Cultures et foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y fe - 4/1995 - Plenaria 1997
The Holy See
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John Mansford PRIOR, SVD
Asia-Pacific Secretary for Missiological Education and Research
Seminari St. Paulus, Ledalero
Maumere 86152, INDONESIA

1. What vision of humanity?

On the islands of eastern Indonesia the models and visions of humanity that strongly influence people and society come from three divergent sources: traditional culture, modern society and national government. A collective or corporate model comes fron the local, primal, agrarian cultures with the concomitant values of co-operation and conformity to custom and inherited norms. Formerly, a single integrated society worked at all levels simltaneously. There were no separate terms or concepts for "economic", "social", "political", "cultural" and "religious" spheres of life.

Over the past two generations the market economy and rapid social-economic change has brought about differentiation and fragmentation. A strongly materialist-consumerist model of humanity has been born out of the encounter between local agrarian cultures and a wider, market economy. The traditional values of cooperation and togetherness are having to give way to the values of competition, individual worth and decision making. Inherited communal values such as status and fecundity which used to be expressed in a large family, a good harvest and a good name, are now being expressed in unbridled acquisition. Our societies seem to be going through an anormative, ethics-free phase where no common norms are in force for the whole of society. There is wide disparity in wealth, and thus economic interests are group-based rather than society-based. Economic groups are easily identified with particular ethnic and religious groups. Values are thus group-based and expressed in ethnic and religious terms. For instance: Catholic Flores, Protestant Sumba, Muslim Sumbawa; also Muslim fishermen, Chinese traders, Christian farmers and shephers. Political and cultural power resides in Jawa, one thousand five hundred kilometres away in a very centralised state.

Indonesia has a strong, authoritarian government which through schooling and the media indoctrinates its own model and vision of humanity based on the national ideology of Pancasila. This is an overarching model which is national rather than local. In seeking what is in common it concentrates on the values of national and international cooperation. Given the rate of change and the ethnic and religious diversity of Indonesia, its emphasis is on conformity.

In the past the Church accepted the collective model of agrarian humanity in eastern Indonesia and became part of local culture. While the Church was the harbinger of modernization through its schools, clinics and trade centres, it put down strong popular roots. The Church is now finding it difficult to come to terms with the values of personal initiative and individual freedom which have arisen in the younger generation.

2. What culture?

The structures, rituals and traditional leadership of the myriad local cultures now have very limited influence. Modernisation has brought about a situation where most people have no decisive say in their lives - all important economic, social, political and cultural decisions are taken by powerful outsiders. Thus local culture has become a silenced culture, a culture of the silenced, of "little people", of the powerless. In this situation, the Church has become the last cultural space where the people feel accepted, at home, with a name, with dignity, with a voice that is listened to. In this way, the Church has become a "counter-culture" - the one way the people can express their dignity and worth.

This is both positive and negative. Positive, in that the Church is the cultural home for the people whose traditional home is being blown about, "like a reed in the wind"; negative, in that the institutional Church is becoming ethnic. In taking over the cultural role of the tribe and giving cultural identity and communal respect to the people, the Church is becoming culturally tribal. If economic and political tensions increase, then we could well face inter-religious problems where Catholics and Protestants and Muslims would face each other as enemies. Religious allegiance runs largely on ethnic lines (a result of Dutch colonial policy).

To this I should add another element, the lack of common norms. Clerics, with a guaranteed lifestyle, are also slipping into an easy-going, even amoral life style similar to that of the economic and political élite.

Perhaps the biggest cultural challenge to the Church in Indonesia, is that it is in real danger of becoming a ghetto. This is due to external reasons: the rise of Islam as a political force is pushing Christians out of public life; but also because of internal reasons: Christians are busy looking after themselves. In the past, from the time of the independence struggle (until 1949) and for much of the past 50 years of political independence, the Church, in its laity and hierarchy, has played a vital part in national life. As a small minority of, say, 4%, the Catholic Church (9% with other Churches) has had a good influence through its schools, hospitals, social work and journalists. Now the Church is being removed from these spheres of influence, and is becoming preoccupied with internal matters. This trend, together with the comfortable life style of the clergy, is bringing the Church to an important, indeed decisive cross roads.

3. What pastoral approach to culture?

We have to start where the people are with their problems. Thus our approach should be to accompany the people as they face the difficult problems thrown up by rapid economic and cultural change. We can do this by means of on-going social and cultural analysis. In this way the people's felt needs are placed into a wider cultural context, and we become aware of underlying causes. In such analysis we can identify core values from the traditional cultures as well as important values from the modernization and globalization processes. This entails the producing of cultural analysis kits and training people to use them. The results of such awareness-building are then brought into contact with Christian values in Bible Sharing. In my experience cultural analysis and Bible sharing work with a similar, participative methodology, does not demand much formal education, but does demand creative and understanding facilitators.

Many have been involved in such approaches over the past twenty years. This has involved a shift from a preoccupation with large scale parochial administration to facilitating at small group level. In a period of profound cultural change, where it is difficult to find common norms and values, the small group, in constant dialogue with other such groups, becomes the basic unit for a new evangelisation.

To avoid inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife, our approach has to be clearly and courageously ecumenical: working with fellow Christians from other Churches wherever possible, and with Muslims on social and cultural projects. With Reformation Christians we need to re-root our Christian faith in common symbols from The Bible and Tradition in order that separate symbols like the Rosary do not remain divisive. With Muslims we need to become aware that the root problems are economic and political, while ethnic and religious tensions are the result of inequality and an inappropriate model of economic development. Thus the justice and peace apostolate is at the spearhead of our pastoral approach to culture. People are having to face justice and peace issues thrown up by rapid change; the values of justice and peace unite all ethnic and religious groups; justice and peace at the forefront of our pastoral initiatives will prevent the Church from becoming a ghetto; and facing up ?to justice and peace issues is the way of holding on to core values of local cultures, key values of modern society and uniting them with the central theme of creation and redemption in The Bible.

Much routine, administrative work in the Parishes must be handed over to lay people in order that the priest is free for the new evangelization. For that to happen we need to renew seminary training. While our major seminaries are full in numbers, the quality is going down, and it is difficult to train a creative, ordained leadership, able to take prophetic initiatives in line with the problems above. The crux is seminary training and on-going formation of the clergy. The success of seminary and clergy renewal will decide whether the Catholic Church in Indonesia retreats to a cultural ghetto or continues to exercise a public role in forming personal and communal values in society.


John Mansford Prior montre que les valeurs traditionnelles d'Indonésie (cohésion et coopération) sont éliminées par l'évolution socio-économique rapide qui débouche sur une société sans éthique. La politique d'un gouvernement autoritaire, jointe à la modernisation, rend muettes les cultures locales et réduit le peuple à l'impuissance. Dans une telle situation, seule l'Eglise rencontre un bon accueil. Mais il est important que cette même Église se positionne clairement face à l'état et aux diverses religions.


John Mansford Prior opina que los valores tradicionales de Indonesia —cohesión y cooperación— están siendo desbancados por una rápida evolución socioeconómica que ha desembocado en una sociedad sin valores éticos. El gobierno autoritario ha promovido un proceso de modernización que ha silenciado a las culturas locales y ha reducido el pueblo a la impotencia. En esta situación, la voz solitaria de la Iglesia encuentra una buena acogida, pero es importante que la misma Iglesia decida el rumbo a tomar con relación a la vida del estado y a las diversas religiones.