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Father Bagus Laksana, SJ

Muslim, Catholic pilgrimages share commonalities in Java

Indonesian Jesuit Father Bagus Laksana teaches theology and cultural studies at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta. His research revolves around Christian-Muslim relations in the context of Javanese culture. In 2004 he published a book titled,  Muslim and Catholic Pilgrimage Practices: Explorations through Java.

It presents Muslim and Catholic pilgrimages around Java island and shows an underlining rich ethnography and how Javanese culture is shaping those pilgrimages. His work suggests that Christian-Muslim relations should not be seen as an abstract dialogue, or even as a binary reality, but it must be seen in the backdrop of the particular social-cultural context, which shapes their encounter and interactions.

What brought you to use cultural studies of Catholics in Java?

I'm Javanese born. I was raised on the outskirt of Jakarta in south-central Java, which is the center of Javanese culture. We have this Islamic and Japanese court or sultanate. We have the sultan, who also serves as the provincial governor for our area and we have this special status within the State of Indonesia because of historical reasons.

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The Muslim Sultanate represents the cultural and religious past of this area. But it's done in dialogue with local culture. They preserve the local culture. I grew up in this culture.

From there, I went to a seminary at a place just outside Jakarta, and then to East Timor and ordained a priest in 2003. Then I moved to the United States to study Comparative Theology. There I would frame my study of the phenomenon in Java, especially the pilgrimage practices among Muslims and Catholics. So my study is a form of revisiting myself.

In a way, my selection of the subject — pilgrimage practices among Muslims and Catholics in Java — shows my own identity and struggle. I grew up in a place where Muslims and Catholics live together,  sharing the same culture. But now I see a different world with a different dynamic, sometimes here religions are pitted against each other.

In a world where religions are becoming a serious concern, I wanted to study a different dynamic that is still true in my place. However, sometimes I feel the place I grew up has rather changed because of the presence of other religions, and ideologies — modernist and iconoclastic.


Community members including Muslims and Buddhists greet their Christian neighbors during a Christmas gathering in Thekelan, a village in Semarang, Central Java on Dec. 25, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Were you interested in pilgrimage in your childhood?

I learned the art of visiting shrines or doing pilgrimage from my family, especially from my mother, father, and my grandmother. As a child, my grandmother would take me to different shrines, Marian and other ones, even outside of Jakarta in Central Java. She also used to take me to Medan, She also used to take me to Medan, a very famous town in North Sumatra province

As a child, I would enjoy every trip. It was in the 80s and things were simpler back then. We would take public transportation. I enjoyed the trips. Looking back, these pilgrimages were something very, very rich.

I also learned how my grandmother would treat pilgrimage trips as a kind of spiritual moment where she could come to terms with her own family, with the problems that her children were facing back then. I remember vividly the prayers that my grandma uttered in the shrines during prayers ... she poured out to Virgin Mary, for example, all the concerns of her heart.

One of her prayers at the shrines was that one of her grandchildren become a Catholic priest or a nun.  When she took on those pilgrimages, I would feel that my grandma expected me to become a priest.


People attend a Christmas Eve Mass at the Immanuel Church in Jakarta on Dec. 24, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Could you give us a review of Muslim pilgrimages in Java and their relationship to Javanese culture?

Muslim pilgrimage practices in Java — in South Central Java in particular — are very rich in terms of their encounters with different layers of religiosity. It is connected to the Hindu and Buddhist past in terms of the architecture and spatial arrangement of the shrine.

The mandala framework (a particular geometric configuration), for example, taken from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, is used by Muslims here. The divine is at the center and everyone within the configuration is perceived as connected to each other and the central divine entity. The sacred is connected to every region within a particular space.

Architecture is also reflecting that kind of encounter — hybrid encounters — with the Hindu Buddhist past. As I mentioned earlier, the Muslim pilgrimage tradition in this area is also pretty much connected to the court culture.

Here it is a distinct kind of Islam, so to speak, the sultan, of course, is Muslim.  But the whole partition connected to the court is a hybrid Javanese-Muslim tradition. Sacred figures and the Muslim saints being venerated here are also distinctive.

The most distinctive one is Sunan Kalijaga. He is the paradigm so to speak for sainthood in this context. He is considered a hybrid. He is depicted as a saint, a Muslim wali (or friend of God), who dons this Javanese headscarf, unlike other walis or unlike other Muslim saints in Java who are revered, and respected. He is considered to be the epitome of Javanese Muslim identity.

Sacred text from Java — from the courts — described this figure as being so central in his negotiation between the centrality of Islam or the universality of Islam represented by Mecca in Arabia and the local Islam here represented by the mosque.

The first Javanese mosque in the town of Tama has a text which describes Sunan Kalijaga as being able to “put together” both.  The text describes him as holding the mosque in Java in one hand and the shrine of Mecca in the other hand.  Thus, the two centers of Islam are brought together in a dynamic that respects both. One is not taken by the other, but they are in continuous relations with each other.

What I see here is also a distinctive way of communing with God. With the sacred past, with the local holy figures, but also with others, including the non-Muslims here. So, it's a very rich, very hybrid religiosity and it has some value for our world today.


This aerial photo taken on April 3, 2022, shows the Hasyim Asyari Mosque in West Jakarta. (Photo: AFP)

Can you tell us more about the Catholic pilgrimages that you discuss at the three sites around Yogyakarta?

We have different shrines here in the city of Jakarta and its surrounding. Because this used to be the center of the mission in Java, started by the Jesuits in the 19th century.

We have this legacy of a colonial past, in a way. Those missionaries came to Java, and they introduced everything — Catholicism with its kind of rich traditions including primate tradition, and Marian shrines.

There is this first Marian shrine built in 1927 in Sona on the outskirts of Jakarta, out on a hill and it’s a very beautiful and quiet place.

It's a place where the first missionaries baptized our Founding Fathers, the first group of Javanese people, into the Church. The place was already connected to the sacred past of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition.

Many Buddhist monks who were on their way from different monasteries around here would make a stop there because that's a shrine considered sacred by local Javanese communities.

Naturally, water was used in baptizing the first Catholics, and that also went well with the local culture. Becoming Catholic did not vanquish the other traditions, but rather it respects the history of other religions, without encountering the other.

Till today, the shrine is a shrine for everybody. People from different religious persuasions come to the Marian shrine for a blessing. It's a very inclusive kind of place. So, it's the kind of dynamics that's going on with Muslim pilgrimage practices in Java.

There is this hybridity and inclusivism of European Catholicism combined with the Javanese cultural sensitivity. This kind of hybridity is not only happening in terms of the shrines and their maintenance, but rather it also goes deeper into the identity of the community itself. Local peoples’ reverence for their ancestors plays a role here in the dynamics as well.


People attend Christmas Eve Mass at a church in Yogyakarta on Dec. 24, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

What is the main argument of your book?

My book is offering a simple argument that these underlying communion dynamics are going on in the practices of both Muslim and Catholic pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is very popular. It is also a unique and privileged practice for inter-religious encounters. People share their shrines. But I'm looking for the cultural and theological processes and grounding behind this kind of inclusive, very rich tradition. The notion of communion comes to my mind when I study this kind of phenomenon.

As a theologian, I try to go deeper into this dynamic of communion — in terms of its history, the founding moments of the shrine, the founders and their hybrid identity, and then in the ritual and arts, and architecture.

In the experience of the pilgrims, I also find hybridity. They are looking for blessings, a certain kind of communion, personal communion with God, the cosmos, the whole community, and so forth. What I see all along is this kind of underlying dynamics of communion. Then I try to identify the similarities that have theological importance because I'm a theologian.

I use my comparative theological method and it is useful in Java, and perhaps in many other places from Turkey and Middle East. For this research, I also traveled to several places. I spent many months, almost a year, in Damascus, Syria. I also traveled a lot to see pilgrimage sites in Europe and other places in the United States, for example.

But there are these distinctive insights that I feel are part of the main arguments. The first is that there's this common milieu of devotion intersecting blessings. When people come to shrines, they come to this milieu of devotion. They imbibe the blessings that are intersecting between traditions, cultures and people.

Then there is the importance of local culture as a common bond for different religious communities and I found it very important. Then communion with saints as ancestors. In the West, saints may not be considered ancestors, but they are moral examples to follow.

But here for Muslims and Catholics alike, these saintly figures are considered to a certain degree as ancestors, part of the community’s past that continues to be respected today.

Then pilgrimage is also a devotion and a spiritual quest for peace and well-being. It's not just a pious visit, but people are looking for something deeper, something that is keeping them through peace and well-being. Then the sacramentality of space, time, and things. This is very much there in the pilgrim tradition.

Our encounter with God and our encounter with spirituality happen through space, time, and things. That is the specificity of the pilgrims’ tradition.

My argument is that these pilgrimage traditions are very inclusive and theologically very rich. But also, in terms of ethnographic studies, for example, it's a very rich practice to study too.


A group of Indonesian Muslims offers morning prayers to mark Eid al-Fitr on the grounds of the Hati Kudus Jesus Church in Malang, East Java on July 6, 2016, as a show of solidarity and tolerance to the Christian faith. (Photo: AFP)

How does the practice of pilgrimage enrich Christian theology?

As a theologian, I do take some theology out of the study.

I see that Muslims have the practice Omnium Sanctorum — the communion of saints — that is part of Christian theology, more particularly Catholic theology. Muslims’ practice of it to a certain degree enriches the Catholic understanding and practice because in a way it has reached the hierarchy of saints.

The roles of saints there are quite different and in a way, they enrich us. It is something very important for Christian theology coming out of this context.


Catholics perform the crucifixion of Jesus during a Good Friday service ahead of Easter at Santo Yakobus Church in Bantul on April 15, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

How is your research impacting your own understanding of Catholicism?

This is a very interesting question. I learned from my study that Catholicism confirms its Catholicity. The true Catholicity of Catholicism tells us to go deeper into reality, and also to go wide, or to become very inclusive, but also very deep.

The pilgrimage practice in Java that I study is telling me that this identity of Catholicity has been practiced in my area by missionaries, also by lay people, the founders of the mission, but also by current Catholics here.

It is very important for global Catholicism. For example, to realize that this rich theological notion of Catholicity is very useful in terms of guiding us throughout history and telling us how to deal with authority, otherness, local culture, other religious traditions, and so forth.

I think my study conforms to my identity as a Catholic in the most authentic understanding of it, being inclusive, being deeper in our encounter, being very respectful or very positive about the work of the spirit behind everything good in creation, in other cultures, and other religions. Being universal and regional come together in the creative framework of Catholicity.

* This is an edited version of a podcast interview that appeared on the webpage of the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics (ISAC). The initiative, hosted by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is a global network of social scientists who develop new research projects to analyze live realities and the social contribution of Asian Catholics. It aims to deepen and promote academic research on Catholic life in contemporary Asia.

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