Peter Stilwell came to Macau on a mission: to restructure the University of Saint Joseph. It was a turbulent time for the institution but he embraced the challenge and in May 2012, only 15 days after receiving the invitation, he was on his way to the city to take charge as Rector.
Stilwell was born in Lisbon on 4 December 1946 to English parents. The family on his mother’s side is Catholic despite the difficulties, he explains, that belonging to the faith brought on during the Reformation period. He is one of eight siblings: four boys and four girls, the youngest being the journalist and writer Isabel Stilwell.
From the early age of six, Stilwell understood he wanted to become a priest. He spent his teenage years studying in England at the Oratory boarding school founded by 19th-century theologian Cardinal Newman, canonised this October. A family legacy, Stilwell attended the institution as his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had before him.
With his secondary education done, Stilwell left for the United States where he pursued his interest in medicine. “I then realised it would be far more interesting to work on people’s spirit rather than on their body,” he explains, “and thus decided to enter Lisbon’s Olivais Seminary.”
He was ordained presbyter to the Patriarchate of Lisbon in 1973, and two years later, he would complete his second canonical degree under the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University of Portugal (UCP) as a member of one of the first classes of the institution. After his studies in Portugal, two more years followed at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, where Stilwell began his PhD. He would only come to complete it nearly a decade later.
From 1978 to 1991, Stilwell started and coordinated the Patriarchate of Lisbon’s Pastoral Universitária, and became chaplain to the University Catholic Action both at a diocesan and national level. At the same time, he lectured theology at UCP.
In 1993, Stilwell decided it was time to go back to his doctoral degree, presenting and defending his thesis, A Condição Humana em Ruy Cinatti – uma aventure poética e religiosa (The Human Condition in Ruy Cinatti – A Poetic and Religious Adventure). The work, which combined research in the areas of fundamental theology, literature and contemporary history, was published in 1995 and received the Eça de Queiroz prize in the Essay category.
After completing his doctorate, he was invited to become a full-time professor at UCP. He lectured subjects such as revelation and tradition, history and theology of religions, aesthetics and theology – all related to fundamental theology, but he also taught Christology, under systematic theology.
Stilwell served as Dean of UCP’s Faculty of Theology for three terms (2002–2011) during which he supervised the adjustment of the theology and the religious sciences degrees to meet the new Bologna Process criteria. “It was necessary to reform according to the Bologna principles and that was extremely important. We were one of the first degrees to adapt,” he tells us with pride.
It was during his term that the Faculty proposed to the Episcopal Conference the integration of all theological institutions in Portugal, therefore establishing an extension of its first canonical degree in theology at the University of Saint Joseph (USJ) in Macau. In 2008, he was appointed Vice-Rector of UCP, a position he held until 2012, when he became Rector of USJ.
Before moving to the city, Stilwell had visited Macau to lecture back in 2008. He completed a report to the Rector of the Catholic University of Portugal in 2012 on the situation of the institution that, as he states, “was not going too well.”
“The Patriarch told me he needed me in Macau, to which I replied that I was available to go there. He proceeded to tell me: ‘If you are available, pack your suitcases because you will be leaving in 15 days.‘ And here I was, right in the beginning of May. Challenges were great, that was true,” he reiterates.
He remembers finding a university that was dispirited and immediately understanding that, besides completing internal reforms, he had to boost morale. “I spoke with the Catholic Foundation and told them we needed to proceed with the new campus,” he recalls. “Fortunately, it was possible to do just that, and we now have a new campus, motivated staff and the population of Macau looking at us in expectation.”
Following his 2012 appointment as Rector of the University of Saint Joseph – jointly created by UCP and the Diocese of Macau – Stilwell will complete his second term in 2020. His path leading to USJ is marked by other milestones.
For eleven years (2001–2012), he coordinated the Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, during which he also spent five years (2007–2012) as an expert on the Council of European Episcopal Conferences.
He also served as Spiritual Advisor to Rádio Renascença (owned by the Patriarchate of Lisbon) for 15 years (1997–2012) and has been acting director of the Portuguese edition of the international magazine Communio since 2017. Back in 2008, he was invited to join the first team of consultants of AVEPRO, the Holy See’s agency dedicated to the evaluation and quality assurance of ecclesiastical universities and faculties.
In addition to his dedication to both academia and religion, Peter Stilwell is an author to several books, an avid reader and enjoys tending to his bonsai, although they remain in Portugal awaiting his return in 2020. “Most are still well and I hope that when I leave Macau I will be able to reunite with them. I hear that when the bonsai are well taken-care of, they survive their owners.”
President of the Institute for Tourism Studies
Principal at School of the Nations Macau
Associate Professor at the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences, University of Macau
Researcher at the United Nations University Institute (UNUI) in Macao.