MUMBAI – Although the constitution of Indonesia guarantees religious freedom and the country’s guiding philosophy of Pancasila includes the idea of space for all faiths, St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church in Pinang, which opened June 11 after 33 years of struggle, is a symbol of the frequent gap between theory and practice.

Father Romo Lammarudut Sihombing, pastor of St. Bernadette’s, nevertheless sees spiritual significance in the long delay.

“It is truly a great moment to inaugurate the church on its 33rd anniversary,” Sihombing said. “At the age of 33, Jesus has done his mission in the world. We as followers of Christ has legacy to continue his mission to bring good news to the world.”

In 1990, St. Bernadette’s was officially announced as a parish by Jakarta’s then-Archbishop Leo Sukoto, who would die five years later. Ever since Mass was celebrated in the hall of a nearby Catholic school, because the parish was unable to put up a church building.

That inability to erect a place of worship, local observers say, was the product of all-too-familiar pattern in the world’s largest Muslim nation: Opposition from Muslim radicals, combined with bureaucratic foot-dragging and delays.

Although parish officials immediately sought permission to being construction in 1990, an initial zoning permit wasn’t issued until 2013. That decision, however, was challenged by Muslim activists, who succeeded in having it withdrawn.

Sihombing told Crux that setback triggered a long period of outreach by the parish’s external relations committee, including “multiple dialogues and charity works, with the Muslim locals, religious leaders, and the government to create an open communication.”

The determination of local Catholics became well-known, with as many as 12,000 people showing up for Sunday Mass in the school and other makeshift locations, even though at times they were compelled to do so under police protection or private security because of threats from Muslim protestors.

The parish’s efforts, Sihombing said, culminated in the issuance of a construction permit by the local mayor on July 14, 2021. In August 2021, the cornerstone for the new church building was formally dedicated by Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo, who in 2010 became the third Archbishop of Jakarta to take office before the parish found a home.

Even after construction began, Sihombing said, some local Muslims opposed to the project continued their legal appeals to stop it.

“We, as a church formed a team of legal advisor which was supported by the archbishop of Jakarta,” Sihombing said. “Thanks be to God, the process in turned out well because of good cooperation from our neighbor together with the parishioners.”

The parish’s perseverance finally paid off on June 11, when Suharyo travelled to Pinang to formally consecrate the new structure.

On the occasion, Suharyo told Crux he didn’t really need to say much.

“I felt that there was no need of a sermon, because waiting in perseverance of faith in 33 years for the permission to build the church is more meaningful than any good sermon,” he said.

Nevertheless, Suharyo told parishioners that despite their 33-year ordeal, in some ways their work has only begun.

“I said to the congregation that the building of the church has been accomplished. But the building of the community will never end,” he said.  “So let us walk together in line with the dynamics of the universal Church: To build a stronger communion [and] a more generous participation in the life of the Church, to work for a fruitful mission.”

In particular I motivated the parish community to be involved in actualizing the Social Teaching of the Church, especially this year in the responsibility based on our faith to ensure the realization of the common good – not only for our own community but also for all our sisters and brothers in humanity.