Religious extremism has been on the rise in Indonesia. Recently, Muslim hardliners have been staging massive protests in Jakarta demanding the arrest of the city’s governor, a Christian standing for re-election, for allegedly insulting the Koran. These protests can be viewed in part as a test of religious tolerance for Indonesia, a land of diverse cultures and religious plurality. In this context, dialogue is all the more important, and here Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno, an 80-year old Jesuit missionary, excels.
Fr Magnis-Suseno was recently bestowed the 2016 Matteo Ricci International Award by the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. The Award – named after Matteo Ricci, the renowned Italian Jesuit missionary in China – is given to “an extraordinary Catholic misionary and scientist and an exemplary torchbearer of the ideals of brotherhood between peoples”.
In conferring the award, the body noted that, “Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno SJ has made fundamental contributions to interreligious dialogue, both in the scientific and academic fields and in public debate; a tireless advocate of respect and tolerance between the many religious faiths of Indonesia.”
His prominence in interreligious dialogue is helped by his stature as a public intellectual in Indonesia. He is a philosopher by training, initially specialising in the thought of Karl Marx and ethics, expanding his subjects from political philosophy, Javanese culture and philosophy of God to his sustained interest in theology.
Born in Germany in 1936, Fr Magnis-Suseno arrived in Indonesia as a Jesuit scholastic in 1961, was ordained in 1964 and naturalised as an Indonesian citizen in 1977. “I always wanted to be a missionary, to live and die there, thus I became an Indonesian,” he once said.
In 1969, Fr Magnis-Suseno co-founded the Jakarta-based Driyarkara School of Philosophy which is now a highly respected centre of excellence. He has helped shape the philosophical minds of a whole generation of Jesuits in Indonesia, not to mention the many academics and leaders from other religious backgrounds.
On November 21, despite the rain and cold, Aula Pio XI inside the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore campus was warm and filled with people when Fr Magnis-Suseno received the award. His address Lectio Cathedrae Magistralis, “Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Muslim Society: A Learning Process started on an autobiographical note, building up reflections by zooming in on the way Matteo Ricci understood the ancient wisdom of Confucius, then moving to the history of the Catholic Church in Java from a cultural and theological perspective before arriving at interreligious dialogue in a country with a majority Muslim population, the state of Indonesia’s problems, human rights and how to live missio today.
Aware of the grave tensions in today’s Islamic world, he quoted Fr Adolfo Nicolás, the former Jesuit Superior General: “For our mission we need a language of wisdom which springs from an open, not yet finished thinking, and the language of a faith that is able to detect the Lord where He can be found, not where we usually look for Him.”
For those who dwell in comfort zones, this can be frightening. Given the challenge, Fr Magnis-Suseno closed the lectio, echoing the “audacity-for-the-impossible” message from Jesuit General Congregation 36 concluded in Rome a week earlier: “In spite of all adversity, we know we are sent by Him who told us: Be not afraid!”