Interview with Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta

Openness and tolerance

 Openness and tolerance  ING-016
19 April 2024

This September, marking his 45th Apostolic Journey abroad, Pope Francis will set off on a whirlwind four-nation journey across Asia and Oceania.

Pope Francis will first visit Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, where Catholics number over 8 million, or 3.1 percent of the population, staying in its capital of Indonesia from 3-6 September, before continuing to Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Singapore, in what will become the longest journey of the Holy Father’s pontificate.

For the occasion, Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo of Jakarta, Indonesia, granted Vatican News the following wide-ranging interview. Here is a transcript of the conversation:

Cardinal Suharyo, how do you welcome the upcoming Apostolic Visit of Pope Francis?

Very enthusiastically. But not only is the Catholic community very enthusiastic to receive the news that Pope Francis is visiting Indonesia, but the Great Imam of the State Mosque Istiqlal was among those who first announced the coming visit of Pope Francis, some weeks before the Vatican’s formal announcement.

Relations between the Vatican and Indonesia have a long history. The Vatican is one among five countries which recognized the Proclamation of Independence of Indonesia. In 1947, there was already an Apostolic Delegate, which is now embassy, in Jakarta.

I tell the Catholic community that the physical presence of Pope Francis is very important, while telling them not to forget to always try to deepen our knowledge of his teachings, given to us through different Encyclical Letters and Apostolic Exhortations, such as Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti, etc.

The Catholic community makes up about 3 percent of the population of Indonesia, the Asian country with the largest number of Muslim believers in the world. Can you tell us more about your small flock, this Catholic community, which now will be welcoming Pope Francis? In the day-to-day, what is it like to be a Catholic in the country?

Indonesia is a very large country, consisting of many islands, almost 17,000 of them, and many tribes, as there are more than 1,300 ethnic groups, with so many cultures and religions. It’s true, Indonesia is the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world. But Islam in Indonesia is not the same as Islam in various other countries. In Indonesia, there are the two largest Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, both of which are very open and tolerant. This is what determines life together as citizens. I myself have very good relations with religious leaders at the central and regional levels.

Basically, there is freedom of religion in Indonesia, but the reality, in the field, varies from place to place. At this time, the State seems very serious about maintaining religious freedom. So in our daily lives, we live as ordinary citizens. We are able to work in various institutions, including government institutions. On Sundays, people go to church. Some have to travel long distances to get to the place of worship. In general, we can live in peace with our neighbors. It is also true that not a few Catholics have become leaders of plural society, working in State institutions in high positions.

In general, Catholics in Indonesia live normally as members of society. Living together as fellow citizens, even though they have different religions, is something very ordinary. In fact, there are quite a few families whose members consist of adherents of different religions. This might not be imaginable in other countries. There are also quite a few priests and religious who come from Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist families. Many religious communities live, in their convents, in the midst of people’s houses.

There are many wars crippling the world, but Indonesia seems to be a model of peaceful coexistence, especially among religions. What is the secret to this? Are there also areas needed for improvement?

One of the main reasons is the history of the formation of the Indonesian State. Before Indonesia existed, this region was colonized by foreign countries for more than 350 years. There are three milestones in the history of the formation of Indonesia. First, in May 1908, national awareness began to grow. It was called National Awakening Day. This awareness culminated in October 1928 in an event called the Youth Pledge. In this event, the first session among three was held in the complex of the Cathedral compound, youth organizations with regional backgrounds declared that they were “one homeland, one nation and one language,” which is Indonesia. The term Indonesia began to be used. This movement culminated in the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence on 17 August 1945.

Indonesian independence was not a gift from the colonialists, but the result of a long struggle involving all components of the nation, involving all ethnic groups and all religious adherents. The next day Pancasila [the official, foundational philosophical theory of Indonesia] was established as the basis of the State. Thus, Indonesia is not a religious State, but the unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. This history of struggle involving all citizens and Pancasila as the basis of the country is what makes the unity of Indonesian citizens strong.

How so?

Pancasila consists of five fundamental principles which serve as the foundation of the Indonesian Constitution. The first is ‘belief in the one and only God.’ The second is ‘just and civilized humanity.’ The third is ‘unity of Indonesia.’ The fourth is ‘democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberation amongst representatives,’ and the fifth is ‘social justice for the whole people of Indonesia.’

