Indonesia honours Fr van Lith, first missionary in Java
The Dutch priest (1863-1926) proclaimed first Christianity on the island, where he aligned the Catholic faith with indigenous religions. A great educator, he set up a number of schools from which some prominent Indonesians graduated, like Mgr Soegijapranata SJ, the country’s first native bishop. He is also remembered for baptising 171 indigenous people on 14 December 1904.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) - The Indonesian Ministry of Education has decided to recognise officially the great contribution to the nation of Dutch missionary Fr Franciscus Georgius Josephus van Lith SJ (1863 - 1926), a great educator and the first to proclaim the Gospel to the natives of Java. Fr Gregorius Budi Subanar, a professor at the Jesuit University of Yogyakarta, was called to Jakarta to receive the award.
Fr van Lith is known for his missionary and educational work in Central Java province. The main feature of this was aligning Catholic teachings to the traditional religiosity of the Javanese people, called Kejawen. His was the idea of entrusting the spread of the faith and the work of evangelisation in the hands of "indigenous natives".
In order to improve the study and proclamation of the Gospel, the Jesuit set up the first Catholic school in Muntilan (Central Java), where young people from every religious, cultural and ethnic background could receive an education. This type of proposal was new in the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was known during the colonial era.
The facility was an immediate success and trained many prominent Indonesians in the 20th century, including Mgr Albertus Soegijapranata SJ, Indonesia’s first native bishop; IJ Kasimo, founder of the Catholic Party and member of the government under Sukarno, the first president and founding father of the modern state.
Fr van Lith’s work did not stop at the Institute in Muntilan. In the small village of Semampir, the Jesuit built a school and a church. Afterwards he expanded the institute by setting up a ‘Normaal School’ in 1890, a ‘Kweek School (to train teachers) in 1904, and an institute for school principals in 1906. The teacher school immediately received 107 applicants, 32 of whom were non-Catholics.
The figure of the Jesuit missionary is also linked to an event that is still remembered by the local Church. On 14 December 1904, the priest baptised 171 natives in Java Sendang Sono (Kulong Progo regency).
Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Subanar SJ stressed the importance of the figure of Fr van Lith for the Indonesian Church.
"Thanks to the work of this Dutch missionary dozens of prominent national figures emerged, including Commodore Josaphat Sudarso (who later died fighting the Dutch for independence) and many others not yet publicly recognised."
Thanks to the works established by the clergyman in Muntilan, "a great bond between Catholicism and nationalism developed across the country", Fr Subanar said, which helped spread the faith in the whole nation.”
John Paul II quoted Fr van Lith during his visit to Indonesia on 10 October 1989. When one thinks about the beginning of Christianity in Java, “One thinks of Father van Lith,” the pontiff said.