Different worlds: being Catholic in Indonesia and Australia

Different worlds: being Catholic in Indonesia and Australia

Phillip Turnbull

I am teaching Catholic religious instruction in an Indonesian private school. By law in Indonesia religious instruction must be taught in all schools - state or private. And even if it wasn't required the parents would demand it.

The school I teach in has Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian (the Indonesian term for protestant) and Catholic religion teachers.

At present I am teaching Catholic pupils from Kindergarten to Grade 7.

What happens in class?

First I teach them how to make the Sign of the Cross, "like St Bernadette did". Slowly and beautifully.

We begin each class this way and then say the Hail Mary. There are only a few students who don't know it, even in Kindergarten. "How do you know that prayer?" "My daddy taught me at home." Then we sing a hymn. The Lourdes Hymn or Firmly I Believe and Truly.

Mass attendance

Indonesian children tell me what happened at Mass on Sunday as First Communion in Indonesia is not Last Communion. On an ordinary Sunday there are about 3,000 at the Mass I attend and five Sunday Masses in my parish. I know the population is greater, but that is really not the point. The point is they go to Mass.

In Australia, I found it was not uncommon for Catholic students in secondary school to be unsure whether or not they were Catholic or had made their First Communion. Suddenly dawn would break: "Oh you mean the little white biscuit. Yes, I did that." When I would ask my senior secondary class on Monday morning, "Who went to Mass yesterday?", not a hand would go up.

In Indonesia, when I hand out holy pictures the children will tell me, "We have a statue of Mary exactly like that at home." They have a strong sense of Catholic identity and culture. People are proud to be Catholic. When you visit a Catholic home there is a crucifix on the wall and a statue of Our Lady prominent in the main room, and elsewhere through the home.

Many of the children I teach carry rosary beads in their pocket. They proudly show them to me. "Can you say the rosary?" And then they begin.

Parents in Indonesia will wait for me after school and thank me for teaching their children the Faith. I recall the principal of a Catholic school in Australia telling me "a lot of parents resent us teaching RE". I experienced that first hand standing in the local bookshop when a new parent stormed in and said, "I have to buy a Bible. They are going to start ramming religion down my kid's throat."

Here in Indonesia, a little boy in Grade I asked me, "How does the death of Jesus on the cross save us?" In Australia I despaired at the number of times I was asked by students, "Is the Pope a Catholic?" and whenever I talked about the religious life, invariably someone would comment, "Monks? Oh, I know. They're the ones you see in the street wearing orange robes."

In Indonesia you see Catholic nuns in their habits regularly. The Holy Cross Fathers in our parish wear habits. Indonesian seminaries are full and the religious houses are not wanting for vocations.

Here I have to tell my Grade 6 and 7 students, teenagers who have their class after school in their own time when all their friends have already left and gone home, that time is up, in fact we have gone on for 20 extra minutes, but they say, "No, can't we stay longer? We want to ask some more questions." Catholic teenagers.

No Indonesian Catholic student has said to me, "Religion is a load of garbage", or "All religions are the same", or "This is boring", or "Who cares!"

Back in Australia when I was teaching RE in a Catholic school I was taken to task for teaching the students "all that old stuff. It's pre-Vatican II." I was even told not to mention Purgatory as the Second Vatican Council had done away with it! That's news to me. Besides, what is this term "pre-Vatican II"? I was unaware the Church had experienced a rupture in its development and discarded the past, having always thought it was a continuum and a divine and sublime recapitulation. No, I was haughtily informed, "We don't do all that 'stuff' here."

The schools were too busy stressing social justice in isolation from everything else. They seemed to forget that immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan is the other side of the coin, the story of the contemplative, doctrinal disciple Mary sitting at Jesus' feet. At least Luke knew what the Church is on about.

Anti-Christian violence

Here, to quote a newspaper recently, "Islamic fundamentalists in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, are attacking Protestants and Catholics with impunity, the head of Indonesia's bishops said on Tuesday during a visit to the Vatican.

"Muslim fanatics are staging violence and denying basic religious freedom and stopped the construction of places of worship and the practice of Christianity," Bishop Martinus Situmorang told the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano.

"Alas, these incidents are being tolerated or authorities are turning a blind eye without taking any legal action because in their eyes it is less serious though they were accompanied by violence," he said.

It's not easy or safe to be a Catholic in Indonesia. You are, ipso facto, a second class citizen with no guarantee of religious freedom and protection under the law even though it is guaranteed under the Constitution.

But there is something different about being a Catholic in Indonesia as opposed to being a Catholic in Australia.

What is it? I think the answer to that is obvious.

Phillip Turnbull is a Catholic layman who taught religious education in Australia and is presently teaching in Java.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.