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.
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
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
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.