The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, January 19, 2007



People don’t get along because they fear each other
People fear each other because they don’t know each other
They don’t know each other
Because they haven’t properly communicated with each other.

This quote from Martin Luther King, jnr features in students’ introduction to courses at the Catholic Communication Training Centre in Surabaya headed by a lean and fit septuagenarian frugal with clues to his age.

The only giveaway is when Romo (Father) John Tondowidjojo Tondodiningrat pulls himself up from a seductively deep sofa, and then pauses for a nanosecond to let the blood surge into lax muscles and any giddiness subside.

Moments later he’s striding across the reception lounge at Surabaya’s Gereja Kristus Raja (Church of Christ the King) like a lithe executive hunting a sale and going in for the kill.

But this man’s life mission is love, the banishment of misunderstanding and the construction of tolerance - and he’s determined to pursue these great goals to the very end.

“Poor communication can contribute to disease,” he said, quoting research that claims people who don’t talk to each other have a shortened life span. They certainly do when living in some of Indonesia’s sectarian hot spots and not through coronaries.

“When I was a child growing up in Yogyakarta relationships between Muslims and Christians were good,” he said. “There was better cooperation and we lived easily together. We accepted and respected each other.

“Disintegration started in the Sukarno era. Politics were based on religion. That’s different from religious politics. That’s created a situation where some politicians can exploit religious feelings and beliefs. It has not been good for my country.”

Romo Tondo was the eldest of ten children in a royal Javanese family which traces its roots back to the mid 15th century. His grandfather’s sister was the famous Muslim emancipationist Kartini who died as a young woman in childbirth and is now one of the nation’s heroes.

Naturally little John was expected to remain Muslim. But like many Javanese concerned that their children should get a sound education, his parents sent him to Catholic schools.

For then, as now, the Catholics’ reputation for scholarship and discipline cut across religious boundaries. And in the classroom young John proved a star pupil, excelling in the language of instruction, the tongue of the colonialists. It wasn’t their only contribution to his life; he also embraced their religion and converted as a teenager.

Apostasy is a singular and awful crime in Islam, with many sects practising social exclusion in the here and predicting eternal damnation in the hereafter for those with the courage to change. But Romo Tondo seems to have escaped at least one of these penalties.

“There’s been no problem with my family even though I’m the only one who’s a Catholic,” he said. “At the end of Ramadan I usually spend a week with them in Yogyakarta celebrating Idul Fitri (the close of the fasting month). My parents were broad minded.”

They were also blessed with an exceptionally gifted son who won scholarships to study in Europe, including five years in Rome where he added Latin and Italian to his repertoire.

He was ordained more than 40 years ago and returned to his homeland as a priest in the order of St Vincent de Paul who charged his followers to ‘embrace the world in a network of charity’.

“I saw that it was not a good situation in Indonesia,’ said Romo Tondo. “I knew I had to do everything possible to help ordinary people improve their conditions.’

The parallel ambition was to continue learning, which he did in Canada, the US, Britain, Holland, Australia the Philippines and a few other countries that may have slipped his mind.

His specialty was mass communications and he now uses his experience to teach the skills of journalism, filmmaking, public speaking and advertising. He travels the nation presenting train-the-trainer workshops in parishes, pushing the message of tolerance and the need to be informed.

He writes newspaper columns for down-market papers and is at ease in front of camera and microphone. His message is unambiguous: “If a person is Muslim then that’s their faith. We must respect that. Christ did not discriminate. People need good information, not rumors. There is a lot of misinformation about Christianity.”

The polymath’s most recent interest has been the French Revolution and the factors which brought it about. He sees parallels in Indonesia:

“The social distance is vast and getting bigger. Jobless numbers are huge and increasing. Nepotism thrives and there’s injustice. The use of Bahasa Indonesia instead of the formal and hierarchical Javanese language has promoted equality.

“But that advantage has been offset by the rise in neo-feudalism, particularly in the bureaucracy where those in power can have great influence over the lives of ordinary people. They have the qualifications but don’t use them. NATO – no action, talk only.

‘Some people at the top are like those in pre-revolutionary France. They think they are divine. Some have no real understanding of what is happening, of how others feel. They have not internalised the plight of the poor. There is so much crime because people have empty stomachs.

“Of course there is anger and envy, though mostly under control. But those emotions are there to exploit if the opportunity presents. Politicians are opportunists”.

The solutions proposed by Romo Tondo are founded on education, and ‘family values’ - which he says means respect for others, and making learning a priority. He was particularly critical of the quality of Indonesian teachers who, he said, maintained rote-learning practices, the memorisation of facts without analysis, and a rigid them-and-us approach to students. His other demands are for an improved and fairer tax system that can’t be sidestepped.

Since 1969 Romo Tondo and his Vincentian colleagues have been running an informal welfare organisation, spotting the genuine poor and talented, then making personal pleas directly to affluent Catholics.

He’s just sent 400 contacts a copy of his latest book on the challenges facing families. Inside an envelope inviting the recipient to donate to the poor.

“The Rp 10,000 (US $1.10) the well-off might spend on one nasi goreng (fried rice) could keep a child in school for a month,” he said.

This last comment was neither bitter nor accusatory, just a statement of fact. With his regal heritage, ecclesiastical status and overseas qualifications the urbane Romo Tondo could be a plump and pampered priest, disbursing saccharine theology, a must-have tame cleric on the five-star hotels’ A list.

Fortunately hubris yielded to the happy knack of feeling at ease in the plastic hovels of the poor and the tiled and monstrous palaces of the rich. And - more important – acceptable in both.

“I’m not saying there’ll be another revolution in Indonesia, but there’s always the possibility,” he said. “We must do everything we can to bring the poor into the future.

“We need a new system of government with educated leaders, people of goodwill. The qualities of egalite, fraternite, equalite which created the French republic are also part of our culture - if we can give them the chance for expression.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 January 2007


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