Dianne Hanna, from Sydney, has been volunteering as Financial Advisor to the Diocese of Maliana in Timor-Leste for the last two years. As the local community prepares for Easter, Dianne shares a taste of what’s been happening, and what’s in store.
In Maliana, the Easter celebrations begin the Wednesday before Holy Week where all the diocesan priests gather for their annual retreat in preparation. Due to the distance they all must travel, they arrive on the Tuesday night and the Chrism Mass (where the bishop distributes the holy oils) will be held on Thursday. They then all travel back to their respective parishes. The priests from Fohorem (a sub-district further south) have the furthest to travel, needing six hours if the roads are good.
The Chrism Mass is a community event and a celebration is held afterwards at the diocesan grounds. Around a thousand people attend and lunch and entertainment is put on for all. The women that work in the diocese, as well as a number of others that have come to help, stay up all night cooking for the crowd expected. The work does not stop until after everyone has eaten and the dishes are done. Then the dancing begins.
How they are able to dance all afternoon without sleep and after all their hard work is beyond me. As is expected, the afternoon rains come, yet the festivities continue. The dancing only stops temporarily as the rain is tipped off the tops of the tents.
Lately we’ve been receiving rain every afternoon. I’ve been caught out in it a few times, alongside the children either coming or going to school depending on which roster they are on. Many of the children continue in the rain, yet my old body decides to wait for it to ease up a bit before continuing. I am fortunate enough to be able to take shelter in one of the vendors’ huts and a motorcyclist who chooses not to drive in the rain joins me. I enjoy the company and the chance to practice the little Tetun I know.
Despite the rain, water has not been running into the neighbours’ homes. Every night as the weather begins to cool they line up at the parish bore to fill their water containers and cart them home. The problem has been going for some time now and I am told it is a pipe that needs to be fixed. So we wait without grumbling, appreciative that there is still access to water.
The next day, the procession of the stations of the cross commences at 9am and ends at the parish house at 12 noon. The different church groups get together to enact the stations of the cross and to lead the crowd in prayer as they walk the stations. Different bairos are responsible for each station, and as the procession moves from one area to the next a different group will read the respective bible verse. Thousands of people attend this procession, and as we come up the hill from the market to the parish the end of the crowd is not visible. The chapels in the parish also hold their own processions, with some starting in the morning and others in the afternoon.
The coordination of police to close the roads and redirect traffic, village and community leaders to clean up and prepare their station, youth groups to reenact the stations and lead the procession as well as all the other groups involved is remarkable. These events become central to community life, giving people opportunities to live their faith and be connected to each other.
Palm Sunday follows and again a large crowd gathers a few hundred metres from the church to lead a procession to the church for the commencement of mass. I sit and watch the wave of people walking up to the church from their respective homes carrying their palm branches and dressed in their best outfits. For as long as I can see, the people do not stop coming. I am always impressed with how clean they can keep their shoes, yet I seem to always step in the puddles and mud.
The Canossian sisters were responsible for the church decorations this year and they spent all afternoon yesterday and into the night preparing the outdoor church. The different religious groups are heavily involved with all the church celebrations and the responsibilities are shared out among them as they prepare the people to participate, decorate the church, prepare the choirs and readers. Due to the number of people, they often work together and on the big day they help make sure everything runs smoothly.
Also of great help are the church scouts that are often seen on big events like these carrying people who faint into the parish house to lie down and have something to eat/drink. A number of people would have walked from a few kilometres away and the combination of heat and exhaustion does not help the situation. Fortunately there are always people around to help out at these times.