Java: narrating the Gospel through Javanese shadow puppet theatre
by Mathias Hariyadi
This is the mission of Fr Augustine Handi Setyanto Pr, a priest of the Diocese of Purwokerto. First started in his parish, on the advice of the bishop he has brought it to more remote areas. He narrates episodes from the Old and New Testaments, accompanied by music by of ethnic Chinese artists "non-Catholics, but enthusiastic about initiative.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Spreading the Word of God in the Diocese of Purwokerto - city of the province of Java – by staging performances of Javanese shadow theatre, with the help of a group of musicians of ethnic Chinese origin, who despite being non-Catholics, have enthusiastically undertaken the initiative. It is the mission of proclaiming the Gospel chosen by Fr Augustine Handi Setyanto Pr, who tells AsiaNews that the experience started in the parish of the Sacred Heart in Kroy, a district of Cilacap (Central Java), and has since been extended to remote areas on the recommendation of the Bishop.

Throughout the island of Java, which includes the provinces of West, Central and East Java, the puppet theatre is very popular and appreciated. Better known as "Wayang Kulit", it takes place in the open air, can last up to eight hours and is followed by hundreds if not thousands of spectators sitting on old newspapers.  The priest has developed his art, in a series of shows focused on the theme of salvation and New Testament.

Fr. Augustine, a 29 year-old native of Cilacap in Central Java, describes being born into a family with a deep love for Javanese shadow theatre, so much so that his sister married a puppet maker. For two years he turned this passion into a means to accomplish the work of proclaiming the Gospel, at first among the faithful of the parish of the Sacred Heart and then, at the invitation of Mgr. Julianus Sunarka SJ - Bishop of Purwokerto - even in remote areas of the diocese.

Fr. Augustine, ordained in July 2008, explains during his seminary formation, he had wanted to "learn western music”, which he incorporated into his own knowledge of traditional Javanese music. "The first show on Revelation (Wayang Wahyu) was held in December 2009 - he says - and was a huge success with the public." The next event, he adds, is scheduled for May 28.

The puppet shows, hidden behind a curtain, are accompanied by music played by a band including: Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin, called "gamelan", who meet once a week for practise "with enthusiasm and dedication”.  They are from a wide range of professions - teachers, motorcyclists, food vendors - and 'none of them, in truth, is Catholic. " "I am delighted - said Fr Augustine - to accompany the stories of the Old and New Testament with traditional gamelan music. The show on 28 May focuses on the profession of faith of the Virgin Mary.

The first to use the Javanese shadow theatre to narrate episodes of the Gospel was brother Timotius Wignjosoebroto February 2, 1960 in Surakarta in Central Java. After him, the witness was taken up by Fr. Wijono Pr, who continued the art until the early 80s. Then the curtain fell. With the initiative of Fr. Augustine, after three decades, the public will now be able to admire these shows once again.