Southeast Asian national narratives — the stories of the struggle for independence and the challenge of nation-building thereafter — tend to focus on how the majority communities and their leaders have coped with these transitions.
As such, figures from these communities tend to dominate their histories. In Thailand, the heroes are generally Buddhist (and royal); in Malaysia, they’re Malay-Muslim and in the Philippines they’re Catholic.
Indonesia bucks the trend: their exemplars come from all hues and creeds. In Garin Nugroho’s film “Soegija,” we’re presented with a quintessentially Javanese figure, a Solo-born Roman Catholic priest who earned the respect and friendship of senior Republican figures while ensuring that his “flock” was enveloped into the very core of the national narrative.
Born to a Muslim family in 1896 and initially named Soegija he later added “Albertus” and “pranata” (i.e. “prayer” or “hope”) after his baptism and ordination respectively, becoming Albertus Soegijapranata.
According to novelist Ayu Utami’s biography, Soegija converted to Catholicism when he was 14 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1931. He rose meteorically up the church hierarchy to become apostolic vicar of Semarang and later its archbishop — the first indigenous Indonesian to hold such exalted positions.
Soegija won wide respect for his courage during World War II, working to protect the church from Japanese persecution. Prescient and bold, he also chose to side with the Republicans during the Indonesian revolution, winning the enduring trust and friendship of President Sukarno, among others.
Soegija also championed the use of Bahasa Indonesia in local services. He witnessed the election of Pope Paul VI and participated in the Second Vatican Council, which heralded unprecedented changes in the church. The years of tireless work caught up with him and he passed away in the Netherlands on July 22, 1963. His body was returned home where he was declared a national hero and buried in the republic’s pantheon at Giri Tunggal.
Soegija blended his Catholic faith with his Indonesian identity. Indeed, his credo, “100 percent Catholic, 100 percent Indonesian,” still resonates with Catholic Indonesians today. He saw no contradiction between his indigenous heritage and his faith: being equally comfortable playing the gamelan for Mass as he was reading St. Albertus Magnus (from whom he took his name).
While Catholics are clearly a minority in Indonesia (less than 3 percent of the population), they are woven into the fabric of national life. Figures such as the Wanandi brothers, Soe Hok Gie and his brother Arief Budiman, as well as military heroes like Agustinus Adisucipto and Slamet Riyadi highlight the breadth and depth of the community’s contributions.
Then there is Soegija’s own virtue. He, like St. Augustine, wept when he was elevated to the status of bishop, so humble and conscious was he of the burdens of high ecclesial office. But he also had a very Javanese sense of humor. As Utami relates, celebrating over a humble meal of soto later, he remarked that he was probably the first Catholic bishop to be eating such a meal.
He self-depreciatingly noted when he was given a gold cross by the royal family of Surakarta (they crossed religious lines to honor him) that he was now worth at least 15,000 guilders. In these days of ostentation and conspicuous consumption, Indonesian leaders could well learn from his humility.
The film’s appearance, 49 years after Soegija’s death, is a testament to his enduring legacy. It also serves as an important reminder, at a time when religious conflict simmers under the surface, that tolerance and pluralism need to be constantly worked at — generation after generation.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.