Father John Mansford Prior, SVD (Photo supplied)
Father John Mansford Prior was born and educated in England, but he spent most of his life in Indonesia as a leading academic, theologian and socialist, promoting interfaith dialogue and Bible studies among a host of remarkable feats.
The missionary from the Society of Divine Word (SVD) lived and worked in Flores Island in eastern Indonesia since his arrival in the country in 1973. His nearly five decades in the country provided him the opportunity for an intimate understanding of the diverse nation. During his time, he shared many concerns of the people, especially when their faiths are politicized for power interests.
Christianity is a minority religion in Muslim-majority Indonesia. However, it is a majority faith in some pockets, such as Flores Island, where about 90 percent of an estimated two million people are Catholics. This makes the island the most Catholic region in this archipelago nation.
Such a scenario shows why Indonesia is one of the most inspiring nations for interfaith dialogue, especially between Muslims and Christians. Dialogue is a key, like a bridge that connects differences.
Born in Ipswich, England in 1946, John studied Philosophy and Sociology at Donamon Castle, Ireland (1965-1968), and Theology and Social Anthropology at the Missionary Institute London, England (1968-1972). He was ordained a priest in 1972.
After his arrival in Flores, he founded and led several parishes in Maumere diocese. He taught missiology at St. Paul Institute of Philosophy at Ledalero in Flores for decades.
He obtained a doctoral degree in Intercultural Theology from the University of Birmingham in 1987.
Dr. Prior was a board member of the Amsterdam-based Intercultural Bible Collective, a former consultor of the Pontifical Council for Culture (1993-2008) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).
Apart from these engagements, the priest went to Melbourne once a year from the 1990s, to teach Theology at Yarra Theological Union (YTU). In his lectures he always placed great emphasis on interfaith dialogue, realizing just how important it is in everyday life.
On Oct. 25, 2008, the priest conducted a seminar at Janssen Spirituality Center, Boronia, Victoria, Australia, with the theme “Understanding Islam Today: faces and feelings behind the headlines.” It was a day to listen to the hopes and fears of Muslims in Indonesia and Australia as they struggled to live their faith in a world that was increasingly becoming less friendly. People of different backgrounds attended the one-day seminar conducted in an inclusive, engaging, and interactive manner.
The warm and friendly atmosphere allowed participants to exchange their insights and experiences. Each participant was asked to briefly say a word, positive or negative, that immediately came to mind when hearing the words “Muslim” or “Islam”, “Christian” or “Christianity”. The key to understanding others is to place oneself on the side of the other to try to grasp some inside knowledge of the other.
As Christians, it is crucial to understand and respect the hopes and fears of Muslims as a way to better understand our own hopes and fears. Indeed, the hopes and fears of Muslims, regardless of what they might be, may not be exclusive to Muslim ideals. Living in the era of globalization, where global interactions have become inevitable, it is almost impossible to imagine anything at all that belongs exclusively to one particular faith. Hopes and fears are shared. This commonality, despite the differences in doctrine, should provide a foundation for interfaith dialogue.
Together Muslims and Christians make up over half of the world’s population. This provides a sufficient ground for constant dialogue between Muslims and Christians. This interfaith dialogue should not just be promoted in countries with a Muslim majority like Indonesia, Brunei, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Central Asian Republics, but more so globally.
Father Prior recalled that in his early years in Flores he had close connections with the local mosque and Imams. At times he was invited to give workshops for the local Muslims.
He later lamented that today such intimate connections are regrettably hard to establish as a result of the politicization of almost every single dimension of the relations between Muslims and Christians.
When people are economically vulnerable, they can become soft targets for political manipulation. Their faiths are easily used as political tools for certain agendas. Examples are numerous to find not just in Indonesia, but also elsewhere in the world.
Father Prior was well aware of the political power play in Indonesia that pits one faith against the other. For example, during the 2008 seminar, he pointed out that Christians tend to feel uneasy with a political system controlled by a majority of Muslims. Christians, on the other hand, are generally in a stronger economic position, causing Muslims to feel negative about Christians’ economic domination. Unsurprisingly, these political and economic factors lead to inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts.
Generally, the tensions between the different forces can be managed and both sides can live in harmony with each other through dialogue, the priest believed. Dialogue requires understanding and respect for each other despite differences.
Such seminars are indeed eye-openers for participants, providing practical knowledge about various dimensions of Islam and Christianity, and emphasizing the ongoing importance of interfaith dialogue.
In fact, our common humanity should provide the basis for a meaningful interfaith dialogue. All religious communities should feel a sense of belonging to a common religion of humanity.
Dialogue and peace have been mission priorities of Father Prior throughout his life as he proved through his words, writings, and actions. The tireless missionary authored numerous books, some 145 articles in journals and presented papers in about 165 seminars and conferences.
Father John Prior passed away on July 2, 2022, at the age of 76, in Ledalero, Flores, the place where he had been teaching since 1987.
His death is an irreparable loss for theology and sociology in the region. But his great contributions as a missionary priest and erudite scholar leave a golden legacy.
His sense of simplicity and commitment has touched many and they will remember him forever.
Dr. Justin L. Wejak is a lecturer of Indonesian Studies and Associate Researcher at Asia Institute and Indigenous Knowledge Institute, The University of Melbourne