education students at the Marist Brothers Teachers College Baucau and teachers and catechists in the Laga parish.
* Participated in a seminar for the teachers of Don Bosco Technical School, Fatumaca.
* Visited the Dili offices of Caritas Australia and Caritas Dili.
* Toured the museum where the archives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are housed.
* Willingly chatted to students wanting to practise their English.
Overall I felt that Cardinal Pell gained a great deal from the visit to Timor Leste. He now has a much better appreciation of the problems and challenges being faced by the Timorese. And I have no doubt that his cheerful presence and willingness to fit in with everything that was asked of him was a source of encouragement and a morale boost for local people.
Donations to support the Salesian educational and developmental work in East Timor can be sent to the Salesian Missions Office, P.O. Box 264, Ascot Vale, Vic 3032. Donations are tax-deductible.