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Peace is Possible. The vigil of Capela do Rato and the opposition to the Colonial War (Exhibition script)
“The world demands peace”

The Vigil of Capela do Rato, at the end of 1972, took place within a particular context: Paul VI’s standings on peace and self-determination, the Portuguese Colonial War, opposition to the dictatorial regime and the growing politicisation of Catholic sectors.

Paul VI’s interventions promoting peace since the mid-1960s legitimised the defence of ceasing ongoing armed conflicts and the refusal of war as an instrument to resolve conflicts. At the same time, the Pope valued forms of the Church’s autonomous organisation in Africa.

The war against pro-independence factions in Angola, started by the Salazarist regime in 1961, introduced a central element to the evolution of one of the last European dictatorships. To Estado Novo, the situation worsened in the first half of the decade, with the war spreading out to Guinea and Mozambique. The Portuguese colonial empire’s integrity and the refusal of the colonies’ autonomy and independence justified continuing a war with no end in sight.

To the regime’s opposition, colonialism and the colonial wars legitimised the intensification of protest forms and the spread of dissidence. Among Portuguese Catholics, politicisation intensified, and sectors opposing the regime gained new momentum. With the blockage of a regime that associated its progress with maintaining the war, some oppositionists, Catholics included, radicalized their action to force the overthrow of dictatorial institutions.



Paul VI and The Day of Peace

The Pope’s trip to India, at the end of 1964, was controversial to Salazar’s regime, which hadn’t accepted the loss of Goa, Daman and Diu three years earlier. In 1965, Paul VI made a speech at the UN General Assembly. He restated the primacy of right in the relationships among States and appealed to negotiation as a tool in dispute resolution. “No more war, war never again” and “It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind” remain the strongest marks of his speech.

In May 1967, Paul VI made an unofficial visit to Fátima. Months later, December 8th, he established January 1st as World Day of Peace. Especially for the Catholics, the beginning of the year became an occasion to promote initiatives refusing the war and encouraging a culture of peace. To some Portuguese Catholic sectors, this would be the opportunity for the vigils of São Domingos and Capela do Rato.

Later, in 1970, Paul VI met with the leaders of Angola, Guinea and Mozambique’s liberation movements. To the Portuguese regime, in which Marcelo Caetano had replaced Salazar, without, however, effecting any change in the Colonial War, this was one of the most complex political moments, due to both the international repercussions and the reinforcement of internal opposition to colonialism and the armed conflict.



The war, the opposing sectors and the Catholics

The War


Justifying a war with the integrity of a multicontinental empire and refusing negotiations with the independence movements carried very adverse conditions for the Portuguese military.

The war unfolded in three territories of big dimension when compared to Continental Portugal, and characterized by severely distinct geographical and climate conditions.

Operation theatres were discontinuous and distant from one another and even farther away from the headquarters of the Portuguese political and military power, which created logistical problems and aggravated financial costs. In the battlefields, more than one adversary moved about, and their methods intensified the ways and processes of planning.

Pursuing conflict for a decade made recruitment a problem for the entire Portuguese society, affecting its relationship with the political regime and its support base.


Opposing sectors


To the movements opposing Salazarism, the Colonial War opened a new and more significant opposition front. The Portuguese Communist Party and sectors with republican, socialist and popular liberalist included the end of the war among their claims.

Among students, mainly from university, military recruitment, plus how long a mission in the theatre of war lasted, became an increasingly sensitive matter. Mobilization of new sectors that openly opposed the regime, the diversification of protest methods and their radicalization contributed to an increasing rupture with the dictatorial regime.



The Catholics: politicisation and fighting the Colonial War

The Colonial War decisively contributed to an intensification of the Portuguese Catholic sectors’ politicisation.

Along with the joint statements criticizing Salazar’s political regime, which were mostly made during Humberto Delgado’s presidential campaign at the end of the 1950s, broader manifests were added, such as one signed by 101 Catholics in 1965.

Catholic-launched magazines with significant public impact, such as O Tempo e o Modo [Time and Way], and initiatives such as Cooperativa Pragma, widened the opposing base in a sector previously seen as related to the regime. The same may be said about the production and diffusion (even if strongly restricted by the regime’s repressing instances) of information bulletins, dossiers on the Portuguese Colonial War and reflections on the pontifical doctrine regarding armed conflicts. Such are the cases of Direito à Informação [Right to be Informed], Cadernos GEDOC [GEDOC documents], Boletim Anticolonial [Anticolonial bulletin] or Cadernos sobre a Guerra Colonial [Documents on the Colonial War].

Catholic figureheads in a collision course with the regime and the hierarchy legitimised and intensified other forms of political dissidence. The public impact of Father Felicidade Alves’s case remains one of the most significant moments of that process.



Vigils for peace: awakening consciences

On December 8th, 1967, Paul VI establishes January 1st as the World Day of Peace. According to that day’s papal message, directed to all men of good will, the proposal of dedicating the first day of every new year to peace wasn’t intended only for the Catholic and religious realms, but to “all the true friends of Peace”. To the Catholic Church it was about “launching the idea”, hoping to get support from “all true friends of Peace”.
On the eve of January 1st, 1969, a group of Catholics gathered at Igreja de São Domingos, in Lisbon, to hold a vigil for peace.
On December 30th, 1972, at Capela do Rato, also in Lisbon, a period of reflection of about 48 hours on the Colonial War would be announced. The promoters claimed they would be on hunger strike until January 1st, 1973, as a form of solidarity towards the victims of the Colonial War. Still, on the 31st, regime forces would go into Capela do Rato and start detaining the people there. The vigil and its outcome’s repercussions would be remarkable.






Vigil of São Domingos. «We see, we listen and we read / We can’t ignore it»

At the turn of the year 1968 to 1969, after the mass carried out in Igreja de São Domingos, Lisbon, by Cardinal-Patriarch Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira, a group of lay people announced their intention to keep the vigil inside the temple. On the document presented then, they denounced “the Church’s political commitment towards the State”, condemning the Portuguese bishops’ pastoral notes about the celebration of The Day of the Peace, in which they referred to the “ultramarine peoples” that were a part of “the Portuguese Nation”.

The vigil, which would be extended until 6 a.m. on January 1st, 1969, involved more than a hundred persons. It translated into a collective public demonstration against the Colonial War and sought to frame itself in Paul VI’s decision to commemorate the first day of the year as World Day of Peace. Throughout the night, the war in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique was discussed.

It was for that night that Sophia de Mello Breyner purposely wrote Peace Cantata («We see, we listen and we read / We can’t ignore it»), composed by Francisco Fernandes and sung by Francisco Fanhais. Also there were Nuno Teotónio Pereira, Francisco de Sousa Tavares, Vítor Wengorovius, Luís Moita and Catalina Pestana, among other personalities.

Over the following days, a harsh exchange of words was witnessed between the Patriarchate (who published a note condemning the vigil’s «biased character» and the «confusion, indiscipline and revolt» fed by such demonstrations) and the vigil’s participants.






Vigil of Capela do Rato: «making peace possible»

The mobilisation

The Vigil of Capela do Rato began on December 30th, 1972. The group of Catholics who prepared it announced the event at the end of mass Saturday afternoon and appealed to those present to join the initiative, remaining on the scene (the headquarters of Catholic School Youth) to divulge it as well as to contribute to promoting peace.

The next day, Sunday, papers appealing to the presence and participation in the joint reflection that took place in Capela do Rato about the Colonial War and ways to obtain peace were distributed at the entrance of churches in Lisbon and in the south margin of Tejo. Denouncing unfairness, breaking the silence on the course of the war in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique and fighting for peace were declared objectives. The hunger strike expressed solidarity toward the victims of the war. They appealed furthermore to promoting initiatives with the same purposes.

On Sunday afternoon, the Revolutionary Brigades made petards explode in various points of Lisbon, Barreiro and Seixal, with flyers announcing the Christians’ hunger strike against the Colonial War and appealing to workers to join the initiative happening in Capela do Rato.

The vigil

Read by Maria da Conceição Moita at the end of Saturday’s mass, on December 30th, 1972, the vigil of Capela do Rato’s initial message presented its purpose: freely debating the Colonial War’s problem and the causes of the impossibility of having peace in Portugal since 1961. It echoed Paul VI’s message for World Day of Peace: “peace is possible”. Breaking the silence surrounding the war was one of the final appeals.

On December 30th and 31st, the motions approved by the people present repudiated the continuation of the Colonial War as a practice of terror and genocide of local populations. They denounced the oppression of young people and workers who protested against the war and vehemently opposed the Portuguese bishops’ silence about the war.

The posters put up on Capela do Rato’s walls communicated central ideas from the initial message and the motions: the debate among Christians and non-Christians about the problems caused by the Colonial War; the hunger strike in solidarity with its victims; a protest against the Portuguese bishops’ silence on the wars in Africa.

Police intervention

As it had been announced on Saturday, December 30th, 1972, the vigil of Capela do Rato, including the hunger strike held by some of those present, should extend up until January 1st, at around 1 p.m. Public Security Police, however, burst into the chapel early Sunday night, and proceeded to detain 74 of the people present there.

The detentions were carried out after establishing a ten-minute time limit for those present to leave the scene. According to the certification of detention, it was a non-authorized vigil, named a hunger strike against the Colonial War.


After the detention and identification of participants in the Vigil of Capela do Rato, Public Security Police sent those they considered to be responsible to the Directorate General of Security. The political police would also come to detain and interrogate further elements related to the Rato community, as was the case of Fathers Armindo Garcia, António Janela and Alberto Neto. Meanwhile, the Council of Ministers, presided over by Marcelo Caetano, deliberated on the dismissal or contract termination of public servants and administrative employees detained in Capela do Rato. After the deliberation’s confirmation, an appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court was prepared.






