Catholic Life in Asia

For the last year I have been living as a Claretian member in the independent delegation of Indonesia-Timor Leste.  This delegation (a delegation is a small province) is in two countries- Indonesia and Timor Leste.  The experience of Catholic life in these two countries is like the difference between night and day.  

In Timor Leste, which was colonized by the Portuguese, the Catholic church is practically the only church, (about 95% of the population.)  The positive side of this is that the people are united not only in their citizenship but also their faith.  Public expressions of the Catholic faith, from processions, to national holidays, are part of the fabric of life there.  On the negative side, when there is only one church available, faith is for many only a cultural expression where everyone knows the customs but many are not serious about the practice of their faith.  Often one can easily see superficial expressions of faith, a common occurrence where any one religion is the overwhelming majority, whether the religion is Catholicism or in the case of Indonesia, Islam.

Indonesia, was colonized by Dutch Protestants and though they were here 500 years, their Christian faith did not spread greatly.  Islam continues to be the major religion today with about 88% of the population claiming membership.  This means society moves to the Muslim beat from politics to education and overall cultural values.  Television shows certainly reflect this reality as well where it is normal to young women wearing the hijab on shows and in commercials or men wearing the songkok.

Christians make up 9% of the population and Catholics are about 3.5%.  Most Catholics are concentrated in just a few places, such as Flores/Timor where I am.  Hindus are about 2%  of the population(Bali is famous because 90% of that island is Hindu.)  Here nearly everyone is connected with a religion, as being atheist in the mid 1960’s meant you were communist,  thus a threat to the country, and for that reason, killed.

Being Catholic in Asia is a very different experience of being Catholic.  With the exception of the Philippines, Catholics are a very small portion of the population in all Asian countries. This means we do not have a significant voice as we do in other countries in politics and in society in general.  Without this voice, one lives in the world in a very different way. 

As a religious minority, you are constantly reminded your values are not everyone else’s values.  You are challenged by other value systems that are much older and well established than yours.  Morality and the understanding of the human person are very different in some of the eastern religions than in our western religion.  Also, the American idea of tolerance toward others is not enough.  One must be open to others’ traditions to live in harmony with others as harmony is a core value of the Asian cultures.  Without openness to others you soon find yourself and your community excluded from all levels of life.

To be Catholic in Asia is to be prepared for restrictions on your expression of faith and in some cases persecution.  Whereas this is not the case everywhere, we are aware that in many places the Church is not as free as it is in the West.  Churches in Vietnam may open but they may only do spiritual activities in the parish, there is no social outreach (a core Catholic value) permitted.  China does not allow religious orders to live together in community.  In the southern part of the Philippines, Catholics are regularly (at times monthly, at times weekly) attacked and killed by radical Muslim groups.  

The experience of being Catholic in Indonesia depends on where you live.  If you live in the NTT province (where I live) Catholics are over 50% of the population, and on the island of Flores, we are over 90% of the population.  Here we have autonomy and a good voice in the life of society. Outside of these areas, life can be very different. 

There are pockets of radical Muslims in Sumatra, that actively work to force Christians out.  Laws in many places make it difficult for religious orders to build houses or churches, even if there are Catholics there.   In some places, interreligious marriage is not permitted and converts to Christianity can be punished. 

Within this environment, Indonesia permits some religious practices we in the United States could never imagine.  For example, Even though the vast majority of the population is Muslim, 3 of the 6 national holidays are Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost).  Television, runs religious commercials on these days to wish the Christians/Catholics a blessed holiday.  We may get some holiday messages on Christmas and Easter in the US, but not on Pentecost.  To give us Pentecost as a national holiday shows a deep respect and understanding of our faith. 

Another surprise to me about Catholic life in Indonesia is that the public schools provide Catholics teachers for religious education in their faith.  The government pays for Catholic teachers to teach the Catholic faith to the Catholic students while the Muslim students are educated in their faith.  Public schools are permitted to have Catholic clubs as well, something impossible in the US, with the exception of state universities.  Finally, during the Lenten season our seminary gives days of reflection for groups of Catholic students from the local public schools.   I could not believe my ears when they said youth from the public school were going to have a retreat at our house.  I was equally surprised when political candidates came to our seminary to campaign.

Indonesia prides itself on being a moderate Muslim country.  It has worked hard to limit the effects of the more radical groups that are always trying to force themselves upon the larger society.  Certainly its Asian roots and the values of harmony are a significant factor.  Life is not always in harmony for Catholics here, but there is generally recognition for the work of Catholics who run many institutions (hospitals, schools) for the betterment of the country.   From this time, I have learned how important it is to not only respect others who are different to be in dialogue and in relation with them.  For me, openness is now a part of my mission.


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