Priest From Muslim Family
FATHER ROBERTUS SARWISESO, an Indonesian priest from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM), will begin his assignment at the Church of Christ the King in Ang Mo Kio February 18, 2005. He was sent to Singapore last November by his superiors to minister to the Indonesian-speaking migrant community but has been reassigned to a parish because of the greater need there. “I am happy to help out wherever help is needed,” he said.
The early years
Robertus was born into a poor Muslim family in Magelang, Java, in 1956, and educated in Catholic schools. The seed of his faith began as early as his kindergarten days.
“Although I grew up in a Muslim ambience, I found the joy and peace that a child needed at that Catholic school,” he says.
In 1967, at the age of 11, Robertus, who had been attending catechism classes, wanted to be baptized. However the reaction of his family discouraged him. They threatened and warned him, “If you become a Christian, you will be a pig in our eyes, you’ll be crucified!”
He was shunned by his relatives and his friends ridiculed him. However he remained determined to be a Catholic and five years later, at 16, he was baptised. He received no support from his family. A Catholic friend lent him the white clothes required for the ceremony.
The words of the priest who baptised him have stayed with him until today. “He said to me ‘You have received the Bread of Life, now you have the responsibility to multiply this Bread of Life.’”
After his baptism, Robertus stopped staying at the family home although he still visited during the day.
“They stopped giving me meals, only sometimes my aunt would give me lunch,” he explains. “I received a cold treatment and the division was evident. I was treated very differently from my siblings.”
After school, he worked as an assistant at a tailor’s shop. From the money he earned, he was able to pay for school tuition and his meals. Since he participated in the activities of the parish as an altar boy and a choir member, he sometimes ate dinner at the church with the sacristan. At night he would sleep either at the tailor’s or with a Catholic neighbour. He lived that way for three years.
When he graduated from senior high school in 1977, Robertus worked as an administrator for the school and slept there at night. A year later the principal recommended him to work at a Catholic hospital. During the six years that he was a member of the hospital administrative staff, he slept in the dormitory for nurses.
Occasionally he would return home to visit his family. While working at the hospital Robertus met a close friend, a former altar boy, who was studying theology. The encounter sparked off a vocation call for Robertus.
“I felt a call growing and so in 1984, 12 years after my baptism, I entered the CICM, a congregation I got to know from a weekly Catholic magazine.”
The Pre-Novitiate of the CICM was on another island so Robertus went home to inform his family. By this time, his parents were more receptive, and his mother even offered to give him money. “After formation, my family was already open, and accepted me back as their son,” he shares. But to this day he remains the only Catholic in the family.
Asked about the challenges of being a Catholic in a Muslim world, he states, “In Indonesia, Muslims are considered as first class citizens, the other religions are all below them – this may be a conscious or unconscious thing for the people.”
“In my mind I wanted to prove that as a Christian I could also do what they do, such as going for a pilgrimage. I also wanted to prove that even if my family is still Muslim, I can maintain peace, stay within my family and yet stand up for my own faith.”
He feels that the Muslims in Indonesia are still very suspicious of Christians. “They are afraid that Christians will convert them. It’s all part of the way they have been educated and trained. The Imam (Muslim leader) would brainwash them from a young age that the Christians are like this or like that.”
“My own nieces and nephews, children of my brother, would just hide or run away whenever I pay them a visit,” he added.
Mission in the Amazon jungles
As part of his missionary training, Father Robertus spent more than eight years (1990-1999) in Brazil ministering to migrant communities working the land in the Amazon jungle. He was assigned in the diocese of Maraba, more than 2000km away from Rio de Janeiro. Mission work involved visiting and staying with these farming communities, conducting catechism classes, and administering the sacraments.
Life in these communities was very basic. “We had no electricity and no running water,” Father Robertus elaborates. “If the well was dry, we would go and fetch water from the river and we would sleep in hammocks.”
There were 52 such communities in the diocese, each community comprising of 20 to 40 families but there were only two priests. “We couldn’t visit them as often as we liked so our target was to visit each community three times a year.”
Mission work in Brazil taught Father Robertus to live as the people did and to appreciate the simple lifestyle. “Over there we had no inhibitions; we would take our baths together in the river and there was no distinction between being a priest and being one of them. ”
He was ordained a priest in 1993. In 1999, he returned to Indonesia where he served until 2003. He then spent his sabbatical year in Rome, participating in a Midlife Renewal Course and, in mid-2004, he was told of his Singapore assignment.
Although he has been in Singapore for barely three months, Father Robertus already has formed some impressions.
“Singapore is very different from my past assignments,” he says. “It’s very organised here but there are also many temptations. The lifestyle here can make one easily spoilt. For example, kind parishioners would invite me to eat out, but I already have food prepared for me so I have to tell the truth and say ‘no’, maybe next time. Also people offer me lifts but I prefer to take the public transport and not trouble them.”
To resist temptations and maintain a simple lifestyle as a priest, Father Robertus says he needs a strong will. As for young men who aspire to mission work or the priesthood, he repeats the words he himself heard at his baptism, “You have received the Bread of Life; now you have the responsibility to multiply this Bread of Life.”