Is peace impossible?

The vigil of Capela do Rato’s repercussions extended in time. Beyond the media coverage, both national and international, there were assertions of positions, undersigns both supporting and contesting, and production and distribution of different flyers. Groups of Catholics and student and worker organisations expressed themselves and continued their debate about the Colonial War.
To this effect, the regime’s reaction was a great contribution, including invading the chapel and detaining dozens of those present at the scene to identify them, followed by the incarceration of 14 elements and the dismissal of 12 State workers by the Council of Ministers. The Ministry of the Interior and the Patriarchate of Lisbon’s statements, the speech the head of Government gave to the country, and the debate held at the National Assembly between liberal sector members of parliament and declared supporters of the regime, were also decisive to keep the preparation, the course and the effects of the vigil on the public agenda.


Media coverage: the early days


The Vigil of Capela do Rato had a remarkable impact from the moment it ended, about 24 hours after it began. Among its repercussions was the media coverage, both in Portugal and abroad. Despite the regime’s censorship and propaganda, the Colonial War in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, its justifications, its effects and the international appeals to promote a culture of peace were transported to the public discussion in Portugal, broadening the debate in private or in restricted groups. Parochial bulletins, too, more local and with a more restrained circulation, echoed the vigil and amplified its causes and consequences.

Moreover, in England, Italy, France, Germany, Scotland, Brazil and even Francoist Spain, the press mentioned what had happened in Rato, discussed its context and commented on the circumstances that had justified it. The character of the Portuguese Regime and the war that elongated in Africa since 1961, the relationship between Church and State and between other groups of Catholics and clandestine political organisations, the invasion of a chapel by the police, the explosion of petards with flyers made to divulge the initiative and the imprisonments and dismissals of public employees participating in the vigil were matters of discussion, its tone defined by the editorial line of each periodical.

The analysis of the news published the days immediately following the event, both in the national and international press, demonstrate its ample repercussions.


Support given to the vigil


The first shows of support given to the vigil of Capela do Rato came from groups of Catholics in Oporto. Reports of the circumstances and their political effects multiplied. The community of Rato itself spoke out and gave information on the course of events. Among the recipients were the ecclesiastic authorities, including the Apostolic Nunciature, heads of political power institutions and directors of press organisations.

Even if clandestinely or from exile, partisan and civic organisations opposing the dictatorship expressed their support to the vigil, protested against the regime’s oppression over the participants and demanded the end of the Colonial War. Such were the cases of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), the Portuguese Socialist Action (ASP), the Electoral Democratic Commission (CDE) or the National Commission for Relief to Political Prisoners (CNSPP). Unions and student organisations handed out the motions approved in Rato and demanded that the people detained by the political police were released. Support also came from overseas for the vigil’s participants and actions of protest against the regime’s oppression. The International Amnesty, the Finnish Peace Committee, the British Columbia Peace Council and World Pax were some of the organisations that publicly spoke out, including participation in the UN’s Human Rights Committee.

History and memory

The main purpose of the Vigil of Capela do Rato’s promoters was to awaken consciences to the absurdity of maintaining the war, through a spectacular gesture that mobilized public opinion. Historically, the reach of this action, however, was different: revealing the existence of opposing sectors within the Catholic Church. Capela do Rato thus transformed itself into a place of memory of the antifascist battle and resistance against the dictatorship.

Reuniting believers and non-believers from extremely diversified backgrounds, the vigil of Capela do Rato promoted the union of sectors that shared a sense of repulse against the Colonial War. Regardless of their divergences on what should be the fate of the territories under a colonial domain, the meeting provided the chance to build a community that rejected the war.


Dismissal of civil servants


Deliberated by the Council of Ministers, the removal from public functions of 12 participants in the Vigil of Capela do Rato constituted a serious penalty. The first appeal was immediately rejected by the same political organ. Later, an appeal would be prepared for the Supreme Administrative Court contesting the decision. National and international press passionately covered the case.


Political debate in the National Assembly


In the early days of January, the case of Capela do Rato motivated an intense debate within the National Assembly. The interventions of Miller Guerra in favour of religious freedom stood out, immediately contested by the supporters of the regime. Later, in February, this member of parliament from the liberal sector would forego his mandate.


Different reactions from Church and society


The Portuguese Catholic Hierarchy’s official reactions included different diligences from Lisbon’s Cardinal-Patriarch and the publication of a note from the Patriarchate on the events and its immediate repercussions.

Holding the vigil, security forces invading a chapel, information about the authorities closing the chapel, which implicated the suspension of regular acts of cult, the political police inquiring the community’s priests and a statement from the Ministry of the Interior justified the official standing from the Patriarchate. Affirming the Church’s exemption before the legitimacy of political options by Catholics and non-Catholics in a country at war, the note reproached certain abusive behaviours both from the group holding the vigil and from the police forces invading the Chapel. And it ended with the relevance of Catholics and men of good will seeking solutions that led to peace.