The history of the Indonesian people in the Catholic Church is expressed in the Preface to The Eucharistic Prayer, which is named Preface for the Country, as being parallel to the liberation of the Old Testament people of God from Egypt to the promised land. Just as the exodus journey is not free from challenges, the Indonesian nation’s journey towards the ideals of independence is never free from challenges. Some of the greatest ones have to do with an unequal distribution of prosperity, both in Java and outside Java; transnational Islamic influence, groups that still want to establish an Islamic State; economic inequality; and the political system, especially an unfavorable economy toward the weak.

The Pope has called for a Year of Prayer. How do you personally welcome this initiative, and how do you suggest your people do the same?

Of course, we really appreciate the various movements offered by Pope Francis, and coming from the Vatican, and Church, in general. The challenge is to synchronize it with our other pastoral theme. Nationally, the Indonesian Catholic Bishops’ Conference each year offers a national pastoral theme. Then each Diocese, inspired by the national pastoral theme, chooses a pastoral focus adapted to the context of each diocese, usually lasting one year. Even without a Year of Prayer, the Catholic community in Indonesia prays diligently.

Could you elaborate on this?

There are prayer meetings during Advent, Lent, Holy Bible Month, Liturgical Month, prayer in the basic communities, pilgrimages and many other initiatives in the context of prayer.

Catechesis regarding prayer is of course always important. What is best known to lay people, in general, is the supplication prayer. However, there are other types of prayer. Not a few lay people pray the Liturgy of the Hours because there is a religious congregation, the Dominicans, which provides the materials. Praying the Rosary in the basic community is a widespread habit. At the time of death and commemorations for the departed, not only on November 2, but according to our culture, there are commemorations after 40 days, 100 days, one year, two years, and 1,000 days; the congregation gathers for the Eucharistic Celebration and prayer.

The Pope had directed the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to publish the recently-issued “Dignitas Infinita,” a text which reaffirms the Church’s conviction that each and every person has inalienable intrinsic human dignity, and also raises awareness of several grave violations of this dignity, listing and reflecting on each. What value do you see of this document, and are there certain aspects that you see to be particularly relevant to your context in Indonesia, or in Asia in general?

It is an excellent document and very important for pastoral guidance. The second principle in Pancasila also emphasizes respect for human dignity. Often the reality unfortunately is very far from the principles presented in the document, due to political, economic, and perhaps also socio-cultural systems that do not respect human rights. Everything that is said, including issues of violations of human dignity, is also very relevant for Indonesia in particular, and Asia, in general.

Your Eminence, from your experience and from your reality, what can you tell us about the witness of Christians in Asia?

As you surely know, Asia is a very large continent with different histories, cultures and political systems. I can only say about Indonesia, especially in the area of ​​the Archdiocese of Jakarta. The key words I would use to describe their witness, is that they ‘do good work.’

I remember a small experience about a Catholic teacher who was placed in a large rural area, and there was no one who was Catholic apart from him. He did not feel isolated, but continued to look for ways to do good. He taught a village where the population was illiterate. To reach the place, he had to walk on foot for three hours and back for another three hours. He did this twice a week. When I visited his family, he said to me: ‘Father, I did all this so that people here know that Catholics only want to do good.’

We see them doing good in various ways, through education, from primary to higher education, health services, social services such as credit unions, and working together with other community members. Said in another way, they ‘do good’ through the dialogue, if you will, they offer in their work and through their life.

Catholics around the world are in the midst of their Easter Season. Could you share with us how the Catholics of Indonesia are living this time, and what message you have for them?

Easter celebrations in Indonesia in general and in Jakarta in particular are very lively. Last Easter, there were four Masses at the Jakarta Cathedral church. It is estimated that around 10,000 people came to Mass. We worshiped calmly, because security was very good.

This year, the Archdiocese of Jakarta set the theme of solidarity and subsidiarity for the common good. This is the theme that was explored during Lent in the basic communities, and each community is concretely looking for, and pursuing, real forms of solidarity, especially through empowerment for small traders, helping children with school fees, and through various other movements.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov