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Centuries-old Catholic festival becomes Indonesia's national icon

Efforts are needed to prevent negative impacts on the centuries-old Catholic festival

Centuries-old Catholic festival becomes Indonesia's national icon

Semana Santa procession, centuries-old Catholic festival centered in Larantuka city of East Flores district on the predominantly Catholic island of Flores. (Photo courtesy of  Eduard Antonio Diaz)


Maria Antoneta Date Atulolon, a 33-year-old Catholic laywoman living in West Lewoleba village of Lembata district, was excited after learning about the Indonesian government’s plan to make much of the Holy Week celebrations, locally known as Semana Santa, a national icon with a message of religious tolerance. 

Semana Santa is a centuries-old Catholic festival and centered in Larantuka city of East Flores district on Flores, a Catholic-majority island thanks to the Portuguese who occupied the island in the 17th century.

Semana Santa usually begins on the Wednesday of Holy Week when main roads in the city are closed to create a prayerful ambiance. It usually attracts thousands of pilgrims from different religious backgrounds from across the country as well as from abroad.

On Holy Thursday, pilgrims visit three different chapels where statues of Tuan Ma (Blessed Mother) and Tuan Meninu (baby Jesus) and Tuan Anna (Jesus as an adult) are placed. The celebration reaches its peak on Good Friday with a water procession when a statue of the baby Jesus is carried on a boat and taken to meet the statue of the Blessed Mother housed at another separate chapel.

“I come from East Flores district. I always return to my hometown every year only to join Semana Santa. This is a festival of faith during which I can take an active part in solemn prayer sessions. It makes me feel at peace,” Maria said.

A similar reaction came from Eduard Antonio Diaz, a 31-year-old Catholic layman from the city. He joined Semana Santa when he was just ten years old. 

“To me, Semana Santa is a unique devotion. This legacy of the Portuguese is the only one in the world. Semana Santa is also a very good medium for Catholics to deepen their faith,” he said. 

“I feel so happy to hear that the central government is planning to make Semana Santa a national icon.”

The Religious Affairs Ministry, through the Directorate-General for Catholic Community Guidance (Bimas Katolik), announced the plan last month. 

In a meeting with East Flores district head Antonius Hubertus Gege Hajon and Bishop Fransiskus Kopong Kung of Larantuka, Bimas Katolik chairman Yohanes Bayu Samodro said that Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas “has a special attention to the celebration and hopes it can be made a Catholic icon in both national and international levels.” According to him, Semana Santa has a strong collaboration with local culture.

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Hajon agreed. Saying that Semana Santa “has so far been an icon of East Flores district,” he acknowledged that the festival has enormous potential to develop. 

Preparations and impacts

Bishop Kopong Kung welcomed the plan. Yet, he said it cannot be materialized this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the country hard since March last year.

“Follow-up measures, including a survey conducted by the ministry, will likely to be done after Easter celebration. The survey aims to find out more about how Larantuka city can be developed into a pilgrimage tourist destination,” he said.

Easter celebration follows the Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday. This year, Palm Sunday falls on March 28.

“We, the local Catholic Church, will also conduct meetings to discuss all preparations we need to materialize the plan,” he said. 

Despite his support, however, the prelate highlighted how the central government’s plan may have both positive and negative impacts.

“It encourages us, the local Catholic Church, to learn about how we can truly respect Semana Santa, instead of just feeling proud of the tradition and thinking of the worldly things of it. We must be able to enliven the core message of Semana Santa, which is to strengthen our Catholic faith,” he said. 

“Secondly, there will surely be an economic development among the local people as more people will come to Larantuka city for the festival once it is made a national icon.” 

Nevertheless, the plan may lead local Catholics to focus only on commercial things, such as tourism promotions.

“This is what we need to anticipate. We must manage Semana Santa very well so that its essence, which is living the Catholic faith, can be preserved,” the prelate said.

“It is not an intervention if the central government wants to make Semana Santa a national icon. Still, we need to manage it very well in order to prevent negative impacts on the centuries-old festival. This tradition of faith should be under the authority of the local Catholic Church. Thus, a dialogue is needed to create good cooperation between the central government and the local Catholic Church.” 

Regarding religious tolerance, Bishop Kopong Kung believed that it will grow stronger particularly in Larantuka city if Semana Santa is made a national icon.

“Religious tolerance here has been good so far. What we need to highlight is that religious tolerance is about making the life of people from different religious backgrounds better,” he said. 

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