Archbishop Says Local Tribal Religion Has Potential For Inculturation

2006-04-07 00:00:00

The Batak Toba people in Indonesia begin their year by commemorating God, who appeared on earth as an incarnate savior and suffered to bring them religious teachings.

That God is not Jesus, but belief in a savior and in redemption are part of a traditional religion, Parmalim, that has parallels with Christianity.

The Batak Toba, who follow Parmalim, are the largest of the five subgroups of the Batak, the predominant tribal group in North Sumatra province. Medan, the provincial capital, is 1,350 kilometers northwest of Jakarta. But Batak Toba now live in many places in Indonesia.

According to Coadjutor Archbishop Anicetus Bongsu Sinaga of Medan, it is easy for them to convert to Catholicism because of similarity in beliefs.

For example, Parmalim followers sacrifice a buffalo during the Sipaha Lima (fifth month) harvest festival, named after its occurrence in the traditional calendar. They believe that the blood of the sacrificed buffalo purifies them from their sins.

"Their sacrifice is similar to Eucharistic theology," Archbishop Sinaga told UCA News March 9, adding that this has made it easy for many Batak Toba to convert to Catholicism.

It also offers a strong potential for liturgical inculturation, because "their sacrifice is 100 percent in line with the Eucharistic tradition," the Capuchin archbishop said. He suggested that one possible adaptation could be to substitute the image of a young buffalo for the traditional Christian image of the lamb, as during the breaking of the bread at Mass. In Masses held for Batak Toba people, he said, it might be more meaningful if the priest says: "Behold, the Young Buffalo of God, who was sacrificed to take away the sins of the world," rather than "Behold the Lamb of God."

Archbishop Sinaga acknowledged that the beliefs "are not totally the same, because the Parmalim religious offering is the buffalo and the sacrifice of the Mass is Jesus Christ." But he said the Catholic Church in North Sumatra supports incorporation of Parmalim practices when this is possible.

The prelate, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, pointed out that Parmalim followers "believe in one God, a fatherly God who came down from the mountain top to visit people."

Sipaha Sada (first month), the beginning of traditional calendar year followed by the Batak Toba, commemorates God´s arrival to save the people. This year it began March 2. On that day representatives of about 1,500 families from more than 50 Batak Toba communities in the country were present in Huta Tinggi village, Laguboti, 115 kilometers southeast of Medan.

As they processed solemnly to the bale pasogit (worship house) carrying their traditional offerings to celebrate the New Year, the only sound was music played on the gondang hasapi (lute).

With heads bowed as a mark of respect to Debata Mulajadi Nabalon (God, creator of sky and earth), the men in sarong (long cloth wrap) and ulos (cloth covering the shoulder), and the women in kebaya (blouse) and sarong entered the bale pasogit.

The peak of the two-day religious celebration came with five hours of prayers on March 3 punctuated by music, dance and offerings.

After the prayers King Marnangkok Naipospos, the Batak Toba cultural and religious leader, reminded his people that "Sipaha Sada is to welcome the birth and arrival of God, the savior of the Batak Toba people, and his loyal followers who suffered in implementing religious teachings." According to Parmalim, two days before Sipaha Sada, the Batak Toba took part in a preparatory ritual called mangan napaet. For this they eat a bitter concoction of pounded young papaya leaves, pepper, salt, and young jackfruit to commemorate the suffering experienced by their savior.

Archbishop Sinaga, who was born to a Catholic family except his father was a Parmalim follower, said catechesis and inculturation aimed at Parmalim followers have become programs of Medan archdiocese. He sees Parmalim as preparatio evangelica (Gospel preparation), a theological concept according to which various truths found in ancient religions are seen as partial revelations of God in preparation for the full revelation of the Gospel.

Capuchin Father Yosafat Ivo Sinaga, 35, parish priest of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Medan, has observed that Parmalim followers tend to convert to Catholicism rather than other religions. "This is due to the similar religious practices we have," he told UCA News, adding that many of his parishioners are former Parmalim followers.

The Indonesian government, which recognizes only Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism as religions, still categorizes Parmalim as a traditional set of beliefs. Monang Naipospos, 53, told UCA News that this means he and other Parmalim followers "have difficulty in obtaining a civil marriage and Indonesian identity card."

Both of these require that a person belong to a recognized religion.


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