While 85% of Indonesia's inhabitants are Muslims, Catholics represent 70% of the population on the island of Flores.
The island of Flores is an anomaly in the religious map of Indonesia.
While 85% of the archipelago’s inhabitants are Muslims, Catholics are in the majority on Flores, where they represent 70% of the population. They’ve developed their own forms of popular piety, such as their Holy Week celebrations, which include an impressive procession of statues of Tuan Ma (Mother Mary) and Tuan Ana (Jesus Christ) that culminates on Good Friday.
This custom dates back half a millennium. According to tradition, a man met a woman who was looking for snails on the beach. The man’s name was Resiona. When Resiona asked the woman her name and where she was from, she simply wrote three words on the sand that read: Reinha, Rosario, Maria (“Queen, Rosary, Mary”). Instantly, the woman was transformed into a wooden statue. It is this same statue that is traditionally said to be carried even today among the people dressed in black as a sign of mourning for Good Friday.
“Our young Church is a missionary Church. We’re sending 500 priests and religious missionaries around the world,” says Bishop Ewaldus Martinus Sedu, the bishop of Maumere, a small diocese on the central island of Flores, Indonesia.
The recipe for such success?
Quite simply the “family soil,” according to this bishop. Catholic families in Flores, by receiving the sacraments and practicing charity, provide “an environment where the seeds of God can be sown,” the bishop explains.
In particular, the Verbite Missionaries’ seminary, which trains 1,200 seminarians, is the largest in the world, according to the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS). The five dioceses that make up the island have 847 priests and 646 indigenous seminarians, according to gcatholic.org.
A priest’s testimony
Fr. Patrick Suryadi, ordained on October 4, 2017, was born into this fervent atmosphere. He rejoices in the role of educator and peacemaker that the Church plays in his homeland.
On the island, there are six very diverse ethnic groups with different ways of life and languages, each of whom mostly lives in isolation. The priest is happy to see the efforts made in the seminary so that the various ethnic groups get to know each other. During his training, he was taught to respect this diversity, which the people of Flores themselves often misunderstand because of the divisions between ethnic groups.
The main challenge he faces as a priest is the poverty of his parishioners, as the island of Flores is one of the poorest in the archipelago. The islanders work mainly in agriculture. However, the priest has noticed a change in the mentality of his compatriots, who are increasingly interested in the quality of their children’s education. “They’re beginning to realize that the slogan ‘dempul wuku tela toni’ (‘working the land until you break your nails and have your back burned by the sun,’ editor’s note) is not a guarantee for a prosperous life, but rather intelligent, effective, and efficient work, and this can only be done through education.”
Being a priest means being a servant
The Church also plays a great role in education. Indonesian children now all have access to school, but the level of education at public schools is not good. Therefore, the presence of Catholic schools and, since 2019, of a Catholic university, is improving access to quality education. Considering the social role it plays, it’s not surprising that the Church enjoys a good reputation among the population, but this prestige has a downside, warns Fr. Suryadi.
“The people of Flores see the priest as a representative of Christ and a holy person. That’s why the social status of priests in Flores is considered superior,” he says. That status could lead to young men pursuing a priestly vocation for the wrong reasons. On the contrary, “being a priest means being a servant,” recalls Father Patrick Suryadi, who relies on seminary training to, in his words, “confirm vocations.”