In Indonesia seminaries are overcrowded with candidates. On the island of Flores lies the world’s largest seminary. More than 1,000 students study at Ledalero, and at least 600 of them are candidates for the priesthood.
At 7:30 in the morning, first year students arrive at the Ledalero campus, a short distance from the port city of Maumere. More than 1,000 Philosophy and Theology students are currently registered here, preparing themselves for ministry.
Founded in 1937 to train the Divine Word Missionaries, the seminary was reconstructed after the 1992 earthquake and is now one of the region’s most prestigious academic institutions staffed with 40 lecturers, most of them Divine Word Missionaries.
Several dioceses and 14 religious orders send their seminarians to Ledalero to attend the six-year philosophical and theological training.
The island of Flores is just 15 square kilometres, one of the smallest in Southeast Indonesia. The 1,600-metre volcano attracts some visitors, but the island has not yet been targeted by mass tourism. Flores has a population of just 1.5 million, 90% of which are Christians.
Though academic studies are the main focus of the seminarians’ programme, their training also includes learning other skills that might be useful in the future. “We are divided into small groups living in residential units. As future missionaries, we live a simple lifestyle.” said Jhonto, one of the seminarians who expects to be ordained next year.
A nation made up of 17,000 islands, Indonesia is home to 261 million habitants, including hundreds of ethnic groups and languages and an overwhelming Muslim population (87.2%). The other faiths form a minority with the Catholic Church, constituting about 3% of the population that comprises eight million Catholics divided into 37 dioceses.
Many vocations come from the archipelago of Las Flores, considered “the Catholic heart of Indonesia” because of the high concentration of Indonesian Catholics.
The seminary of Ledalero has already produced nearly 10,000 priests, including 10 bishops. No wonder the seminary receives requests from all over the world whenever there is a shortage of priests. Former students from Ledalero are now working in over 50 countries. “The abundance of religious and missionary vocations in Indonesia can be traced back to the work of the missionaries over the years,” says Fr. Lukas Jua, the Provincial Superior of the Divine Word Missionaries.
“The presence of missionaries among the people in the villages, in remote areas with difficult accessibility and no transportation is noteworthy. Their edifying witness attracts young people to become priests,” Fr. Jua added.
The seminarians practice theology every week. Accompanied by their lecturers, for example, they visit the overcrowded prison in Maumere. Initially built to hold 75 inmates, nowadays it is congested with 165 inmates. Each cell accommodates between five to eight men who sleep on the floor. Most of them have committed domestic violence crimes. The inmates are invited to come into the prisoners’ chapel that was recently decorated by a young man who was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Respectfully, the prisoners gather together with the seminarians and priest around the table of the Eucharist. It is a challenge as they try to make sense of the sacrament as a beacon of hope and comfort for the prisoners.
The seminarians are present in their midst with the aim of garnering their trust and eliciting openness and sharing of their lives. “It is a formative action for our students as they insert themselves in this type of apostolate in which they make a clear option to stay with the poor and marginalized. Hopefully, they will do the same when they become priests,” says Fr. John, a lecturer at the seminary who accompanies the students.
There is a requiem mass at the cemetery of the Divine Word Missionaries in memory of a former teacher at the seminary. Grave stones of the first missionaries from Germany and Holland who came to Indonesia to preach the gospel abound in the burial grounds.
Today the situation is reversed; young Indonesians prepare themselves in Ledalero to go to countries where Christian communities are scarce and where there is a shortage of priests. Nobody knows how long this miracle of Flores will continue, but the young men are preparing themselves for ministry and learning the valuable lesson that a missionary must live close to the people he serves.