Peter Cosgrove: A warrior reflects on the power of faith

The Queen and Gen Cosgrove

On a visit to Rome earlier this month, Australia's Governor-General designate was interviewed by America's National Catholic Register - about his Catholic faith, his soldiering, and his work as Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

- By Edward Pentin, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.

Has it been hard to act against your conscience as a soldier?

Well, one needs to ask, what is your conscience? Let’s take a hypothetical situation: I’m a young soldier in East Timor. The militia, they are basically East Timorese people preying on their fellow East Timorese with military rifles, home-made guns, machetes. They’re chopping them up and burning them. I come round the corner of the scene; I’m securing and I’m going to shoot somebody who’s doing that. I’m not repulsed. I have no crisis of conscience at all.

That’s just, in the sense you’re protecting people unable to defend themselves?

Yes, if I can bring that back to doing a difficult job but for good reasons, then I’m fine. Now if you want to talk about invading countries and all the rest, well that comes down to a particular dilemma. If you believe that it must be unjust, if you believe that, what’s your option but to resign? If you say it is likely to be just then you carry on.

In East Timor you experienced how the people’s faith shone through after having suffered through great horrors of war. Could you tell us more about that?

Yes, I was told there was to be a Mass of thanksgiving in Dili Cathedral on a particular Sunday. [...] we found there was a throng of thousands but we found part of a pew right at the very back where we could sit. [When he heard we were there, Bishop Belo] comes pounding out of the sacristy, down through the aisle to the back of the church, grabs me by the hand, and takes me with my several staff up to very front pew. So there we are and the Mass starts.

The church is full and every square inch of ground surrounding the cathedral is full. They’ve got loudspeakers outside and the whole liturgy is conducted in Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor. I didn’t understand a word of it, but you could tell what the theme of the service was. It was an invocation of prayer and towards INTERFET [the International Forces].

The first hymn they sang sent a thrill down my spine. I said to myself, ‘I don’t see a choir.’ I needn’t have bothered. The hundreds and hundreds of people and every person outside sang in the most beautiful and full-throated harmony. The sound was overpowering. It was haunting, it was tuneful and it was of course in Tetum-Portuguese. And you just thought: No wonder these people survived.

From their sort of spirit, strength and prayerful devotion in their voices, you’d say they were indomitable. It was their communal sense of religion, their devotion to their maker that meant that no matter what unwelcome administration would be imposed on them, they were not going to be beaten. I just looked at my staff during the singing of hymns and they were similarly moved. They weren’t all Catholic, some of the boys there were Anglicans or whatever, but it didn’t really matter.

Read full interview: Peter Cosgrove: From College Chancellor to Australia's Governor General (National Catholic Register)

Related coverage: 

Cosgrove taking on major role (The Catholic Leader)

John Howard praises new Governor-General's 'common touch' (ABC Radio National Breakfast)

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