(An article from the “Frankston Standard”, December 20, 1999. NB. The journalist is a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t like the title “Fr” , hence only “Mr”)
A BLOODSTAINED massacre site was the backdrop for Frankston Navy Chaplain John Connelly when he led a church service for about 750 East Timorese during an eight day stay as part of the multi-force peacekeeping effort.
About 80 besieged priests, nuns and locals in Suai had sought sanctuary at the site, a timber and concrete church, only to be shot or burnt by militias renouncing the East Timor independence vote.
The church’s ruins, with flowers marking the spots where people died, were a sombre backdrop as Mr Connelly, 51, a chaplain at HMAS Cerberus, experienced the strong religious faith of the many locals at the mass, despite the murder of their family members and the destruction of their towns.
He was on shore from his primary duty as chaplain aboard HMAS Tobruk, ministering to a 150-member crew as some sailors worked up to 30-hour shifts during regular trips between Darwin and Dili, and later Suai, to transfer troops and supplies.
Standing in for two absent priests at Suai, Mr Connelly comforted the peacemakers and locals, led worship, prayed over burial sites, and mixed and laughed with youngsters – “beautiful children, so accepting and thankful towards Australians”.
He helped community leaders address the burial of murder victims, the restoration of the local market and questions surrounding the return of villagers from West Timor refugee camps.
Mr Connelly led the Mass in the native tongue Tetem, learned hastily from a book, and, last Wednesday at his Frankston home, he told how the images of the massacre angered and repelled him as he inspected massacre sites.
He saw a sobbing father declare the skull held in his hands not to be his young son because “my son is in heaven”.
He found similar faith among other locals, many of whom were focusing on the restoration of community life and resigning themselves to putting behind them the terror and bloodbath. He also shared a church service, led by Bishop Belo, which attracted 2000.
Aboard Tobruk, Mr Connelly was struck by the crew’s commitment to the fast, efficient transport of troops and cargo with few complaints.
Despite the massacres, Mr Connelly found that the religious faith of himself, the troops and the sailors was strengthened or revived by that of the locals, who were mostly Catholics.
Mr Connelly completed a 21-year navy career in 1985, departing as a chief petty officer musician to study for ordination, fulfilling a declaration to his parents at age four that he would become a sailor or a priest.