Ledalero: Exporting indigenized religion and priests
The Bible was brought to Indonesia by thousands of European missionaries across the centuries. While there are restrictions today on how and where foreigners can preach in Indonesia, there aren’t too many who are keen to come.
By contrast, Indonesia's Catholic graduates are now taking their version of the word of God to the West.
The top Catholic institute in Indonesia is the Ledalero Sekolah Tinggi Filsafat Katolik (STFK Ledalero), a college of Catholic philosophy that is run by the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) – the Society of the Divine Word. The college is located just outside Maumere in East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara.
“We’re now the largest provider of SVD apostles (also called Verbites) to the world,” said counselor Bill Burt, an Australian.
“We have about 300 young men studying. This year’s graduates will be going to Russia, Latvia, South American countries, Norway, Poland and Ukraine and Australia.”
Burt will soon retire to Melbourne; then there will be only two non-Indonesian priests in Sikka regency, including the capital Maumere.
Ledalero's staff canteen has a wall displaying the portraits of the college's leaders, past and present. The early rows show bearded sages with stares severe; however the most recent photos are of dark-skinned and clean-shaven men – just like the diners. The church is becoming indigenized, and not just in Indonesia.
“As foreign priests retire or die, Indonesians have been filling their places and adapting the teachings,” said Burt. “In Australia there are now only two native-born SVD priests across the whole continent. The rest are mainly from Vietnam and India.
“Few young men want to join the church in the secular West, but in Flores, having a son take holy orders is a matter of family pride.”
Burt’s road to religion started when he was a teenager working for Australian Immigration in Sydney. His job included processing recipients of the prestigious Colombo Plan scholarship. The students were smart and determined and often returned to senior government jobs in their home countries. Many were from Indonesia, and Burt developed friendships.
“Like most Australians, I didn’t know much about Indonesia but the students helped open my eyes,” he recalled.
He then joined the Australia-Indonesia Association [AIA]. “We talked about language, culture, literature and cuisine. It was totally non-political," said Burt.
“Then one day in 1965 after work, I was confronted by a man who said he was from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. He told me that the AIA was a Communist front.
“He asked me to inform on the members and report their activities. This was before the Sept. 30 coup.”
Founded in 1947 and still in operation today, the AIA's requests for a response to the past charge that it was a Red redoubt have been ignored.
Burt never took up the mantle of government spy because he quit public service and instead started training with the SVD. In 1969 he was sent to Flores.
Since its founding in 1875 in the Netherlands by exiled German priests, the SVD had set up missions overseas, including the Dutch East Indies.
Men in cassocks had already entered the archipelago in the early 16th century when the Portuguese came sniffing for spices. Dutch Jesuits followed and the SVD three centuries later.
It now claims to be the world’s biggest Catholic missionary congregation with more than 6,000 religious members, of which 4,000 are ordained priests. Last year, Father Paulus Budi Kleden, a 54-year-old Flores native, was appointed the order's Superior General in Rome.
The faith Ledalero exports is not the original, imported European variety but Asian, filtered through Indonesian culture. East Flores has a major cult of worshipping Mary. One priest quietly noted: “She’s even more popular than Jesus.”
“The SVD has evolved and is more concerned with educating the poor and human rights issues,” said Burt. “Three years ago, we sponsored a seminar on the killings of real or imagined communists after the 1965 coup [that] brought [former president] Soeharto to power.”
Indonesia’s most famous Jesuit priest and philosopher, Franz Magnis-Suseno, wrote that Ledalero was the first education institution in the nation “courageous enough” to talk publicly and critically about the genocide.
Despite its remote location, Ledalero runs a press that produces theological theses, an international journal and books on the mass killings, a topic mainstream publishers still tremble to touch.
The SVD men aren’t navel gazers. Some are helping to expose the plight of returning Indonesian migrant workers (TKI) who have been infected with HIV, which they then pass on to their wives and through them, their children.
New drugs can stop the virus developing into the often fatal condition, AIDS. Originally recruited to spread the Gospel, SVD members have found themselves working to stop the virus spread by ensuring that patients take their medicines.
Next year Ledalero hopes to achieve university status. One problem in upgrading is recruiting native English lecturers, particularly since missionaries will be working overseas where English is the first or second language. The other issue is that its well of money is running dry, partly caused by the criminal behavior of clergy around the globe.
“We used to get most funding from Germany through public contributions. That’s collapsed during the past five years. Scandals involving pederast priests in countries like the US, Canada and Australia have had an impact," said Burt.
“Now we’re learning self-sufficiency by developing a farm and businesses to maintain funding.”
Fortunately Ledalero's buildings are relatively new. An earthquake in 1992 destroyed everything on the 11-hectare site, so the Church of St. Paul, lecture rooms, administrative facilities and dormitories were all rebuilt.
To stop its graduates from thinking they’re above the masses they’re supposed to serve – or "up themselves", as Australians say – the STFK offers a quote by the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) for contemplation:
“The number-one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim him (Jesus) with their mouths and deny him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 19 August 2019